On the last day of the Budget session of the Legislative Assembly that concluded last week, the M.K. Stalin-led Tamil Nadu government ignored strong opposition from legislators of multiple parties, including allies, and adopted the Factories (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 2023. However, three days later, on Monday evening, when it became apparent that things could get out of hand, Mr. Stalin announced that all further action on the proposed law is being put on hold.
The decision means that workers in factories face no immediate threat of their daily working hours being increased beyond the standard eight hours.
The amendment pushed laboriously by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government sought to exempt “any factory or group or class or description of factories, from any or all of the provisions of Sections 51, 52, 54, 56 or 56” of the Factories Act, 1948.
It sought to enable factories to apply and get exemption from adhering to crucial and basic labour welfare requirement such as not engaging an adult worker beyond nine hours on any working day (Section 54). The exempted factories could enforce “working hour reforms” and “flexible working hours”, meaning they could increase the daily working hours to 12 hours.
The reason given to amend the Act was representations from industries for flexible working hours, “citing the number of benefits it could bring to workers, especially women employees”. Neither was the term “flexible working hours” defined in the proposed law, nor was it detailed in what measure the women employees would benefit.
Ironically, the Tamil Nadu government had resorted to this move even while the Union Government was yet to notify the implementation of the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020. The Code, among other things, seeks to enable States to provide for flexible working hours, including overtime and spread-over hours, inclusive of rest intervals, subject to such conditions and restrictions as applicable to any factory or class of factories. The Code, in fact, would subsume 13 labour enactments, including the Factories Act.
Many of the DMK’s allies, who since mid-2021 had been restrained in their reaction on issues such as NEET exemption, custodial torture, liquor prohibition and corruption allegations than in the preceding four years, turned vocal for the first time, demanding recall of the amendment. The labour class constitutes the core vote bank for some of these parties. Therefore, they cannot be seen as aiding their alliance leader to enforce a law, which strangely did not qualify its intent to empower factories with necessary safeguards for workers.
Their resolve became clearer when, at a meeting addressed by three Ministers, the representatives of trade unions, which also included the DMK-affiliated Labour Progressive Front, rejected the amendment and threatened to go on strike on May 12. Trade union representatives said they had not expected this from the government.
Amidst information that leaders of the alliance parties were preparing to meet Mr. Stalin on the issue, the ruling party quickly realised that it would not be able to antagonise them ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha polls. The DMK was also cognisant of the damage it could cause to its image of a party that pioneered pro-labour policies such as abolition of hand-pulled cycle rickshaws and setting up of the Tamil Nadu Labour Welfare Board decades ago.
In September 2021, the government had volunteered to amend the Tamil Nadu Shops and Establishments Act, 1947, mandating establishments to provide seating facilities for employees.
Commemorating International Labour Day last year at Napier Park in Chennai, rechristened in 1990 as ‘May Day Park’ by his late father, M. Karunanidhi, Mr. Stalin had said that the DMK government functions for the uplift of the workers and not merely to greet them on May Day.
“It is a government for the poor, common people and the working class,” he said.
By choosing to be flexible in reconsidering the latest policy rather than flexing administrative strength to implement it, Mr. Stalin has ensured that those words continue to fit the bill as another May Day approaches.