UPSC CSE Mains Syllabus: GS-3- Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization of resources, growth, development and employment.
Labour rights – issues and measures needed
Covid Pandemic & Labour Issues:
- The Covid-19 pandemic has created significant social and political u
- One casualty of this upheaval has been the protections and rights guaranteed under our Constitution and our laws to working people.
- In the last few months, many state governments have moved to suspend basic labour laws that limit hours of work, guarantee basic safety and hygiene at the workplace, and protect workers from unjustified dismissal.
- Under pressure of public protest, some of those moves have been suspended.
- In the monsoon session of Parliament, the central government itself pushed through new “labour codes” which — while ostensibly being about “rationalising” existing labour laws — also remove basic rights and protections, place further restrictions upon the right to strike, and introduce 19th-century policies of “hire and fire”, which leave workers entirely at the mercy of employers.
- Such laws have often been justified upon the anvil of “economic reform”.
- Studies have long shown that leaving (relatively) powerless workers unprotected at the workplace, and prone to abuse by more powerful employers, neither helps the economy, nor improves living standards.
- A well-organised workforce, that is protected by basic labour rights (such as a minimum wage, health and safety guarantees, and limitations on working hours), leads to better economic outcomes in the long-term.
- These basic rights are as important as civil and political rights such as the freedom of speech and association, and should not be made subject to the vagaries of the unregulated marketplace.
Supreme Court for the rescue:
- In that context, a recent judgment of the Supreme Court (SC) articulating precisely these ideas is very important.
- Gujarat was one of the many states that used the Covid-19 pandemic as cover to roll back labour laws: In the case of Gujarat, provisions of the Factories Act were suspended.
- Its effective result was that workers could be compelled to work up to 12 hours a day for six days a week, their rest periods were curtailed, and overtime pay was slashed by a significant amount.
- Adjudicating upon a challenge brought by two labour unions, the SC struck down the Gujarat government’s notifications.
- It observed that the provisions of the Factories Act could be rolled back only in cases of a “public emergency”.
- While Covid-19 was undoubtedly a public health crisis, it did not warrant the kind of sweeping removal of labour law protections.
- The SC also grounded labour law protections within the Indian Constitution.
- Pointing to the long history of labour struggles that had culminated in labour laws, Justice Chandrachud held that Article 21 (the right to life) and Article 23 (the right against forced labour) contained within them the basic set of labour rights that ensure (to the extent possible) a life with dignity.
- For example, compelling a worker to work without payment of a minimum wage — in the context of the highly unequal relationship of power that exists between employers and employees — would be tantamount to extracting forced labour; depriving workers of a safe working environment — or basic safety — would be a violation of the right to life; and so on.
Thus, the importance of the SC’s judgment in Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha lies in its elevation of labour rights to the status of basic human rights, which majoritarian governments are, under the Constitution, obligated to respect, and cannot erase with the stroke of a pen. Needless to say, going forward, these rights will need an active labour movement, and a vigilant judiciary, to guarantee their continued existence. The judgment in Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha is a good start.
POSSIBLE UPSC MAINS EXAMINATION: