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Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions (OSH) Code, 2019 was introduced in Lok Sabha by the Minister of Labor and Employment, Mr. Santosh Kumar on 23 July 2019. Recently, a Standing Committee submitted its report on the same. This Code seeks to replace 13 labor laws that relate to the safety, health, and working conditions of workers. Some of these laws include the Factories Act, 1948, Dock workers Act, 1986, Contract Labor Act, 1970, and Inter-state Migrant Workers Act, 1979 among others.
The main aim of this Code is not only to regulate the employment of workers but also to regulate their health, safety, and working conditions. It is a part of the Centre’s ambitious agenda related to labor law reforms. It is one amongst a group of four codes that are the face of new labor reforms. These codes aim to provide workers with wage security, social security, safety, health, and grievance redressal mechanisms.
Its salient features
- It applies to establishments with at least 10 workers as well as mines and docks. It also provides provisions for certain other types of establishments and workers.
- It provides for the establishment of an Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board at both national and state levels. This Board will replace various committees. It will also give guidance to the government on policy matters, occupational safety, health and working conditions of workers.
- It introduces the concept of “one registration, one license, and one tax return”.
- This Code provides for the formalization of employment by making the issuance of appointment letters to every employee as a statutory provision.
- It focuses on the safety and welfare provisions as well. It provides that the employers must provide a hygienic work environment for its workers. Such an environment would have proper ventilation, comfortable temperature and humidity, adequate space, clean drinking water, and toilets.
- This Code provides a uniform threshold when it comes to welfare provisions.
- The employees must take care of their health, follow the health and safety standards in place, and report if there exist any unsafe conditions.
- A woman employee is allowed to work after 7 pm and before 6 am but only when she consents to do the same. This permission is subject to many factors including security, holidays, working hours, or any other such condition set by the State or Central Government.
- Workers are not required to work for more than six days a week. Further, they must get one day leave for every 20 days of the week per year.
Its objectives and purposes
India is a vast country whose economy is run on the backbone of its workers. To regulate the functioning and welfare of these workers, there exist more than 100 state and central labor laws covering various aspects such as wages, working conditions, and resolution of industrial disputes among others. But these laws suffer from many lacunas. They are complex and outdated with inconsistent definitions. The Second National Commission on Labor, 2002 was of the same view and pressed the need for a consolidated Code that covered the broader aspects of labor laws. It recommended that the present labor laws must be categorized into five main groups, namely (a) industrial relations, (b) wages, (c) social security, (d) safety, and (e) welfare and working conditions.
As for the health, safety, and working conditions, the Commission was of the view that the various existing laws must be brought together in the form of a Code to provide for universal applicability. It was in this context, that the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 was introduced.
The main objectives of the OSH Code, 2019 are as follows:
- To consolidate all the laws related to the occupational safety, health, and working conditions of workers
- To ensure uniformity in labor laws
- To extend the ambit of workers’ safety
- To provide a broad legislative framework that is flexible and according to the latest times.
- To ensure and promote the safety and welfare of workers
- To promote resource efficiency and create a balance between the employer and his workers
Even though the OSH Code was introduced to remove the lacunas in the existing labor laws on the same, it still suffers from many limitations of its own:
- The main objective of the Code is to simplify the laws but it does not do so for many provisions. Certain definitions are either not clear or not provided. The rationale behind many specific provisions is not made clear.
- It does not take within its ambit establishments that employ less than 10 people. On one hand, it can be argued that it is to protect small industries against strict and costly compliance measures. However, on the other hand, such exclusion can incentivize some employers to stick with less than 10 workers to avoid compliance. In any case, the health and safety of all workers must be a matter of concern for the government.
- The Code now adds an extra burden of compliance on Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). It requires the appointment of welfare officers for any establishment that employs more than 250 people. Earlier, such a requirement was made for establishments that employ more than 500 people. Moreover, the whole of the IT sector is outside the purview of the Code.
- It provides grand discretionary powers to the government instead of providing for laws on the matter. It empowers the respective governments to set the desired safety standards. Earlier, such a standard was laid down by the Factories Act. A lot of discretion can often lead to misuse of powers.
- It does not provide for any judicial mechanism. It bars Civil Courts from taking up matters that are within the ambit of the Code. Instead, it provides for other authorities for redressal such as the Inspector-cum-facilitator.
- Certain provisions of the Code talk about wage but the Code fails to define the same. The lack of a specific definition can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of the provisions.
- Many additional provisions are also seen as facilitating the exploitation of workers. For example, trainees and apprentices are excluded from the Code even though they often perform tasks assigned to contractual or permanent workers.
- Other experts have pointed out flaws in bills that tilt the balance in favor of employers rather than the employees. Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has pointed out that the extension of this Code to small enterprises will have adverse impacts on them. RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has also raised its voice against this Code. The Sangh is claiming that the Code is not universal and dilutes safety provisions.
Scope of improvement
The Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2019 still needs some work. Some suggestions for its improvement are specified below:
- The new Code is not of universal application. It excludes a majority of workers in the unorganized sector including agricultural workers, domestic workers, and home-based workers from its scope. This limits the scope of the Code to bring about any significant improvement in the occupational safety and health conditions of most of the workers in the country. Thus, it requires attention.
- The proposal to increase the number of hours of permissible overtime work from 50 to 100 hours can cause serious hardship to workers and affect their health. This is another concern that must be addressed.
- It allows women to work during nights. However, it cannot be without their consent. Measures should be in place to ensure that this provision is not exploited by employers to force the women to work a night-shift.
- The provisions permitting the government to set safety standards by notification are also an issue of concern.
Codification of labor laws is a good and necessary step. It will prove fruitful only when it is done right. The OSH Code has received widespread criticism. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of the government to pay heed to this criticism and act upon the drawbacks.
Health and safety at work are a very important part of work conditions. They have a direct impact on the quality of the work done by workers. Employees who perceive their workplace as a healthy and safe experience are more productive. The government should ensure that the workplace is fit for the workers in terms of health and safety. It must fulfill its obligation towards the workers and provide them with equal opportunities for wages as well as a safe and healthy work environment. The government also needs to focus on presenting a Code that covers all aspects for all workers irrespective of their age, gender, or sector. These facts should be taken into account by healthcare managers when developing programs aimed at safety and health at work. If they want to improve the quality of work, they must focus on improving the quality of working conditions.
Author: Alisha Singh from Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida.
Editor: Shalu Bhati from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.