Read Editorial with D2G – Ep 443

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Contempt for labour: On dilution of labour laws

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Meanings are given in BOLD

At a time when everyone is awaiting an early end to the health and economic crisis caused by the global pandemic, the interests of labourers and workers are once again set to be sacrificed. The revival ( an improvement in the condition, strength, or fortunes of someone or something)  of business and economic activity after weeks of forced closure is indeed a key objective to be achieved. However, it is amoral ( lacking a moral sense; unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something) and perverse on the part of some States to address this need by granting ( agree to give or allow (something requested) to)  sweeping ( wide ; extension ) exemptions ( the action of freeing or state of being free from an obligation or liability imposed on others)  from legal provisions aimed at protecting labourers and employees in factories, industries and other establishments.

Madhya Pradesh has embarked ( begin ) on a plan to give a boost to business and industry by allowing units to be operated without many of the requirements of the Factories Act — working hours may extend to 12 hours, instead of eight, and weekly duty up to 72 hours. Going by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s remarks, it appears the State has used Section 5 of the Act, which permits exemption from its provisions for three months, in the hope that the Centre would approve such suspension for at least a thousand days. However, this exemption can be given only during a ‘public emergency’, defined in a limited way as a threat to security due to war or external aggression ( feelings of anger or antipathy resulting in hostile or violent behaviour; readiness to attack or confront).

Uttar Pradesh has approved an ordinance ( an authoritative order) suspending ( temporarily prevent from continuing or being in force or effect ) for three years all labour laws, save a few ones relating to the abolition of child and bonded labour, women employees, construction workers and payment of wages, besides compensation to workmen for accidents while on duty. Reports suggest that several States are following their example in the name of boosting economic activity.

Changes in the manner in which labour laws operate in a State may require the Centre’s assent ( the expression of approval or agreement). One hopes the Centre, which is pursuing a labour reform agenda through consolidated ( to bring together ) codes for wages, industrial relations and occupational safety, health and working conditions, would not readily agree to wholesale exemptions from legal safeguards and protections the law now affords to workers.

The most egregious ( outstandingly bad; shocking) aspect of the country’s response to the pandemic was its inability to protect the most vulnerable ( endangered : unsafe ) sections and its vast underclass of labourers from its impact. The emphasis in the initial phase was on dealing with the health crisis, even when the consequence was the creation of an economic crisis.

While the country watches with horror the continuance of the collective misery ( a state or feeling of great physical or mental distress or discomfort)  of migrant workers well into the third spell of the national lockdown, the attitude of the ruling class towards labour remains one of utter apathy ( lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern), bordering on contempt. Why else would a government relieve factories of even elementary duties such as providing drinking water, first aid boxes and protective equipment? Or suspend requirements such as cleanliness, ventilation, lighting, canteens, restrooms and crèches ( a nursery where babies and young children are cared for during the working day)?

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