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Government wants to turn workers into slaves: CITU’s Tapan Sen

As the Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved the Code on Wages Bill, which seeks to subsume existing laws related to workers remuneration and enable the Centre to fix minimum wages for the entire country, the process has been set in motion for pushing four codes that would subsume as many as 44 labour laws. It is being described as a tectonic shift in labour relations with the trade unions warning that it would render the workers vulnerable with even the residual protective legislations getting further weakened. Speaking to BusinessLine, veteran trade unionist and former Rajya Sabha MP Tapan Sen explains how the four codes pertaining to wages, social security, industrial safety and welfare, and industrial relations are an attempt to “turn the workers into slaves”.

The government has argued that the existing labour laws are antiquated and the workers are in any case not getting protection. The four proposed Codes only serve to simplify and ease labour relations.

This is totally bogus. The fact is that all protective elements are being diluted or taken away. For instance, in the Industrial Relations Code, they are increasing the threshold limit of employment in any establishment for the coverage of the acts such as the EPF Act, ESI Act, Industrial Disputes Act and Factories Act in such way that practically more than 70 per cent of the industrial workers would out of the purview of these acts.

There is no rationale for such threshold increase except to turn workers into slaves, because logically, with the advancement of technology, the productivity of the worker has increased and manpower requirement has decreased. So what you needed to do was to actually decrease the threshold limit. The government has done the opposite. Under the Industrial Disputes Act, the employer needs government permission to law off any worker if he employs 100 workers. But the government proposes to increase this limit to 300 whereas logic dictates that it should have come down because technology has enhanced the productivity of the worker.

But the government says it is actually increasing the compensation to workers, at least at the time of retrenchment.

This is just the kind of fraud that is played through the gullible and corrupt media. They say that earlier when you were retrenched, you got 15 days’ wages per year of service rendered, now we will give you 45 days’ wages. This is being projected as a big sop to the worker. No one is saying that simultaneously, in the Industrial Relations Code, the government is making it next to impossible for workers to form trade unions and access legal representation. The Code on Industrial Relation bill seeks to impose numerous restrictions on workers’ rights to access justice through adjudication and tribunals. Section105 (4) of the Bill stipulates that workers would be entitled to the assistance of a legal practitioner in proceedings before a tribunal, only with the consent of the employers. Section 105 (3) says that no party to a dispute shall be entitled to be represented by a legal practitioner in any conciliation proceedings or in proceedings before a court. While employers can always manage assistance of legal practitioners through their appointee law officer, these restrictions are only meant to create difficulties for the workers and their unions and deprive them of level playing field. So when the worker does not have the right to collective bargain or access to legal representation, how will he ensure he gets his 45 days’ work pay? You can make it even ₹20,000 per year of service rendered, who will bother to get it?

Do you agree that workers have been dealt a wrong hand for the last three decades at the very least? Why blame the BJP alone?

Because it is much worse and the new Codes make ‘hire and fire’ a norm. Introduction of ‘fixed-term employment’ through amendment of the Rules under Industrial Employment Standing Order Act with an executive order has opened the floodgate of employment of temporary workers in all organised sector establishments, both in public and private sectors.

As per this provision, the employers will be allowed to employ workers for a fixed term, say six months, or one year, and after the completion of the tenure those workers can be retrenched without any notice and compensation, unless their tenure is renewed for another fixed term. Further, as per rules, workers on fixed-term employment are eligible for the same wage as the regular workers in the concerned establishment, the temporary nature of their employment and consequent fear of jobless do not allow them to demand the same enabling the employers to take advantage of the situation. This phenomenon is prevalent even in public sector companies. Even in a PSU like ONGC, highly skilled workers in on-shore and off-shore exploration jobs are being deployed on fixed term employment. And, after notification of fixed term employment last year, reports are being received from many states on private sector units aggressively resorting to this route while simultaneously retrenching regular workers on one plea or the other. Further, amendment to the Apprentices Act along with introduction of the National Skill Development Programme titled National Employability Enhancement Mission (NEEM) and National Employment through Apprenticeship Programme (NETAP) is yet another way of divesting the workers of their hard-earned rights. These schemes are being introduced under the camouflage of loud slogans of improving and advancing the skill-level of country’s youth to ensure greater employability. But in practice, they are sinister designs to get the workers’ jobs done by apprentices, without any obligation to retain or pay them right wages and social security benefits and, thereby, make a savings of the employers on labour cost. The idea clearly is to take as many workers as possible out of the purview of the labour laws. If, you’re protected, you have the right to a statutory minimum wage. But if you’re not, then who will bother about minimum wage. It is not enforceable if this new Labour Code comes into being.

How does all of it affect wages?

I’ll tell you about the farce that was played on minimum wage. There were prolonged deliberations in the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) which is a tripartite forum of the Centre, State governments and the unions on the minimum wage. Through a scientific, calorie-based formula of 2,700 calories for a family of three, the deliberations arrived at a minimum wage of ₹18,000. This was unanimously recommended by the ILC. Subsequently, the Supreme Court said only the calorie base is not enough, there are other requirements such as housing, rent, clothing and transport, which should add another 25 per cent to the wage that was fixed.

Pursuant to this, the 44 th Indian Labour Conference in 2012, adopted a unanimous resolution that minimum wage should be formulated based on ILC recommendation along with the Supreme Court order. But what the government has done through the Minimum Wage Code Bill is to conveniently set aside all these formulations. They have arbitrarily made the unanimous recommendation of all stakeholders irrelevant to the determination of minimum wage. And how do they decide on the minimum wage in this situation — by making it an entirely bureaucratic exercise. This Government appointed a committee of bureaucrats and decided among themselves that minimum wage should be between Rs, 9,000- 12,000 and they said there can be regional differences. They arbitrarily brought down the calorific consumption from 2,700 to 2,400 calories because apparently they believe that people don’t eat that much! What was the formula used, who gave this advice? This is criminal. And what rational is behind ‘regional variations’, which is taken care of by Dearness Allowance? The intention is clear — the government wants to ensure ease of doing business by taking food morsels away from the workers’ mouth.

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By udaen

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