Workers are being made into slaves: Tapan Sen

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Highlights: 
Workers produce GDP, others have a free lunch over it
Labour Codes a design to impose slavery on workers
What's the point of laws, if you make working conditions fragile
If you ask me what is next, it is fight

The government is in the process of codifying labour laws into four codes and the first Code on Wages has been passed by Parliament. It has also introduced Occupation Safety, Health and Working Conditions Bill in Lok Sabha. Trade Unions barring the RSS-affiliated BMS find fault with the government's moves, which they say are usurping the rights of workers.

CITU General Secretary Tapan Sen spoke to DH's Shemin Joy on what are their objections and what they intend to do next.

The government says there are a number of antiquated laws and there is a need to codify these. That is why they have brought the bills on the codes on wages as well as occupational safety, health and working conditions. How do you respond to these?

There have been attempts earlier too to combine these laws but that failed. Labour laws address a huge number of matters ranging from issue-specific to sector-specific. What the government is doing is very bad and unprofessional. In the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, they are amalgamating 13 laws, which are sector-specific and issue-specific. These laws were a product of industrial unrest and consultations that followed. What they have done is they culled out some provisions selectively from these 13 laws. The provisions which gave the workers their rights and protection from exploitation have been consciously removed. Take the case of working hours in the new bill. The existing law clearly states that the working hours should not go beyond eight hours. Eight-hour work is a universal principle. Now, it has been said that it would be decided by an appropriate government. So that can come to ten hours or 12 hours or more or less. Similarly, there are issues with contractual employment too. It doesn't ensure that the principle employer has responsibility on workers' conditions. All these are being done to evade the obligation of the employers.

Government believes this will help in the 'Ease of Doing Business'. Are you saying that this is coming at the cost of workers' rights?

They are 100% right when they are saying those Codes are being made to ensure ease of doing business. But there is another aspect of labour laws, which is to ensure human survival of the workers. Ease of Doing Business means a complete suppression of the labour rights and putting them into sub-human working conditions, putting them under virtual slavery. If you make their working conditions absolutely fragile, even if law gives you the right, they will not be in a position to assert their rights. In such a scenario, the workers' priority will always be to save their jobs. This theory ease of doing business will lead to more employment is absolutely bogus. They are making these statements knowingly well that it is not going to take place. They intend to spread confusion and misinformation.

You have said that the earlier labour laws were the product of industrial unrest and consultations. Were there enough consultations with the trade unions on these bills?

There were some consultations on Code on Wages and the Occupational Safety Code. On the social security code (which is yet to reach Parliament), there were some meetings but we did not go as it was useless to go there. Our experience is that the points raised by the trade unions were ignored. On the other side, they are accepting 100% whatever the employers are saying. It is a ganging-up between the employers and the government against the workers in shaping these Codes.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee had scrutinised the Wage Code Bill. Has the government incorporated the recommendations?

The Code of Wages Bill, during the first Narendra Modi government, was sent to Parliamentary Standing Committee and incidentally, I was in that committee as I was an MP then. But it was not presented initially and officials told me that it will not be presented till I am an MP as there would be note of dissent on it. It was later tabled. But even then, some recommendations were made by the panel. The deliberations in the panel got reflected in the report. One of them was on enforcement of laws, which is very crucial. Inspection is a very important tool of that law. The government made it inspector-cum-facilitator. This Standing Committee made it clear that there should not be facilitator. Second aspect was the definition of workers and employees. They have given the definition in the Bill but in the body of the law, there they do not mention worker at all except in a few places. An employer can easily use this to deny rights to workers saying the law does not allow for it. Whenever there is a law, we cannot keep room for interpretation or misinterpretation. The panel wanted this ambiguity to go. But these recommendations were not incorporated in the new bill.

Another was on minimum wages in which the Standing Committee wanted changes. Do you think government not accepting it was a proper move?

The calculation of minimum wages cannot be arbitrary. It was formulated by the highest tripartite body the Indian Labour Conference. The Supreme Court in 1992 also gave directions on improving this. In 44th ILC in 2012, a unanimous recommendation was made that the minimum wage should be formulated on the basis of 15th ILC formulation and the 1992 Supreme Court judgement. These were reiterated in the next two ILCs. But the Code on Wages Bill has no such reference and the minimum wages will be formulated by the bureaucracy though there is an advisory committee with unions to discuss this. But the advisory committee's recommendation is not binding. In such a scenario what is the sanctity of the unanimous decision of the 44th ILC where the central and state governments, trade unions and employers were part of. Then there is the issue of national floor level minimum wages. But why is it that the floor level minimum is different for different regions? The national floor level minimum is the bottom line, isn't it? It should be same for the whole of the country. Regional differences are taken care of by Dearness Allowance component. Accordingly, neutralisation is done through DA. While the Code on Wages Bill amalgamates four laws, it has done selectively. The rights related provisions are not there. Take the case of bonus. Now trade unions can access the accounts of a company only if the employer agrees to it. That further dilutes workers' rights.

So, what next?

There are two more bills to come. One on social security and industrial relations. Practically it says there will be no unions, labour rights can be curbed, service conditions can be altered. It is a design to impose slavery on the workers, who are actually producing the GDP and all others are having a free lunch over it. But even if these codes provide something for workers, they are nowhere near there to claim it. Now, they have brought in fixed term employment. Then there is contract workers. Now we are going to see a scenario that contract workers engagement will reduce and their places will be taken over by apprentices. Government has allowed employers to go on engaging apprentices. Everywhere now the practice has started. In Maruti, for example, the regular workers are getting some Rs 20,000 while contract workers are getting around Rs 9,000 and apprentices around Rs 4,000. Now the law says apprentices will also be paid minimum wages. Fine, but who will ask for it. Every apprentice will be hoping an extension at the end of his tenure. They don't have trade union rights, how can they ask even if they are not paid minimum wages. On the other hand, fixed term worker will be expecting that his term will be renewed and fearing retrenchment, he may also remain silent. We are finishing the right to assert collectively. We call it a conditional slavery for the sake of easing business. If you ask me what is the next, it is fight. We are in consultations with other central trade unions what to do nationally and sectorally.

One of the biggest trade unions, the BMS, is not with other central trade unions on these issues. How do you see this?

They are governed by the RSS, which is running the government. Their strategy of so-called opposition is their dubious exercise to occupy both the spaces of opposition and government. That is their political strategy. They don't come for any action. Wherever they come, they come under compulsion. Otherwise, they will lose their base. From August 20, workers in defence production are going on strike against corporatisation. BMS is also part of it. How long they will be part of it, we don't know. It is proved. From 2009 to 2014, there were three general strikes. BMS took part in all these. INTUC also took part in all strikes against their own government. BMS was part of the collective decision on the general strike in September 2015 when the first Modi government was there. BMS walked out of the strike two days before the protest saying government is positive towards their demands. In 2016, we went on a general strike and BMS called it politically motivated when the strike was big. No doubt, the same striking worker did vote for Narendra Modi and BJP. That is a different thing. It was our failure that we cannot make them politically conscious. Fact is that workers are workers. But the same workers came on street on the seventh day against the new government. Working class has an instinct, inbuilt dynamism within themselves to fight on their issues.

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