The latest demands have received support from representatives of ASHA workers in the state who seek to be covered by labour laws.

People holding red flags stand in protest against labour law changesCourtesy: G. Hanumesh
Coronavirus Labour Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 20:05

In light of the economic downturn due to the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, many states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Odisha, have made key changes to labour laws. From the suspension of nearly all labour laws, including the Minimum Wage Act, in UP to the new 12-hour workday in states like Gujarat and Punjab, the sweeping changes in over a dozen states in India have alarmed trade unions.

Closer home, in Karnataka, the state’s announcement that it was mulling its own ‘brand of reforms’ to labour laws met with backlash from activists. In a meeting with industry representatives, the Labour Department had said that it was considering increasing overtime paid working hours from 72 to 100 hours per annum. The sudden shunting of Labour Karnataka IAS officer Manivannan P from his role and his replacement with M Maheshwar Rao IAS, Principal Secretary of the Commerce and Industries Department, had led to allegations of conflict of interest. 

On Tuesday, various trade unions in Karnataka held a protest before the Labour Department in Bengaluru, demanding that the government stop attempts to dilute labour laws in the state. 

National trade unions have announced a nationwide bandh on Friday, May 22.

“In the past few weeks, governments and industry bodies have been speaking of the need to relax labour laws. The government has also announced huge relief packages for industries. Seen together, all this seems like the government just considers workers to be machines who create profit. The government does not seem to see that workers are people with needs, that they are an important part of our democracy who need to play their roles as active citizens,” a press release from the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) said.

Anticipating a similar move in Karnataka following the local industry bodies meeting with government representatives, trade unions in Karnataka have written to the Chief Minister to not reduce the rights of workers and instead, offer better solutions.

“What is evident is that the previous system did not work. People who were earning everyday were left with nothing and had no social security and no savings. Why is it so? Because people were not earning enough and yet, profits of companies kept growing. There is a high disparity. We need to acknowledge that this is the root of the problem. While middle class people are satisfied with what they have, it is the poor who suffer,” said Maitreyi Krishnan of the AICCTU.

‘Reduce working hours’

Instead of upping the workday to 12 hours, the government should look into reducing it to six hours in the Factories Act, 1948, the release said.

“This is not a new concept and has been adopted widely in European countries. Reducing work hours would allow factories to hire more people, and thus, deal with the widespread problem of unemployment. When people are forced to work for the job of two people for the same or less pay, then productivity suffers,” Maitreyi said.

She added that making people work constantly was depriving them of active citizenry.

“Besides this, the workers would be able to use the extra time to educate themselves in order to become better citizens, spending that time in engaging with the political and social sphere, and picking up skills for upward mobility. Such a move would uplift the entire society, and make it more equitable,” Maitreyi said, adding that workers should have a say in the company’s management.

‘Include ASHA workers’

The latest demands have also received support from representatives of ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers in the state who seek to be covered by labour laws. 

D Nagalakshmi, Secretary of the Karnataka State ASHA Workers Association (KSAWA) said, “The government should first look after those providing essential services. The government should amend the labour laws to include the over 3.5 lakh women who work for the government as ASHA health ‘activists’, and anganwadi cooks in government schools who provide hot meals to children. These women should be considered workers, and not activists, and brought under the ambit of (existing) labour laws.”

ASHA workers have been key workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, helping authorities contact-trace potential infections. However, activists said, the workers have not received their due.

Nagalakshmi pointed out that often, women are not formally acknowledged as workers. “This is evident in the non-recognition of domestic workers as well. Construction workers, primarily men, can get registered as labourers and get an identity card. They are able to avail benefits using this card, including health and education benefits. But no such facility is available for domestic workers who are primarily women,” she said, calling on the government to set-up a domestic workers’ welfare board.

MNREGA for urban areas

The AICCTU has proposed that a scheme like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) be adopted in urban areas too. “This will ensure that the urban poor are not as affected by unemployment as they were during this lockdown emergency,” Maitreyi said.

Another key demand from trade unions is that contract workers be paid the same wages as those with permanent jobs, as per ‘equal pay for equal work’.

The press release quoted BR Ambedkar’s address to the 7th Indian Labour Conference held in November 1942. 

“How can the workers be asked to agree to reduce standards of living in an economy in which the profits are to go to private individuals? We must do our best and do it immediately to mitigate it and to prevent it from lowering labour standards. I believe three things are necessary to ease the situation. Firstly, to reduce hours of employment so as to provide employment for many. Secondly, to provide machinery for fixing wages. The absence of such machinery combined with employment is bound to cause labour standards to slump, which ought to be prevented. Thirdly, to provide the employers and workers with a resolve to collective bargaining and learn to work together in the solution of other common problems.” BR Ambedkar had said.

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