6 States in India Change their Labour Laws at Significant Cost to Workers and their Rights

16th June 2020

Labour laws are considered to be one of the most important tools in protecting the workforce from exploitation, ensuring anything from the maximum number of working hours to health and safety at work. Why, then, are some states in India throwing out the rulebooks?

Supposedly this is in response to assisting the economy in recovering from the Covid-19 crisis, while some have suggested that it may be an attempt to steal back some of the cheap labour market from China. Regardless of the reason, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab are all making changes that contravene the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) conventions. The government in Uttar Pradesh is aiming for a three-year exemption from current labour laws, including those that relate to settling industrial disputes, occupational safety, and health and working conditions. Trades unions, contract workers and migrant labourers are also in their firing line. In many of the affected states working shifts will be increased from 8 hours to 12 hours, and the working week increased from 48 hours to 72 hours a week. Furthermore, no inspections will be carried out if the firm has less than 50 workers.

During the current crisis, labour net-importing states have seen a shortage of workers, which has driven up wages. Consequently, some states have attempted to restrict migrant labour from returning home – the Gujarat government is even considering allowing factories to start disciplinary proceedings against workers who have returned to their home state, despite this being against Article 23 of the Constitution, which provides a ‘right against exploitation’.

After spending the early years of the 21st century attempting to amend and modernise labour laws, India has taken a massive step backwards in protecting the rights of workers. Criticism has been levelled at the country not only by a number of trades unions who have been organising protests, but internationally as well. DSN-UK fully endorses the statement issued by the Ethical Trading Initiative calling on its members to take steps to increase dialogue, and it is hoped that the British government will voice its concerns to India and ensure that workers’ rights remain inviolable.