S Raj //

As the novel corona virus outbreak gave birth to a menacing pandemic which has currently gripped humanity, the world is in a state of lockdown with all production and economic activities coming to an unprecedented halt. In such times when the world capitalist order already faces a permanent crisis, such developments has led to even further deepening of the it, while many experts warn the possibility of it developing into Capitalism’s biggest ever crisis. While the capitalist-imperialist ruling classes seem to be in a state of turmoil on how to handle it, of late, the narrative of ‘turning this emergency into an opportunity’ has begun to echo through some of the world leaders including those of India. Naturally, as is the case with any economic crisis of Capitalism, the burden of it would have to be faced by the working class. Hence, following suit, the ruling classes have grabbed this opportunity and initiated the process of implementing labour law reforms along with various draconian and anti-people laws in this state of emergency and imminent danger to the even the survival of the masses. Even though the implementation of neo-liberal and anti-worker policies has been taking place since the last few decades, it has received a drastic push since the last few years, and particularly during this pandemic.

The Crisis In India And Its Ramifications For The Working Class

The Indian working class witnessed an upsurge in the implementation of anti-worker policies coupled with an unprecedented degree of relentless attacks on dissent, democratic rights, voices, and movements, along with civil liberties, after the ascendance to power of a fascist party backed by a widespread cadre-based organization, the RSS, in 2014 and consecutively in 2019 with even more intensity. Such agenda was naturally a part of larger scheme, which was the takeover of all independent institutions of the ‘democratic’ state peacefully from within, for which a successful campaign was continuously carried out since even a few years before 2014.

In light of the crisis-ridden Indian capitalism, the process of concentration and centralization of capital was expedited aggressively by the regime to serve its capitalist-imperialist masters. Policies such as ‘Demonetization’ and GST were implemented soon after attaining power which broke the back of the unorganized sector, that employs almost 93% of the entire workforce, and caused tremendous misery to the common and toiling masses. Naturally, as is the case with any authoritarian government with a pro-big capital agenda, labour law reforms was among its prime agenda. In its first term itself, the government proposed the demolition of the complete mechanism of the 44 labour laws in the country and its amalgamation into 4 labour codes: one each on Wages, Industrial Relations, Occupational Safety, and Social Security. Since labour laws denote the balance of power between the capitalist class and the working class, implementation of these labour codes, starkly replete with pro-establishment and dangerously vague provisions, would be the most vicious attack on the Indian working class that would not only hammer in the last nail in the coffin of the rights and safeguards enjoyed hitherto by the limited section (less than 10%) of workers employed in the organized sector, but would spell even bigger doom for the workers in the unorganized sector who are largely outside the protection of labour laws even now. The labour codes virtually dismantle the safeguards of minimum wages, fixed working hours, social security, security of tenure, formation of unions, collective bargaining, strikes, safe working conditions among others and puts exorbitant fines on ‘illegal’ strikes amounting to tens of thousands of rupees.

Although the codes were not passed in the first term of the incumbent government’s rule, the second term which began from May 2019 saw the Code on Wages 2019 being passed in both the Lower and Upper House of the Parliament by 2nd August 2019, that is, just by the end of the second month of its new term. Even in the first term, it implemented severe anti-worker amendments in labour laws such as in the Apprentices Act, 1961 by allowing skilled workers to be employed in any industry in the guise of unskilled workers, and in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 by allowing minors aged 14-18 to get employed in all industries except only ‘mining, or those industries using flammable and explosives, and other hazardous procedures.’ What could not be implemented by the Central Government was successfully implemented by the various state governments, including Congress-ruled states, like changes in the Factories Act, 1948, Contract Labour Act, 1970 etc.

Covid19 Pandemic And The Intensified Attack On Working Class

Since the last four months, the unparalleled halt to economic activities caused by the nationwide lockdown has led to further intensification of the already severe crisis being faced by the world capitalist order. In order to protect their super profits, on one hand the capitalist class is demanding assistance from their loyal governments in the form of handsome stimulus packages to get out of this crisis unscathed, and on the other, the attacks on the working class have only intensified further in the form of mass layoffs, pay cuts, freeze on social security and other benefits, ban on unionization, and increased surveillance in the name of safety (through apps like Aarogya Setu) etc. across the world.

