New Delhi: Refuting opposition’s charges that labour codes were passed in haste, Union Labour Minister Santosh Gangwar said the reforms will change the life of 50 crore workers, but still if anyone has any objection, the Modi government is open to incorporating them during framing of the rules.
In an exclusive interview, Gangwar told ThePrint in the last 70 years, no major labour reforms have been introduced.
“First was (former PM Atal Bihari) Vajpayee, who started (labour reforms), (now) PM Modi has finished that work,” he added.
The Parliament last month passed three labour codes — on industrial relations; occupational safety, health and working conditions; and social security — proposing to simplify the country’s archaic labour laws and give impetus to economic activity without compromising with the workers’ benefits. A fourth code, on wages, was passed by the Parliament last August.
On the opposition’s charge that the government rushed the passage of the codes without any consultation, Gangwar asked: “How much consultation is required to pass the bills?
“Consultation has been going on since 2002 when former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed the labour commission. During the Congress rule, they have done nothing to pass the bills, they went to the standing committees,” he added.
“We have carried out extensive consultations. (Standing) Committee gave 233 recommendations, the government accepted more than 74 per cent of the recommendations of the standing committee where every party member was present and the codes were discussed at length,” he claimed.
Gangwar further said labour codes were discussed with various stakeholders such as labour organisations, employers’ associations, state governments, and international labour organisations.
“The draft of the codes were uploaded on the ministry’s website to seek public opinion. There was massive consultation before the passage of the bills. For the sake of criticism, it can be criticised, but the codes are in the interest of both industry and workers,” the minister added.
‘Modi fulfilling Ambedkar’s dream’
Asked how the bills will transform the life of unorganised sector workers, Gangwar said for the first time, there is a provision in the codes through which they will get appointment letters like organised sector employees.
“For the first time, platform workers have been included (in the social security net), travel allowance for migrant workers, creating social security fund for welfare of workers, reskilling fund for workers, portability of government schemes, and contract labourers will get benefits like fixed-term workers. Babasaheb Ambedkar has advocated for the rights of women and labourers, which is going to be fulfilled by PM Modi.”
Gangwar added: “Women safety and security have also been added in the labour codes, which mandate that employers have to take the consent of women employees for night shifts and they have to also ensure their safety. The onus of safety will be on the employers and contractors.”
Framing of rules under process
Gangwar said that framing of the rules is under process for which suggestions have been sought.
“We have sought suggestions from the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh also. All are welcome to give suggestions and make the labour codes historic,” he added.
RSS affiliate Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and other trade unions had raised objections to the Industrial Relations Code, describing it as a clear attempt to diminish the role of trade unions.
Asked about the opposition and trade unions’ charges that the government has given employers a free hand to lay-off workers, Gangwar said it’s a “misconception”.
The earlier labour law required an establishment employing over 100 workers to seek government permission before any retrenchment. The threshold has now been raised to 300.
“Already 16 states have increased the threshold and it was a standing committee recommendation, which we implemented. Threshold of 100 workers was not serving any purpose. Bigger threshold will lead to formalisation of a bigger workforce, and encourage more production. Industries do not want to establish bigger units due to restrictions. There should be a debate on this. I am open to accommodate their viewpoints, but everybody will have to understand holistically.”
The minister added: “I know one industrial establishment, which employed 100 workers on payroll and there were double the number of unorganised labourers. They were not getting any benefits, social security, health facilities due to restrictions in law. Now all 300 will get benefits due to the changes in the law.”
Gangwar said the objective was to regularise unorganised contract labourers and bring them into the formal chain as they are often exploited by contractors.
“New codes have introduced fixed-term employment (of contract workers) under which they will get proper pay, social security benefits, they will have fixed working hours like regular employees,” he added.
Strike rules ‘streamlined’
Asked about the allegation that the government has diluted the workers’ right to hold strikes, Gangwar said: “We have not taken away the right to strike, but it has been streamlined for better productivity.”
“The only motive is to end unplanned strikes or halt in production in industries and create an atmosphere of amicable settlement of dispute. This is injustice that one day you stand up and announce a hartal (strike) seen in films. This is only to avoid such a situation. Now, you will have to give a 14-day notice for strike but they can resolve their dispute before that also,” he added.
“There is also a provision incorporated to ensure that trade unions can directly approach tribunals to resolve their dispute and trade unions have been given recognition both at the state level and Centre,” the minister said.
Migrant labour definition expanded
The government has expanded the definition of ‘inter-state migrant worker’ in the labour codes to ensure that no one gets left out of the social security net.
For the first time, income criteria will be included to define a migrant worker. The new labour codes will now include all workers whose monthly family income is less than Rs 18,000, and who migrate to another state and get directly employed or self-employed.
“From Independence, we have a lack of data about migrant labourers. Covid has given us an opportunity where every state is maintaining data of migrant labourers. I have asked every state government to register their database and also gather data from other agencies like railways, transport (department) to get their exact number so that the benefit of government schemes can reach them,” Gangwar said.
Gangwar’s response to a question in the Parliament last month that the government has no record of deaths of migrant workers during the pandemic has caused a huge uproar.
The ministry just said over one crore migrant workers returned home during the pandemic, based on the Railway figures.
“The ministry is now optimistic that the new labour codes will identify migrant workers more scientifically,” he added.