Almost a dozen state governments have quite recently adopted a slew of anti-worker labour law reforms with the main feature common to all of them being the increase of the work hours for workers from 8 hours per day to 12 hours. While the prevailing law, the Factories Act 1948, with respect to overtime mandates that a worker must get double the wage rate for overtime hours, the Yogi Government of Uttar Pradesh has raised working hours without increasing the wage rate i.e. now the employer would pay wages at the same “proportionate” rate for the extra period. Indications are that it may become a New Normal. The state bypassed the provision by invoking emergency provisions in the law. This is in accordance with the steps that Gujarat had already taken. After all, they are our patriotic governments!

The suspended Factories Act provided for the work of eight hours a day and 48 hours a week. It also provided for engaging workers for up to 60 hours a week with the payment of twice the wage rate for the overtime period. But the same act also empowers a state to waive any of its provision in the name of public emergencies arising out of external or internal threats to the country’s security. This has been utilized by the states.

For workers to understand, let us take an example. If a worker is paid 160 rupees for 8 hours at the rate of 20 rupees per hour, then, for working for 12 hours, he will be paid just 240 rupees at the same wage rate of 20 rupees per hour. So, the provision for overtime is gone. According to old provisions, the worker would have got 160 plus 160 rupees, the latter being the overtime wage at twice the existing wage rate i.e. 2×20 rupees per hour for the overtime of 4 hours. There is a direct loss of 80 rupees (as per this example).  

As stated above, Gujarat was the first state that issued notification on increasing working hours on the above pattern, providing for proportionate payment even for the extra work hours, followed by UP. Apart from them, Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Odisha and Goa have issued the same type of notification through executive orders for increasing the working hours from 8 to 12 in the name of keeping production units to produce as much as possible with a limited number of workers, though these states have promised double wage rate for the extra 4 hours.

In addition to this, the state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have passed ordinances to suspend almost all the labour laws.

This is happening when most workers have gone back to their villages in their native districts. According to the notification, this has been done because maintaining social-distancing norms are mandatory during the Covid-19 crisis and hence to make for losses in the volume of production, those who chose to remain and work would be forced to work for 12 hours without any overtime wages.

The message is loud and clear. When wealthy people prefer to live inside their gated boundaries during times when Covid-19 spread is peaking, even though lockdown is being phased out, workers have to work longer hours in factories without any safety. But this is not all. On the other hand, they and their families have also got to eat less, remain half-fed, go hungry and live malnourished without nutrition and die for the country while the capitalists go on increasing their wealth with not a dime to spare! Although, some of the states have said workers would be paid double their normal wages for the extra period of work, it may not be complied by the factory owners citing examples of states where extra payment has not been announced. Even when there was no Covid-19 induced Crisis, those activists who work among workers very well know, many workers were being not paid proper overtime wages according to the rules. Such high handedness being inflicted upon workers is quite common among bourgeoisie who often ‘purchase’ support of the administration and the bureaucracy. Workers are left high and dry, even though rules and acts exist in the books. Such coercion will increase manifold now.     

The facts that indicate these reforms will be permanent can be very well verified by the statements of the whole battery of bureaucrats from former labor welfare commissioner G. P. Bhatia to the NITI Aayog’s CEO Amitabh Kant who have not only defended the relaxation in working hours without overtime provisions but have also said that “the reformist zeal to push through structural reforms will alone lead to sustainable growth” (Amitabh Kant’s tweet on the last Friday, 8th May, 2020). The industrial magnates have welcomed it saying that ‘UP & MP are emerging as big reformers” (The Telegraph, 11th May).

So, the statements are quite indicative of the reforms being permanent. The leaders of several opposition parties, including the CPI and the CPM, have ‘justly’ (given their history of surrender at such times) limited themselves to submitting a memorandum in protest to the President Ram Nath Kovind. The memorandum is quite timid in its words. It keeps to their old tradition of begging before the bourgeoisie. At most it says, ‘Using the pretext of battling the Covid-19 pandemic, drastic changes are being made to the existing labor laws of the country which further jeopardize the lives and well-being of the working people.’ In line and tune with this, the mainstream left trade unions have been content with just a low-profile ritualistic rally in one of these states, Madhya Pradesh, showing just a lip-service to the cause of workers. Don’t think it is because of the scaring Corona times. Not at all. They have a history of bleating while begging with folded hands before the bourgeoisie and their government when they together were on a snatching spree targeting all the victories and razing all the fortresses of the working class to the ground. The working class must have no faith in them and instead build alternative struggling centers. And they are bound to grow.    

Originally published in Scientific Socialism: PRC’s Theoretical & Political Weekly Commentary on Current Issues (Issue 2 / 7-14 May ’20)

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