In ‘India as Eden’ offer, the apple of diluted labour laws

In the prioritisation of a favourable investment climate to compete with China, there are clear signs of a scant regard for the well-being and the rights of India’s workers

May 03, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 12:43 pm IST

‘The key missing component in all these changes in the labour ecosystem is social dialogue’

‘The key missing component in all these changes in the labour ecosystem is social dialogue’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In addition to being the starting point of the possible onset of another scorching summer, the month of April also witnessed two important happenings that are tied to the country’s avowed economic-industrial transformation, demanding our attention. The first was the passage of a piece of legislation in the Tamil Nadu Assembly that amended the Factory Act of 1948, to extend the number of working hours in a day, from eight hours to 12 hours. A similar piece of legislation was passed in the Karnataka Assembly, a few months ago. However, in his address during May Day celebrations in Chennai, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, announced the withdrawal of the legislation. This announcement comes on the back of the temporary hold on further action on the Bill by the Tamil Nadu government, after strong opposition; this includes the State government’s alliance partners and trade unions.

Changes in laws, no social dialogue

The eight-hour working day, adopted by the International Labour Organization in 1919, is a hard won right by workers and trade unions, who have had to struggle over the years to keep capricious policy changes at bay. While appreciating the action initiated by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the passage, in the first place, of these pieces of legislation (which has justifiably led to anger and outcry among trade unions and labour support groups) clearly signals the intent of governments to house investments by transnational corporations (through their supply chains), by ramping up capacities and provisioning incentives. As a matter of fact, these legislative changes could trace their legacy to the four labour codes passed by the central government in 2019-20, which, in turn, have weakened the labour protection architecture, lowered thresholds and squeezed collective bargaining, thereby effectively curtailing their actual operability.

The key missing component in all these changes in the labour ecosystem is social dialogue. Not only are sustained processes of consultations with workers being short-circuited or ignored altogether, but these are also being considered anathema by almost all ruling dispensations irrespective of political persuasions. Remaining deterministic and sound proofed to entertaining contrarian views and differences of opinion, the top-down approach of governance often puts the cart before the horse. In doing so, it prioritises a favourable investment climate over the well-being of workers.

The second development in April that was widely publicised with much fanfare, was of Apple’s opening of its first two retail stores in India, in Mumbai and then Delhi in the presence of the Apple CEO who was in India for the events. This follows his statement last year, expressing bullishness about the brand’s business prospects in India, which was lapped up and trumpeted as a sign of India being well and truly in the race to run parallel with China, if not completely eclipse it in the long run. However, cutting through the hype, what is left unsaid is how Apple, and by extension, other transnational corporations too, thrives by tantalising a race between India and China. Through its suppliers, it incentivises this artificial competition, even while retaining the flexibility to operate across contending geographies and feeding on consumers’ tastes, who view the possession of its devices as a status symbol.

Mainland China as template

The two happenings in April may seem separate, but from a labour-centric perspective, it is only rational to spot the connection. Already, under its ‘Make in India initiative’ and later with the Production Linked Incentives scheme, the central government aims to turn the country into a manufacturing hub, like China. In this larger design, the electronics industry has received top priority and, within it, Apple (entwined with Foxconn as the main supplier) has come to be considered, the gold standard. In line with this, the central government has been working in close coordination with various State governments, including Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, to work out common strategies to capitalise on the company’s diversification plans away from China. For years, Foxconn has had a stable base in Tamil Nadu (encouraging other Taiwanese companies in other sectors as well). As a part of its corporate social responsibility obligations, it has even reciprocated by making massive financial contributions to the State government’s educational initiatives. Such coordination and a mobilising of efforts by governments resembles the symbiotic relationship between Apple-Foxconn and the Chinese Communist Party-state.

The growing indivisibility of time (with reference to the economist Guy Standing), as marked by these legislative changes, is also illustrative of the ubiquitous nature of the production-management systems and labour regime implemented in Apple-Foxconn across geographies. The dormitory labour regime as practised in Mainland China (which in effect looks to be recreated in India) blurs the socio-spatial boundaries between work and life. In such a highly regimented, constantly disciplining, just-in-time production system that demands orderliness and standardisation from workers, the human costs of the squeeze are not only physical but also mental and emotional. Ultimately, viewed from a labour-centric perspective, in the ambition to overtake China, we end up, more or less, as being another China.

Anand P. Krishnan is a Fellow at the Centre for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi National Capital Region, and a Visiting Associate Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

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