In May 2020, 10 central trade unions jointly wrote twice to Guy Ryder, the director general of the International Labour Organisation, drawing attention to the plight of migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis as well as the government’s dilution and suspension of labour laws. In May, several states—including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat—introduced sweeping changes in labour laws such as increasing the working hours from eight to 12. The unions said the changes limited the workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Some of the changes, including the increase in working hours, were later withdrawn by some states, after protests from trade unions.
The Narendra Modi government also introduced four new labour codes that replaced 44 existing labour laws—The Code of Wages, the Industrial Relations Code, the Social Security Code, and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code. These codes diluted and repealed various longstanding legal provisions that ensured the rights and security of workers. Together, they exclude a vast section of informal workers, primarily women, from the ambit of existing laws and protections spelled out in the codes. They also exclude a large number of establishments from compliance and enforcement mechanisms.