On 3 January this year, the union cabinet cleared an amendment to the Trade Union Act, 1926, eliciting protests from ten out of 13 of the country’s central trade unions, who termed it “an attempt to retain arbitrary power in their hands in order to interfere in the trade union functioning.” Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently claimed reform of labour laws as one of his central agendas. Speaking at the 46th Indian Labour Conference, in July 2015, Modi said, “As part of the concept of minimum government, maximum governance, obsolete and unnecessary laws are being weeded out.” Concurrently, in 2015, the labour ministry decided to consolidate 44 existing central labour laws into four labour codes—Wages; Social Security; Industrial Relations, or IR; and Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions, or OSHW.
In his July 2015 speech, Modi asserted that reforms in labour laws would be made with “the concurrence of the unions.” However, just three months later, the All India Trade Union Congress, or AITUC, wrote a letter to the undersecretary of the labour ministry, SK Tripathi, saying, “The so called consultation process appears to be completing a formality.” Modi’s efforts, have met stiff resistance from ten central trade unions across the political spectrum, including the Indian National Trade Union Congress, or INTUC, AITUC and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, or CITU. According to Sanjeeva Reddy, the president of INTUC, “The government is attempting to reduce workers’ rights in favour of employers in the name of codifying laws.” The tussle between the central government and trade unions escalated in July 2018, when almost all major unions boycotted the consultation meetings for the labour codes. Things came to a head on 28 September when ten central trade unions called for a nationwide-strike on 8 and 9 January 2019 against what they termed were the Modi government’s “pro-corporate” and “anti-people” polices.
Four representatives of the central trade unions that I spoke with said important labour policies implemented under the Modi regime go against interests of workers. They said that even when the unions were consulted to formulate these policies; it was only in letter but not in spirit. These reforms include the labour codes, three of which are at the pre-legislative stage while one has been tabled in the parliament. The codes will have a far-reaching impact on the country’s labour force of over 45 crore people.
The BJP’s quest to reform labour laws, which fall under the concurrent list, began in August 2014 when the Vasundhara Raje-led Rajasthan state cabinet amended four labour laws—the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, the Factories Act, 1948, the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and the Apprentices Act, 1961. Among other issues, the amendments made formations of unions more stringent while diluting regulatory oversight of employers. Rajasthan paved the way for other states such as Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, to introduce similar amendments which diluted the rights of workers and relaxed rules for employers.
In 2015, the RSS’s labour wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, or BMS, published a booklet titled “Labour Law Amendments: Trade Union Perspective,” co-authored by the BMS’s president, CK Saji Narayanan, and a former president, B Rajagopal. Criticising the Rajasthan model, the authors wrote, “The central government took the arbitrary Rajasthan amendments and circulated it among all other state governments.” The booklet claimed that the government did not convene a mandatory tripartite meeting before introducing the amendment and thereby violated the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 144, which mandates consultation with workers’ unions in framing and modifying labour policies.