In India, the Central as well as state governments are leaving no stone unturned to turn this crisis into an opportunity by launching scathing attacks on the working class relentlessly. During this pandemic and the unplanned lockdown that followed, a vast majority of the workers has not been paid their wages, while there have been mass layoffs by establishments so much so that the unemployment rate stood at 24.5% on 25 May. The lockdown has left the migrant workers without food, jobs or shelters because of which there occur new deaths every day due to preventable non-Covid causes, while numerous have been forced to walk high and dry for hundreds and thousands of kilometres just to reach their villages, where further poverty, hunger and agony awaits them in the coming days. Even Central Government employees and pensioners (1.1 crore in number) have not been left untouched as the government has ordered to freeze their Dearness Allowance (DA) and Dearness Relief (DR) respectively at current rates for 18 months. The state governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Nagaland have followed suit and implemented similar orders on DA and DR freeze for their employees. However, the most organized and vicious attack has been the dilution of labour laws and the increase of working hours from 8 to as long as 12 by various state governments.

Increase in work hours

Within just a month’s time, since 24 April, 13 states increased the working hours from 8 hours to 12, namely Rajasthan, UP, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Odisha, and Puducherry, Uttarakhand (11 hours) and Karnataka (10 hours). Out of these, Gujarat and UP governments have explicitly stated that for the extra 4 hours of work, “proportionate” rate of wages will be applied as against the prevailing law (as per the Factories Act) which mandates double rate of wages for the overtime period beyond 8 hours. For example, as per the law a worker earning ₹100 for an hour of work in regular hours would earn ₹200 for an hour of overtime work; but the two states would provide the same ₹100 for even an overtime work hour. Although, the UP government was forced to withdraw this order on 15 May after the Allahabad High Court issued a notice on this matter arising out of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The Rajasthan government has also withdrawn its order on 24 May. However, with such orders legalizing an increase of working hours, even though temporary in nature, coupled with the fact that the Central Government is mulling changes in law to allow 12-hour shifts in factories, India is likely to become the only country in the world to have an official 12-hour workday. This would not only be in contravention to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 1 of 1919 on working hours, but would wash away the right of the workers to have fixed work hours and not work more than 8 hours a day, which was achieved through the great struggles of the workers across the world and which was the main demand of the historic May Day Movement in Chicago in 1886 for the attainment of which many workers even laid down their lives.

Dilution of labour laws through Ordinances

In addition to this, the state governments of UP, MP and Gujarat have made drastic changes to their labour laws and diluted the central labour laws through ordinances and orders.

Uttar Pradesh government’s ordinance ‘Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020’ proposes to suspended all of its 38 labour laws for 3 years leaving only 3, namely, Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, 1996, Workmen Compensation Act, 1923, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, along with a section of the Payment of Wages Act. It has also proposed increasing the working hours from 8 to 10 hours. The changes would apply to both existing and new factories. It is prudent to know that the UP government’s withdrawal of the order to increase working hours from 8 to 12, as mentioned above, is separate from this proposed Ordinance, which means that this ordinance has not been withdrawn and is still active.

Madhya Pradesh government proposes to suspend nearly all labour laws for new establishments initially for 3 months but has proposed to the Centre to extend it to 1,000 days. The new units will be exempted from the entire Section in the Factories Act on ‘right of workers’ that empowers workers to obtain details of their health and safety at work, which means that the employer is not bound to provide to workers drinking water, ventilation, lighting, toilets, sitting facilities, first aid boxes, protective equipment, canteens, crèches, weekly holidays and interval of rest. In addition, Units will be exempted for 1,000 days from all provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, except Section 25, which prohibits financial aid for illegal strikes and lockouts. Organisations will be able to keep workers in service at their convenience. The Labour Department or the labour court will not interfere in the action taken by industries. There would be no factory inspections for 3 months. These are just some of the dangerous reforms proposed by the MP government.

