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Lockdown has been extended once again till 31 May 2020 and there is no assurance that it won’t be extended even further. Such a step is essential to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Such a situation has adversely affected the livelihood of laborers and daily wage workers across the country. They have lost their source of income and are forced to live in even more miseries than before.
There has been a nationwide reverse migration that has resulted in many deaths as well. The Central, as well as various state governments, have been working continuously to deal with the pandemic. To give a boost to the economy, certain relaxations were provided. It was under these circumstances that recently, the Uttar Pradesh Government suspended certain labor laws for the next three years. Supporting this view, Madhya Pradesh has also confirmed such amendments in their labor laws.
The reasoning is that such a step would remove unnecessary restrictions from various business and economic activities and give a boost to the halted economy. Although, such a step has faced criticism at home as well as at the global stage. The Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) found it to be a barbarous move that will result in the brutal exploitation of the workers. This is because the absence of those labor laws allows the employers to freely hire employees, cut off their salaries or fire them.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has also expressed its concern over these changes. It appealed to the Prime Minister to send a message to the states “to uphold India’s international commitments.” ILO is a UN agency established in 1919. Its main objective is to promote better standards and rights at work. It works in conformity to its founding mission that social justice is one of the main pillars for maintaining universal peace. Its approach has clarified that ‘labor is not a commodity’ that can be easily negotiated for profits. It follows a tripartite structure that includes the governments, employers as well the workers of all its member States. The ILO also handles the global affairs and the loopholes regarding labor welfare policies.
Significance of this development
The UP government through an Ordinance suspended major labor laws in the State for the next three years. It was expressed as an attempt to revive the economy. It was also said that this step would be beneficial for the existing businesses and industries as well as the new ones. However, this step has only seen criticism.
The step to suspend labor laws as a measure to recover from an economic crisis does not seem reasonable. This is because it would further deteriorate the standard of living of the laborers in the times of this pandemic. And that would be a direct contravention of their right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
India is one of the fastest developing countries in the world. It is also one of the founding members of ILO. Being a founder member of ILO, India has shown significant economic growth with major reforms in its labor laws. Various labor laws including the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, Minimum Wages Act, 1948, Factories Act, 1934, and Maternity Benefit Act, 1939 among others were amended after the formation of ILO.
The systematic approach of ILO believes in enhancing opportunities and being productive. Its involvement is in educating and training the workers and building experience as well as confidence in them to achieve quality work from them. The primary objective of the ILO is to create a general standard of work by way of various conventions and recommendations. Working hours, pay scales, proper equipment, and infrastructure, recreation, lunch break, etc., should be provided to every class of labor.
The decade’s old partnership between ILO and India is what makes India’s present stance towards the labor laws problematic.
Major ILO Conventions
There are eight core conventions of ILO. The latest country to ratify to all 8 conventions was the Maldives in 2013. These conventions embody the solution to the various problems raised over time. Due to the lack of proper guidelines and norms recognizing the basic human rights of laborers, these conventions need to be promoted globally. The promise is to bring global change and social justice by providing standard work, respect, economic stability, and development.
The eight fundamental conventions are:
- Forced Labor Convention, 1930 (No. 29) – Forced labor is one of the most unethical practices where one has to work against his will. It includes harsh punishments for the labors and sometimes they are forced to work without any payments.
- Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organized Convention, 1948 (No. 87) – This convention is ratified only by 155 countries and is the least ratified. The objective of this convention is to protect the autonomy and independence of the workers.
- Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98) – This convention is meant to create harmonious, stable and progressive industrial relations. It states that every person has the right to organize and to choose of which organization he wants to be a part of. The term collective bargaining means the negotiations done between the employer and its employee.
- Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100) – This convention follows the principle of equal pay for equal work. It provides equal remuneration for men and women for a job done of equal value.
- Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, 1957 (No.105) – It is the extended version of the Forced Labor Convention, 1930. It cancels those forms of forced labor that are still allowed in the Forced Labor Convention. For example, punishment for strikes or holding political views.
- Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111) – The aim is to avoid discrimination at the workplace. Class, creed or sex, of a person, should not become the source of allotting work or opportunities.
- Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) – Eliminating child labor is a major and necessary step which was taken by ILO in the year 1973. The need was felt for a general set of guidelines to achieve a complete abolition of child labor. Hence, this convention. The minimum age limit prescribed for entering into employment is fifteen years but if the reasons are specified, it can be reduced to fourteen years.
- Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, 1999 (No. 182) – It is observed that a child is incompetent physically as well as mentally for the sake of employment. Children tend to be at greater risk of unfair treatment. The practice of child labor needs to be abolished as a child is expected to gain education and not to work in mines or factories. This convention aimed to prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labor by adopting new means and instruments.
Are conventions binding on India?
