The Union labour ministry will ask states not to change labour laws in ways that could violate India’s commitments to international covenants, and plans to hold a meeting of all state labour ministers, an official said, requesting anonymity.
The ministry is examining a set of radical changes made by Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat to their labour laws, including moves to freeze them altogether.
Ten central trade unions wrote to the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO), stating that changes in labour laws by these states violate workers’ rights and ILO convention No 144, to which India is a signatory. ILO convention 144 enjoins signatories to hold tripartite consultations among government, employers and workers.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states had passed ordinances to give effect to various changes, some of which effectively suspend labour laws. None of the ordinances has received approval from President Ram Nath Kovid, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
Madhya Pradesh sent its ordinance for the president’s approval on May 18. The UP government sent its ordinance soon after the state’s governor Anandiben Patel approved it on May 14. Gujarat too sent its own soon after the state’s governor Acharya Devvrat approved it.
Under the Constitution, labour falls under the concurrent list, which means the Union government and states have joint jurisdiction. Therefore, changes by state need to be ratified by at the federal level.
“Freezing of labour laws can be done for three months, not three years. The main concern is violation of accepted universal norms. Industrial dispute resolution mechanisms, compensation etc are important considerations. Can you simply suspend all labour laws,” the official cited above said.
Uttar Pradesh suspended key labour laws for three years on May 6 through an ordinance. Madhya Pradesh announced on May 7 it was taking a similar course to put all labour laws on hold, barring some provisions of the Factories Act, 1948, for the next 1,000 days.
This changes signalled the start of an experiment to remove rigidities in the country’s labour markets and stringent rules for hiring and firing, as global companies start shifting their supply chains away from China and reduce their dependencies on factories there. Five other states, including Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Assam and Odisha, have increased working hours to 12 hours a day for three months. Rajasthan too extended work hours but rescinded it, reverting to eight hours a day.
The moves have drawn criticism from labour experts, who say suspending the laws not just eased regulation but infringed on workers’ rights. The labour ministry is examining whether the changes impact conventions of the ILO.
“The moves to simply suspend labour laws effectively brings the North American hire-and-fire model to the Indian hinterland economy. However, they will also lead to a basic violation of universal workers’ rights,” said economist KR Shyam Sundar of the Xavier Labour Relations Institute, Jamshedpur.
The ILO has said it was deeply anguished by the moves to free labour laws in the states and issued an appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 25. ““Please allow me to assure you that the ILO director general has immediately intervened, expressing his deep concern at these recent events and appealing to the prime minister to send a clear message to central and state governments to uphold the country’s international commitments and encourage engagement in effective social dialogue,” said an ILO letter addressed to the trade unions.