Gujarat government proposes to suspend all labour laws except the Minimum Wages Act, Industrial Safety Rules, Employees’ Compensation Act for new establishments for 1,200 days. A total of 33 thousand hectares of land has also been made available for industrial use in various SEZs.

Although Governors of UP and Gujarat have approved the reforms, they are yet to be approved by the President of India since ‘labour’ falls under the concurrent list in the Constitution, which means the Union government and states have joint jurisdiction over it. Therefore, changes by state need to be ratified by at the federal level.

Government, For Whom?

It is clear as day that for which class the governments are working and implementing such anti-worker anti-people policies even in such critical times of a pandemic. However, it seems that the government is not even bothered anymore to curtain its class character. In May, representatives of 12 employers’ associations asked the Central Government to suspend labour laws for the next 2-3 years. It was around the same time that 3 BJP-ruled states passed the aforementioned ordinances suspending almost all labour laws. Moreover, according to media reports, the central government is planning to implement all the labour codes nationwide through an ordinance or executive order. Similarly, in April, apex trade organizations Assocham and FICCI demanded a stimulus package of ₹15-23 lakh crore and ₹10 lakh crore respectively, and on 12 May, a pro-capital Atmanirbhar package of ₹20 lakh crore was announced by the Prime Minister. Although almost ₹17 lakh crore of the package are in the forms of loans and liquidity boosters instead of direct aid, which has left even the industry unsatisfied with it. The state governments of Gujarat, MP, UP and Karnataka, among others, are also planning to issue orders that will allow pay cuts and disciplinary actions against workers who refuse to re-join factories after the lockdown is lifted. Apart from this, public sector undertakings, hospitals, railways, airports, coal mines along with other sectors are already being served on a platter to big capitalists.

The Way Forward

The aforementioned facts make it clear that as the situations created by the Covid pandemic push the capitalist order deeper into a crisis, the attacks on the working class are bound to further intensify. The big capitalist class is ready to extract even the last drop of the blood and sweat of the workers to protect their super profits. In its wish to get out of the crisis unscathed, the ruling class would further escalate the process of centralization and concentration of capital that would lead to even further proletarianization in the society. The indications are clear that the worse is yet to come which would not only mean more severe unemployment, starvation and demolition of all hard-earned rights of the working class but would also be tantamount to pushing the progress made by the working class back by centuries.

As humanity faces the imminent danger of a pandemic and witnesses deaths on a daily basis, Capitalism, today, stands not only in the way of progress of humanity but in the way of its very survival. On the one hand, people face shortages of hospital beds, tests, PPEs, food, shelters, wages, and on the other, private hospitals, factories and manufacturing units stay idle, buildings and hotels stay empty, godowns face shortages of space to store the vast surplus of food grains. Such contradictions of shortage of essentials despite abundance of resources arise due to the same system of private appropriation of the fruits of socialized labour, that, due to its hunger for profits, becomes the cause of the misery in the lives of the working-class masses.

Capitalism, thus, not only stands in the way of the emancipation of the working class from exploitation and suffering, it also stands in the way of survival of humanity itself. Hence, the struggle of the workers against such attacks on their rights becomes a part of the larger struggle of the working class against the capitalist system which is based on its exploitation and inequality, the existence of which would render impossible not only the end of the suffering of the working class, but also, the further progress of humanity.

“(Capitalist) crisis shows that the workers should not confine themselves to the struggle for individual concessions from the capitalists. While industry is in upswing, such concessions may be won; but when the crash comes, the capitalists not only withdraw the concessions, but take advantage of the helpless position of the workers to force wages down still lower. And so things will inevitably continue until the army of the socialist proletariat over-throws the domination of capital and private property.”

Lenin, The Lessons of the Crisis, 1901 (Collected Works, vol. 5, p. 89-94)

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 2/ June ’20)

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