UP's labour pains

Labour has become the source of political manoeuvring in Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for a significant share of migrant workers in other states. Having been, together with other states, culpably dilatory in responding to the plight of migrants, summarily ejected from their homes and workplaces after the national lockdown, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has made a series of contradictory moves that blights the cause of labour in his state. His latest announcement that states seeking to employ migrant workers from UP will need to take the state government’s permission is flawed as it is against the fundamental right that allows citizens to move freely throughout the country.

Mr Adityanath also decided that migrating labour must be given social security and insurance and expressed his concern for the dignity of workers in workplaces in other states. In theory, these sound impressive and worthy of emulation. But when set against the Ordinance earlier this month temporarily abolishing all but four labour laws for units in the state, many of them pertaining to welfare, bargaining rights, and industrial disputes, this announcement points to fundamental inconsistencies. If his own state chooses to override basic welfare laws, it is doubtful whether he will have the credibility, let alone the legal ability, to force other states to follow these laws for workers from UP. It may not have occurred to the chief minister but such artificial asymmetries in treating labour could create a shortage within UP, which will scarcely enhance his strategy for attracting any global investment, which may be redirected from China.

It is also unclear whether state intervention is likely to change things for migrant workers. In a job-scarce market that is likely to stay this way for some years such policies also raise the spectre of rentiering. When added to the well-established exploitative practices of politically powerful labour contractors, the interests of labour are likely to become a major casualty. For instance, how will the state ensure that contractors do not resort to the old ruse of under-stating numbers so that employers avoid paying migrant workers benefits and overtime, or subject to legal work hours? The state’s ability to bear the financial burden of paying benefits for outward-bound workers is also an open question in a situation of slowing economic growth and, therefore, tax revenue. Mr Adityanath’s decision to conduct skill mapping is a good idea so that jobs can be matched with skills. The problem is in a situation of job shortages, workers need flexibility. A skilled worker may want to do a less skilled job just to make ends meet. The question is whether this will be permitted.

Together with other states that have passed Ordinances weakening labour laws, Mr Adityanath finds himself up against the powerful trade unions, which appealed to the International Labour Organization (ILO) against the dilution of international commitments, to which India is a founding signatory. The ILO has, in turn, written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking his intervention with states in upholding these codes. It is important that the government strikes the right balance and protects the interests of all stakeholders. India must avoid labour market tensions at this stage.

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