Covid-19 crisis: Labour productivity goes hand in hand with workers’ interests, says BJD MP

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May 12, 2020 1:20 AM

The changes have happened not only in some BJP-ruled states, but also in Congress-ruled states like Rajasthan and Punjab where working hours have been extended by four hours, but that four hours will be treated as overtime.

Just by promulgating a law is not the end of it. It has to also stand the scrutiny of the court.

By suspending almost all labour laws, extending working hours and reducing paperwork, some states have announced major changes in labour laws with the intention of attracting investments and creating favourable environment for business and industry to resume activities. BJD MP Bhartruhari Mahtab, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on labour, shares his views on these changes with Surya Sarathi Ray. Excerpts:

Many states, including UP, MP and Gujarat, have announced significant exemptions and amendments to labour laws, including doing away with labour laws for three years. What is your reaction to this?

They have promulgated ordinances to attract investment and encourage setting up of start-up industries. There is no blanket ban on labour laws in UP, three laws will still be prevalent. There are 150 labour-related legislations in the country and it is a mess. It is very difficult to understand what law is applicable where and for whom. However, with the changing environment, a number of laws have become archaic and needed to be tuned for the benefit of both the employer and the employee.

The changes have happened not only in some BJP-ruled states, but also in Congress-ruled states like Rajasthan and Punjab where working hours have been extended by four hours, but that four hours will be treated as overtime. Maharashtra, which is run by a coalition government, has also made some changes. All these have been done to improve productivity after the lockdown.

But, at the same time, my view is that if you wish to increase productivity, there should not be any compromise on the workers’ interest. As we are following social distancing, there will be less number of people in factories. So prolonged work hours may be required.

What about the suspension of almost all labour laws for 1,000 days and beyond?

These are steps which need to stand the scrutiny of law. Just by promulgating a law is not the end of it. It has to also stand the scrutiny of the court.

Will these changes help the industry in the long run?

Labour is in the concurrent list. States have power to frame certain laws. If a factory has to shut down, one needs to get the approval of the government. Rajasthan was the first state to do away with that provision. MP also did that subsequently. In our report relating to Industrial Relations (IR) code, we have cited the instance of Rajasthan. The complaint was that a number of industries will shut down and the labours’ interest would be hurt. But, the result of a study showed just the reverse. So, in that respect, changes in the laws were required. But, the interest of the labourers should not be compromised.

Industry is given a free hand?

Industry or the employer should not be pampered to such an extent that they can exploit the labour force at this time of emergency. Rather it is with the support of the labour force and their involvement, the industry can make a turnaround on the economic front. Without labour support and without taking them into confidence, this can’t happen. Support should not be extended to the industry alone, labour should also be treated equally. And this should be done to organised, unorganised and migrant labourers.

What is your take on migrant workers?

The onus lies with the Union government to give them full protection. But, what we find today, other than special trains, the Centre is clearly not doing enough. Whatever help is being extended to the migrant workers, it is being done by the sending and the receiving states. The Union government is nowhere to be seen to the aid of migrant workers.

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