Convention or treaty is something that forms a formal agreement between states. These conventions are open for participation at the international level. When a country ratifies such an agreement, it creates a legally binding effect over that country. Once the formal letter is sealed and signed, it becomes a binding instrument. It creates legal rights and duties which are governed by International laws.
India is a founding member of ILO and has been an active participant ever since. However, the country has ratified only six out of the eight fundamental conventions mentioned above. The Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organized Convention and Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention are the ones that are not ratified. Hence, these two will not create any binding effect while the other six will have a binding effect.
The Constitution of India, 1950
The Indian Constitution empowers the Parliament under Article 253 to implement any treaty, agreement or convention with other countries to the whole or any part of the territory. The provisions to make decisions regarding labor laws are also a matter defined under Schedule VII of the Constitution.
India is the second-highest populated country in the world and around 66.7% of the population is engaged in the agriculture sector. Due to the lack of proper education and technology, the industries and agricultural sector in India is labor-intensive. Due to a lack of proper laws and implementation, laborers in our country suffer from low income and low living standards. It is difficult to generate opportunities and benefit schemes for approx. 1.35 billion citizens at the same time. As a consequence of a lack of possibilities to earn a living, there remains no alternative for the majority but to work as a labor in unfavorable conditions.
The traditional system of slavery and forced labor:
Forced labor and slavery is a very familiar concept. These practices are being followed from time immemorial. The emergence to discontinue this practice was initiated after looking at the pitiable conditions of laborers. These conditions were a direct result of the disastrous impacts left behind by World War I. To break this chain, ILO was established to throw some light at the current situation of these laborers and to improve their conditions.
In India, one of the most famous movements of the year 1917-18 was held to ease the disgraceful and inhuman conditions of laborers under British-raj. This movement was the first step in understanding the importance of preserving human dignity and social justice. After independence, the Constitution of India was drafted and enforced to introduce basic fundamental rights for laborers as well as other citizens.
Various labor laws were drafted over the years complete with the ethos of the Constitution as well as ILO conventions and guidelines. However, due to various loopholes in the labor enactments and a lack of proper implementation, the rights of laborers are still ignored.
The pandemic and its impact on the economy:
This dreadful pandemic has taken a toll on the economy as well as the condition of laborers. They were already from a vulnerable section of the society and the economic slump caused by the pandemic has further deteriorated their situation. This tragedy has not just occurred in India but has shaken the whole world. It has forced businesses to shut down leading to loss of livelihoods for thousands of people. According to a report, around 12.2 crore people in India have already lost their jobs and the number is still increasing. The whole world has now entered the phase of the financial crisis.
Dark facts of labor exploitation:
The International Labor Organization establishes standard guidelines by way of conventions and recommendations. One of the side effects is that the conventions alone cannot provide any effective formula to control labor exploitation. It has been more than a hundred years but the laborers continue to struggle even to earn their basic living. They are still coerced and their standard of living is barely hanging by a thread. Moreover, this thread is in the hands of those employers who force them to work in unfavorable conditions.
In India, bonded labor has been a very common practice and was often used by employers as a tool to make illicit profits. The laborers used to take debts from the owners and in exchange agreed to work until the debt was repaid with interest. The owners used deceitful means and made it impossible for the laborers to leave the job. Today, this practice is prohibited in India but some traces are still prevalent. Despite the laws, such a practice has not been completely abolished. Bonded Labor Act, 1976 is one of the enactments that have been suspended by the UP government. Others include Employee Compensation Act, 1923, and the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, 1996. Certain provisions of the Maternity Act, Equal Remuneration Act, and Child Labor Act have also been suspended.
When it comes to political or economic reasoning, labor rights are sometimes neglected for the sake of profits. The main challenge faced under the policymaking process is that not every member country has the same potential to follow the respective guidelines established by the UN agency. The challenges can be faced due to the lack of infrastructure, instability in the economy, demographic or cultural differences, etc. which create obstacles for the countries to empower and protect their labors.
But, the suspension of labor laws was a conscious decision of the state governments. In doing so, the economy might revive itself but such revival will come at the cost of the wellbeing of laborers.
In today’s date 185 countries have ratified the ILO conventions. This shows the importance and significant role played by ILO in the development of labor and human rights. In the year 1969, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its untiring efforts to formulate schemes and policies for the protection and in the interest of labor welfare. To resolve the economic and political challenges faced by the workers in their day to day life, the conventions were introduced as a helping hand for them.
India is a founding member of ILO and has ratified 6 out of its 8 core conventions. When the times have become tough, the laborers require more protection. In such a situation, leaving them open for exploitation is a reason for concern. ILO’s concerns must be answered to protect the interests and rights of the laborers and workers of India.
Author: Shruti Singh from Amity University, Chattisgarh.
Editor: Shalu Bhati from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.