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 Some of the changes, including the increase in working hours, were later withdrawn by some states, after protests from trade unions.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 These codes diluted and repealed various longstanding legal provisions that ensured the rights and security of workers.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.
In their letter to the ILO, the unions pointed out that the labour law changes were made without adequate discussion and consultation with workers, which violated ILO’s convention 144. This convention, ratified by India in 1978, mandates a tripartite consultation process involving government, employers and workers. In its response on 22 May, the ILO assured the unions that Ryder, the ILO’s DG, had “immediately intervened, expressing his deep concern.” It added that the ILO had appealed to Modi to “send a clear message to central and state governments to uphold the country’s international commitments and encourage engagement in effective social dialogue.”
Nileena MS, a reporting fellow at The Caravan spoke to Corinne Vargha, the director of the ILO’s International Labour Standards Department, on the recent changes in labour laws and India’s response to workers’ issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nileena MS: In the ILO’s monitor on the pandemic published in April, the ILO had estimated about four hundred million workers in the informal economy in India were at risk of falling deeper into poverty. The report also emphasised the plight of domestic migrant workers who returned to their hometowns as a result of the lockdown. What do you think of India’s management of labour issues during the pandemic?
Corinne Vargha: The pandemic has made us realise that while the virus can indeed affect everyone, not all workers are equally protected against it. The occupation alongside the contractual status are the determining factors. Normally, informal work will be a kind of a last resort for the workers to rely on in difficult times. This is why normally informal work tends to increase during economic and other crises. But this time was quite different due to the strong measures which have indeed restricted the movement of people and their economic activity. Therefore, informal work was no longer an option available out there.