Labour laws have remained a holy cow with no political party ready to amend them for fear of antagonising its labour union. It is against this backdrop that the Centre’s decision to amend the 66-year-old Factories Act should be seen. That the laws have become anachronistic and they serve little purpose other than helping the labour inspectors make money is obvious. It neither helps the labourers get a fair deal nor increases job opportunities. Yet, the irony is that most political parties consider them sacrosanct. The contract system is a reality in factories and other establishments but those in this category are not given the benefits that permanent workers get.
Labour laws are in the concurrent list, which enables the states to pass their own laws. Recently, Rajasthan took the initiative of amending laws like the Industrial Disputes, the Factories and the Contract Labour Acts. The changes give the employers greater flexibility in making lay-offs, hiring contract workers and regulating working hours in their establishments. They are not anti-labour per se as some seem to believe. Employment generation is a must without which no employee welfare is possible. If the labour laws were strictly applied to the IT sector during its infancy when many firms had a humble beginning, the present-day IT giants would not have arisen.
While amending the labour laws, the Centre should leave enough scope for states to amend them to suit the local conditions. A labour law, which is equally applicable to, say, West Bengal and Kerala will be neither employment nor worker-friendly. Labour welfare and economic growth should complement each other. In fact, the greatest asset of an industry is the happiness of its workers. Alas, 90 per cent of the workers are in the unorganised and informal sectors, deprived of benefits like leave, bonus, provident fund, medical care and pension. They, too, have a claim to these benefits. Contract employees who do as much work as regular employees need to be paid wages, commensurate with their work.