India is a signatory of ILO convention 144, which calls for tripartite consultations among government, employers and workers. (Photo | Anil Shakya, EPS)
India is a signatory of ILO convention 144, which calls for tripartite consultations among government, employers and workers. (Photo | Anil Shakya, EPS)

ILO’s concerns on labour laws should be heeded

The Union government should give serious thought to some knee-jerk changes in labour laws mooted by a few states.

The Union government should give serious thought to some knee-jerk changes in labour laws mooted by a few states. The Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO) has expressed ‘deep concern’ at the attempt to roll back long-standing labour laws, and has appealed to PM Narendra Modi to intervene and remind the states about India’s international commitments.

India is a signatory of ILO convention 144, which calls for tripartite consultations among government, employers and workers. The ILO’s rap on the knuckles follows a protest note penned to the central labour watchdog by as many as 10 Indian central trade unions. The note points out that states like MP, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are ‘ceasing the application’ of the Trade Union Act, 1926, and the Industrial Disputes Act that provide scope for collective bargaining.

Thankfully, there are indications that some rethinking is happening. Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar, in a recent interview, said there was “no question of removing labour laws”. Addressing ILO’s concern, Gangwar confirmed India was a signatory to the ILO convention and that it would do nothing that would give reason to the world labour body to complain. Simultaneously, both UP and Rajasthan, which had extended the working day to 12 hours from the universally recognised eight-hour working day, have both realised the folly and rolled back the burdensome changes.

Suspending labour laws under the cover of the coronavirus crisis, when the focus is on health issues, is not a very ethical thing to do. Though it is true that India’s labour laws need streamlining, and the plethora of legislations should be simplified, basic rights enshrined in many of these laws cannot be wiped off with the stroke of a pen. Some states like MP have made a case that suspension of labour laws will be an attractive magnet for foreign companies wanting to relocate to India after exiting China. However, constitutionally guaranteed rights, like the freedom of association, cannot be tampered with. In fact, foreign investors prefer consistency in regulatory regimes and tend to shy away on seeing back-and-forth changes like this.

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