Amidst chaos surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, multiple states have formulated ordinances tweaking the application of labour laws with a view to boost the slumping economy. The most significant changes were announced by the BJP ruled states– UP, MP and Gujarat– meanwhile Congress ruled– Rajasthan, Punjab– and BJD ruled Odisha made minor changes to the labour laws. Uttar Pradesh government, perhaps, took the most drastic step as it promulgated an ordinance which summarily suspends most of the labour laws, in their application to the state, for next three years. As the economic and migrant labour crisis intensifies, experts have been labeling this move prejudicial to the interest of labourers, with many articulating it a disengagement of the state from the constitutional policy of socialism. This author has endeavoured to examine the aforesaid criticism through the yardstick of the constitutional policies of India.
Need and Purpose of Labour Laws: Labour legislations owe their inception to the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century, which caused an estimated 70-200 million deaths across the globe, resulting into a significant shortage in labour supply. Subsequently, the labourers began demanding exorbitant price for their service which was undermining the interests of the employers. Thus, early labour legislations were introduced with a view to safeguard the interests of the employers and coordinate the employer-worker relationship on the basis of laissez-faire doctrine. As a consequence, however, of massive exploitation that the labourers had to face during the Industrial revolution and the advent of the doctrine of welfare state, the lawmakers and modern labour legislations veered their objective towards safeguarding the rights and interests of the labourers instead. This movement of the modern labour legislations towards the progressive philosophy has rendered futile the conservative philosophies like laissez-faire. Labour laws, now, basically provide a framework for the harmonious construction of the employer-employee relationship by laying down norms for regulation of issue like- Threshold working hours (days & weeks as well), Healthy and sound working environment, Prevention of unemployment, Adequate living wage to ensure decent standard of life etc. It also provides a regulatory framework for Collective Bargaining ensuring workplace democracy. Depending upon the objective it intends to achieve, labour legislations may be Regulative (Industrial disputes Act, 1947), Protective (Factories Act, 1948), Wage related (Minimum wages Act, 1948), Social security (The Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948), and Welfare legislation (Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976). All these legislations, nevertheless, are based upon the touchstone of social responsibility on the part of the employers. For a country like India, Labour laws are imperative inasmuch they safeguard the interest of millions of labourers and tackle the social injustices that they are subject to.
‘Labour’ finds its mention, under entries 22, 24 and 25, in the List III of schedule VII of the Constitution. It is a concurrent subject, thus both Parliament and state legislatures are conferred with the power to legislate on the said subject. Labour laws, like all other laws of the land, have a constitutional aspect. They are required to maintain a conformity with the provisions of the Constitution. There are many cherished values set forth by the preamble which are fortified by the Part III and IV of the Constitution. For instance the values of Socialism and Social Justice. The people of India, on 26th November, 1949, have resolved to constitute India into a Socialist Republic and to secure to all its citizens Social Justice. Socialism and social justice, indeed, have a direct nexus with the labour laws as it was the advent of the doctrine of welfare state that gave a fillip to the modern labour legislation so as to end the labour exploitation. In D.S. Nakara v. Union of India, Desai J. observed that the basic framework of socialism is to ensure a decent standard of life and especially security to the working population from cradle to grave. It aims to reduce inequalities of income, status and ensure economic equality. Economic equality, as elucidated by Krishna Iyer J., intends to end the eternal conflict between labour and capital. The realisation of socialism and labour interests has been worked out through several directives of the Constitution like Article 39 which enjoins the state to secure- adequate means of livelihood, health and strength of workers, equal pay for equal work etc. and Article 41 which enjoins the state to secure right to work. Socialism and labour interests, indeed, go hand in hand. Despite of the fact that these directives are unenforceable, the state shall not ignore them as they fortify the high purpose of the Constitution. Moreover, such safeguarding of labour interests has to be in consonance with the rights of the employers. As regards social justice, Krishna Iyer J. defined it as a generous concept that offers every member of the society a fair deal. Justice Gajendragadkar‘s concept of social justice was a blend of both social justice and economic justice which seeks to reduce income inequality and afford equal opportunity and economic activities to all the citizens. His concept of social justice, when read with Justice Hari Swaroop‘s concept of economic justice, would include within its sweep the ideas of alleviation of poverty, adequate livelihood and guarantee of a living wage to ensure a decent life standard. International labour organisation accentuates in its preamble that universal and lasting peace could be established only if it is based upon social justice, thus recognizing the cardinal nexus between social justice and labour interests.
Is the suspension of labour laws opposed to constitutional policy of socialism?
With the summary suspension of labour laws, as it has been announced by the UP government, issues like the threshold working hours, minimum wages etc. would basically go out of the window. For instance, the working hour of a labourer may now be increased from 8 hrs./day to 12 hrs./day without any obligation, on the part of the employers, to provide a healthy working environment and the labourers would not be able to demand extra bit of money for the service rendered since there would be no minimum wage. Further, there would be no job security which would, most likely, push the labourers into the informal economy, thus decreasing their wage rate and intensifying poverty. Something, that was the objective of the old labour laws in the laissez-faire era and not the modern labour laws in the welfare state era. In the wake of the aforesaid arguments, could it be sanely said that the state is resolved to provide a decent standard of life and security to the labourers as a socialist state would? Or, is it ensuring the labourers, who are an indispensable part of the society, a fair deal? Or, is it assuring the dignity of the labourers in consonance with the preamble? Recognizing the fact that the labourers are the worst hit by this pandemic (and there are no perhaps, ifs and buts in that), a sane answer could never be in affirmative. It is submitted that the move manifests a clear disengagement of the state from the constitutional policies of socialism and social justice. This also marks the first instance, where an ordinance, which is a law making power, has been formulated for suspension of laws. Thus, a valid question in this regards is: as to whether ordinance making power, under Article 123 and 213, also constitutes power to ‘suspend’ laws? Further, the states cannot just sideline the central labour legislations unilaterally. This author reckons that there is a genuine need for the labour law reforms which would mean to simplify and rationalise the convoluted provisions of old and archaic laws, which are too many in number. Such kind of summary suspension, however, of the labour laws shall not be labeled a reform.