They are poor, slum-dwellers, and the lone breadwinners in their families, the majority of them migrants from North Indian states. The desperation to put food on the table has forced them to take on the risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus. They start the day on a high note and as the day goes by, their enthusiasm dips because of the scorching heat; they are exhausted by the day’s end. They leave in despair, but return with a fresh dose of energy and a purpose the next day.
These workers of a “Wear Well” garment factory in Noida lost their jobs as factories laid off and furloughed workers after a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Now, they demand their May and April salaries and their jobs back. But they don’t know how long it will take them to force the company management to talk to them. To add to their woes, the state government passed an ordinance to suspend most of the labor laws in the state to boost investment.
To compensate for the economic losses incurred during the coronavirus pandemic, several states in India have suspended the labor laws by issuing ordinances. The laws related to safety conditions, recognition of trade unions, and legal working hours have come to halt. The suspension of laws that govern the relation between employers and employees will last for 1,000 days (3 years).
Ram Chandra, a protester who lives in a slum in Bhangel, is anxious about how he will feed his family during the COVID-19 lockdown. He lives with his wife and two children in a small shanty house. Six years ago, he has migrated from the small village Ganga Nagar in Rajasthan and started working as a tailor at the garment company Wear Well.
Now the company has abandoned him along with tens of his colleagues.
“Since the lockdown, nobody’s been paid and we haven’t bought rations,” said Chandra.
“My company has suddenly disowned me and their workers. Security guards do not allow us to go inside the gate. They tell us that we don’t recognize you and start yelling at us when we approach them,” he said.
Ram is also worried about the changes that Uttar Pradesh’s government has brought in the labor laws. He said that company has hired new employees on the basis of new ordinance law passed by the government and fired their old employees because they know they cannot ask them to work for 12 hours.
Moreover, several states including Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have increased the working time to 72 hours in a week. The first state to implement this was India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which is governed by a Hindu nationalist monk, Yogi Adityanath. On May 6, the state government, noting the severe impact on economic activity since the imposition of a lockdown on March 25, decided to “exempt all companies, factories and businesses from the application of labour law,” except with regard to child labor.
The provisions of the new regulations include increasing working hours from 8 to 12 hours a day. The regulations also prohibit forming any association or unions. Although wages have been fixed in proportion to the working hours, experts say that the move will affect the minimum wages of the workers and the minimum selling price of the farmers.
The move is expected to affect a large section of the population directly or indirectly employed in manufacturing and other primary sectors.
“We didn’t get any salary for the last two months. The landowner is asking for the rent and ration guy will stop giving us rations. How will we feed ourselves and families. We want answer from them,” says Rekha Devi who works in a manufacturing unit in Dadri.
“It is impossible for us to work under new labor laws and that too for 12 hours. When company gets a worker who is ready to work overtime and he is banned to speak against anything then they would prefer to get rid of old workers,” she adds.
However, manufacturers and small industrialists are admiring the move, saying that it will benefit them to cope up with the dip in demand and declining market consumption.
“Government is trying to be pro-industry. They are trying to remove labor laws and tone them down for us. Industry needs these reforms very urgently” says Aseem Jaggia, an entrepreneur in Noida who manufactures electrical devices.
However, these new labor laws violate the international labor guidelines, but for industrialists like Aseem these international labor laws are not feasible in the current environment.
“These international labor laws are eyewash for India and they don’t work here. Practical India is how much work you can work do and you will get that much of money,” adds Jaggia.
Labor experts in India have been shocked by the new laws and are are critical of the move saying that the amendment will adversely affect the lives of workers.
“These new labor laws puts us back into 19th century or pre-industrial revolution Britain, where only the employer and the government will decide how to deal with workers. This is clearly a condition which is akin to slavery and bondage,” says Ravi Srivastava, director for employment studies at Institute of Human Development in Delhi.
The ordinance will be implemented only after it receives the president’s assent. The Uttar Pradesh Worker Front has filed a petition on the issue to relax certain regulations of the amendment. State farmer and labor unions have also organized protest against the proposed amendment.
Calling the changes in labor laws made by states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh “draconian,” 10 central trade unions on Friday held protests across the country to oppose suspension and tweaking of labor laws by states. Hunger strikes, demonstrations and processions were observed by workers at several places to press for withdrawal of “draconian changes” in labor laws, a joint statement by the trade unions said.
In New Delhi, the national leadership of the central trade unions participated in the hunger strike at Gandhi Samadhi, Rajghat. Some of the protesting leaders were arrested and taken to Rajendra Nagar police station.
“This new labor reform is leading to slavery. The government has given free hand to industrialists. It is using the pandemic to pass such amendments,” says Mukut Singh, member of All India Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ union in the state.
The government said that the labor reforms will give a boost to entrepreneurs and industrialists to revive the economy. The government says that the focus of these reforms is to ensure that the Micro, small and medium enterprises will benefit from these reforms. However, an official at the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, which looks after the growth and development of these sectors, refused to comment if the reform will boost the sector. The official added that they are yet to receive any information from the Uttar Pradesh government on the labor reforms.
Ram leaves from his place every morning to work in the company but they don’t allow him inside the gate. He sits on the protest for the whole day and goes back home with no money.
“We don’t fear coronavirus, but we fear that we might die of hunger. We can save ourselves from coronavirus but we can’t save ourselves from hunger,” adds Ram with a concerned look.
Adil Bhat is a journalist based in New Delhi and was a former correspondent with Reuters News.
Majid Alam is freelance journalist based in Delhi. He also contributed for this report from Uttar Pradesh.