ILO reaches out to PM Modi over labour law changes in various states

Some states announced relaxing or doing away with major labour laws in order to attract investment.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has taken up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the concerns related to the proposed labour law amendments by the state governments in India.

The ILO has acted upon a complaint by ten central trade unions earlier this month, objecting to the ordinances proposed to temporarily scrap the labour laws in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, along with executive orders issued by at least 10 states to increase the daily working limit to 12 hours from 8 hours, along with other labour law changes.

“Please allow me to assure you that the ILO Director-General (Guy Ryder) has immediately intervened, expressing his deep concern at these recent events and appealing to the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) to send a clear message to Central and State governments to uphold the country’s international commitments and encourage engagement in effective social dialogue,” Karen Curtis, ILO’s Chief of Freedom of Association Branch under the International Labour Standards Department, said in a letter to trade unions on May 22.

The letter added that the ILO will keep the central trade unions informed about “any observations or comments that may be made by the Indian authorities on the matters that you have raised.”

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The ILO acknowledged the complaint raised by the unions “in light of measures being taken by a number of State governments to undermine labour legislation and international labour standards.”

The complaint to the ILO was raised on May 14 by the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress, left-affiliated unions such as All India Trade Union Congress, Hind Mazdoor Sangh, Centre of Indian Tade Unions, All India United Trade Union Centre, among others. The unions had said that the governments had not consulted the unions before proposing or making labour law changes, as is required under the ILO's conventions. 

Earlier this month, the ILO, responding to the sweeping changes in labour laws proposed by state governments, had asked the authorities to ensure that all such relaxations adhere to global standards and are effected after proper consultation.

“Certain states in India are moving towards relaxing labour laws with a view to revitalise the economy from the impact of Covid-19. Such amendments should emanate from tripartite consultation involving the government, the workers’ and the employers’ organisations and be compliant with the international labour standards, including the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (FPRW),” the ILO said in statement released on Wednesday, in response to a set of questions sent by Business Standard.
Last week, a government official had said that the Union labour and employment ministry will object to the proposed changes of the States to scrap labour laws, which is pending for the approval of the Centre in the form of an Ordinance.

Official think-tank Niti Aayog’s Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar confirmed this and told Press Trust of India in an interview on Sunday that reforms do not mean complete abolition of labour laws. "I have just noticed that the Union Ministry of Labour is firming up its stance to tell the states that they cannot abolish labour laws because India is a signatory to the ILO," Kumar said.

Some states announced relaxing or doing away with major labour laws in order to attract investment. The Uttar Pradesh government has proposed an Ordinance exempting firms from almost all labour laws for the next three years. The Gujarat government has announced that it will follow in UP’s footsteps and allow new companies to set up shops over the next 1,200 days to be exempt from major labour laws. Provisions related to minimum wages, women and children, and timely payment of wages have been kept intact.

The Madhya Pradesh government has notified changes in labour laws to do away with the need to avail multiple licences for hiring contract workers and setting up factories. It has exempted firms from various welfare provisions under the Factories Act, 1948, along with replacing inspections with third-party certification and giving exemptions from industrial relations laws.

India is one of the founding members of the ILO, which came into existence in 1919. The Indian Parliament has ratified 47 conventions of the ILO, some of which relate to working hours, labour inspections, equal remuneration, and compensation in case of injuries, among others.

At least 10 states in India have increased the working hours in India from 8 to 12 hours. These are Maharasthra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, MP, Uttarakhand, Assam, Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh.

Some of the orders have been challenged in the local courts. In fact, recently, the Uttar Pradesh government withdrew an order increasing the daily working hour limit in manufacturing units from 8 to 12 hours.  It was in response to a notice issued by the Allahabad High Court on public interest litigation challenging the legality of the order.

India is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s convention of 1919 on working hours. Though all countries which signed it had to reduce working hours to 48 hours a week, India was given an exemption to keep it at 60 hours.
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