Revamp of labour conference may give boost to reforms in key laws

The revival of the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) by the next government may act as a key catalyst to push through the agenda of labour law reforms in the country.

After assuming power in 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had planned major reforms in the labour laws in form of codes. It had planned four codes each for industrial relations, wages, social security and welfare, and occupational safety, health and working conditions.

However, none of the proposed code Bills could be converted into a law, as the government struggled to bring trade unions and industry representatives on board in the five years of its tenure.

The plan was to amalgamate over 40 central labour laws into these codes. Of these, only one code on wages was tabled in Lok Sabha but it was referred to the standing committee and the bill lapsed after the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.

The code on industrial relations saw multiple rounds of consultations between industry, trade unions and the government but it could not reach the stage of the Union Cabinet approval. The code on social security and welfare was re-drafted multiple times since it was first put up for public consultation in early 2017 and a majority of trade unions boycotted the consultation meeting on the code of occupational safety health and working conditions.

The NDA government’s five-year tenure was first such instance in the country’s recent history when one only session of the ILC, also referred to as the Labour Parliament of the country, took place in 2015. The session was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who gave a speech addressing the labour unions and industry bodies.

The concept of ILC as a tripartite body was envisaged by B R Ambedkar, the architect of Indian constitution. He had thought of it as a forum where discussions on labour legislation and welfare would take place between state governments, the Centre, trade unions and industry representatives.

Ambedkar had chaired four annual sessions of the ILC, which was then known as the Plenary Labour Conference, between 1942 and 1945. During the first session of the ILC in 1942, Ambedkar said the industrial problems and problems of labour welfare could not be solved “unless the three parties — government, employers and employees — developed a sense of responsibility towards one another, showed more respect for the views of one another and agreed to work in a spirit of give and take and that there was not much chance of such a sense of mutual respect and responsibility growing up so long as one was engaged in talking at the other.”

During the UPA’s five-year tenure, which started in 2004, three ILC sessions took place — twice inaugurated by then PM Manmohan Singh and once by then FM Pranab Mukherjee. Three sessions took place during the second tenure of the UPA beginning 2009 and were inaugurated by Singh.

Modi had planned to inaugurate the ILC in February 2018 after a gap of three years but the government cancelled it to avoid an embarrassment, as central trade unions had threatened a boycott of the event.

“The five years (of the NDA government) saw a decay of all the tripartite bodies and system, including the ILC. We have struggled during the regime of previous governments too but during the NDA government’s tenure, we felt workers were not considered as a stakeholder,” Left-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions Vice-President AK Padmanabhan said. He, however, said that many recommendations of the ILC sessions were not implemented by any of the governments in the past many years.

The longest period when no ILC sessions were held was between 1972 and 1981 during which the first countrywide strike of railway workers took place in 1974 which was followed by a nationwide Emergency declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.

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