Independence Day: Working class on verge of economic slavery, saving them would be real celebration of freedom

For many years the job scenario had been dismal. Then the pandemic and lockdown struck like a bolt. The govt now is bent on implementing new labour codes. Condition is ripe for economic slavery

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Dr Gyan Pathak

Independence Day is something special this year, not only because we are celebrating the 75th Independence Day, or beginning a yearlong celebration during the 75th year of Independence, but also because it reminds us about the threat of modern day slavery of the working class and their struggle to protect their rights to decent work and social security.

Working class in India have always had issues with their employers ranging from bondage labour to modern day slavery, such as we have been witnessing in the form of child labour or in the form of underpaid or forced labour with only a little payment.

Majority of the working class are not even covered by any social security measures. Millions of workers in the informal sector are not even recognized as labour, which prevents them access to any social security scheme for the working class. The conditions of economic slavery have further exacerbated during the last one and half years of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent containment measures. Joblessness and uncertainty in getting job has not only made survival more difficult but also in absence of any means of survival, people have become more vulnerable to exploitation and economic slavery.

The Independence Day reminds us about this prevailing general condition for working class in India. We have some additional problems too. While the country was reeling under COVID-19 crisis last year, the Modi Government was busy in pushing for so called labour reforms. Lockdown orders were in place and barring the essential services all the business and industrial establishments were shut down.

Working class was out of job and all their means of survival had dried up. Whatever little they had as savings were consumed by within the first few months of lockdown. They were actually in need of urgent help from the Modi government in absence of any social security scheme for them but nobody cared. The Centre had asked the employers to help the workers, but it had no effect.

Modi government had no plan to protect the workers, especially the migrant workers. The Centre even did not support the employers to enable them to retain their workers who were suffering for no faults of theirs.

Unlocking of the economy started in a phased manner from June 1, 2020, but working class continued to suffer because economy could not revive. The first wave ended in mid-September 2020. Even before fully opening up of the economy, the second wave struck in the beginning of February 2021, which subsided by mid-May 2021. Revival of economy is still uncertain with the threat of the third wave of the pandemic looming large.

Working class have been suffering the most in such conditions, but the Centre has enacted four labour codes in the meantime, a sword hanging on the head of the working class at a time when they are struggling for their survival, for making their both ends meet. The central trade unions have labelled them as ‘anti-labour’ and ‘pro-corporate’ while the Centre has claimed it to be ‘pro-development’.

The codes are yet to be implemented, and it is most likely that these would be implemented during the 75th year of Independence. The Centre could not implement them because the states could not frame rules due to their unavoidable involvement in handling the COVID-19 crisis, and without notification of the rules, the Centre cannot implement them. Moreover, the business and industries, in whose favour the labour codes are enacted, are not yet ready to implement these codes, first because they themselves are in great crisis, and secondly, they find themselves unable to make necessary arrangement for implementing these codes. The Centre is bent upon implementing the codes and the Central Trade Unions on opposing them, which is indicative of the beginning of a new era of strained and bitter industrial relations in the country and labour unrest.

We have a long history of labour movement in India, and after a great struggle, the working class achieved a little, the benefit of which is by and large limited to organized workers, while the unorganised workers remained in very bad shape out of the realm of social security. It was not certainly the thing for which Indians became independent. The rights of the organized workers have been systematically curtailed by illegal or legal means for a long time. Even ‘right to unite’ and ‘right to strike’ are being truncated by design or by trick.

For several years, conditions of employment have been deteriorating, and thereby decent work opportunities are vanishing fast. In the organized sector, people are increasingly hired on contract, or the works are being outsourced to prevent working class from benefits from the social security schemes. Formality is reducing and millions of workers are even working without any written appointment letter or contract. Service conditions are worsening even in formal sector of the economy. The conditions in the informal sector are also deteriorating.

The COVID-19 crisis has exasperated the already existing predicaments of the working class. The world of work has changed in which people having lower level of education and skill are threatened to be out of work.

Digitalisation and automation are becoming favourites. Women workers are the worst hit, which has threatened gender justice and women empowerment. Conditions are ripe for all sorts of exploitation of the children, women, and men of the working class. We need to prevent all forms of modern day slavery in the country, for which the 75th Independence Day should serve as reminder. All of us must do something to prevent our working class from falling prey to some greater misfortune. We must restore respect for work and working people and be attentive towards their well-being.

The Centre must change the rules of the new labour codes to make them equitable, without malice and without favour for anyone, either the worker or employer. It would be the real independence, mere celebrations are not sufficient.

(IPA Service)

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