PM Modi’s economic package and dilution of labour laws: Fikr Modi to bahut hai, magar Reforms ke saath!

PM Modi not only failed to address the immediate concerns of the stranded migrant workers, he also seemed to endorse the dilution of labour laws by some BJP ruled states with his silence

PM Modi’s economic package and dilution of labour laws: Fikr Modi to bahut hai, magar Reforms ke saath!

Faraz Ahmad

The other day 16 workers of a steel manufacturing firm situated in Jalna’s Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) complex were mowed down by a goods train on the rail track near Aurangabad because the poor workers, carrying just rotis and salt, were so exhausted after trudging 36 kilometers on foot in their attempt to go back home in Madhya Pradesh that they fell asleep on the tracks and failed to hear the horn and other sound of the approaching train at night.

The Railways responded to the report by declaring that they were trespassing on rail tracks and therefore instead of any compensation due to their next of kin, those left alive among them were liable to be prosecuted and fined.

Yesterday 19 people were travelling in a mini tempo truck to their village near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh from Bhiwandi. The driver had his wife and two little children sitting beside him in front while the 19 fellow workers were packed in that little vehicle like sardines. But they had no resources left to sustain themselves back in their workplace and therefore had no choice but to return home.

Some distance further on the Mumbai Nashik highway the tempo was hit by a white Maruti Swift car. It overturned and the driver, who a TV news channel reporter had spoken to in the morning, died on the spot, leaving behind this crushed tempo, wife, two little children and 19 fellow passengers, stranded forlorn and helpless in some unknown place.

Rajan Yadav a young auto rickshaw driver from Mumbai set out on his auto rickshaw with his wife, two children and a nephew to his hometown near Lucknow, UP with the last few pennies in his pocket. After plying auto rickshaws on hire for several years he had saved some money and obtained loan to purchase a new auto rickshaw just six months back. But with lockdown and autos off road, he was left with no option but to head home. Wait for getting a train ticket prolonged each day for last 12 days, even after getting medically examined and testing corona negative and the last few rupees also vanished while the inability to pay rent for his tenement added to his misery, forcing him to set out on his auto for Lucknow. 200 kilometers from Lucknow in Khaga a truck hit his auto from behind, killing his wife and daughter on the spot and crushing his auto beyond recognition.

This is the level of desperation of the poor worker today who has no money, no food, no roof over his head and is heading back to the refuge of his home, however decrepit it might be. The Government claims to have started Shramik Express trains, of course by charging Rs 50 over the normal fare, which most of them do not have.

So they can only walk or hitch hike back or pedal all the way, or seek whatever form of transport they can afford to their homes, thousands of kilometres away somewhere in Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Assam or Jharkhand. By now so many of them have fallen to death out of fatigue and hunger because even walking barefoot or with broken slippers to Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh under the blazing sun is torturous.

But they are doing it because first, the number of trains are inadequate to transport crores of workers away from their homes stranded in all four corners of the country. If the Government cared for them, if the huge sums collected in PMCARES fund had been spent graciously on these people who had first right to this fund, would these workers have been so desperate?

It will take another two months or more for transporting back all the workers waiting in queues to return home. And before they succeed in trudging back home, for all you know a fresh lockdown may be imposed considering the fact that the number of cases have been rising exponentially since the announcement of even this partial relaxation. Many states like Bihar are pressing the Centre for continuing this indefinitely to prevent the sudden flood of workers returning home.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced last night a Rs 20 lakh crore package, without of course spelling out details. He said in his address to the nation, “In the last few days we have seen the suffering of our workers, migrant labour, street vendors and daily wagers and farmers. This package will be aimed at them. It will be aimed at the honest tax payer, at our industry that makes its capital work.” But how would this announcement help the poor man walking back home on rail tracks thousands of kilometres away?

Will he survive from hunger and fatigue that long. Should he break his tiring journey and wait for the package to arrive at some distant date if at all? How will it help the auto rickshaw drivers who lost their lives and their spouses and children? If the Prime Minister was so concerned, couldn’t he announce immediate manifold increase in Shramik Express free of charge, if he were really concerned about the migrant workers, the labour class and street vendor, heading back home with no work in the big cities?

He claims be a chaiwala, risen from a poor family of tea sellers. His indifference to the plight of the poor after more than 50 days of isolation and deprivation does not betray any signs of empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

In all other countries the governments are looking after their people’s basic needs and spending Government funds to ensure at least food and shelter for those whose employment is affected by the lockdown. Here we have our granaries overflowing but our Food and Civil Supplies minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who fashioned himself once upon a time as the messiah of Dalits and the poor, has remained unmoved.

But what the workers are facing today may pale into insignificance if we view what is in store for them in the coming days—the complete trashing of labour laws which our working class earned through hard struggle over decades. The BJP ruled states led by UP, MP and Gujarat have already issued Ordinances to abolish significant labour laws. The Prime Minister spoke of reforms in the offing. A few BJP ruled states have already started implementing some of these reforms ostensibly to attract foreign investors to relocate from China to their respective states.

What are these: Factories Act, 1948 which makes the employing industry to ensure safety of the workmen in the workplace and promote health and welfare of workers has been abolished in UP, MP and Gujarat and Karnataka is on the way to implementing these too. Now if an accident takes place like the one that took place in the LG unit in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh and workers die or get injured the employer shall in way be liable to any action or even pay compensation to such a worker.

The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970: This law was enacted by the workers through a long struggle of the trade unions to put some obligations on the employer of unorganised worker. It addresses mainly the contractors of labour and their main employer, making it obligatory upon them first to register the labour employed by them and then to pay minimum wages, fixed by the Labour Commissioner of the district to these workers, provide basic facilities like toilets, rest rooms and canteens if 100 or more workers are employed at a site. This was enacted keeping in mind large construction sites where the main company sub contracted work of employing temporary labour to a contractor or a set of contractors. Even earlier it was mostly on paper. Now the contractor will be free not to pay even minimum wages. As for other facilities these have been largely non existent even earlier, who will raise these now?

The Shops and Establishment Act, entitles a worker even if he is working in a shop or small establishment, like say a publishing establishment, a law firm or a chartered accountant’s office to regulated working hours; payment of wages; weekly offs, leave and holiday facilities, specified terms of work. This also goes now.

Also goes with these reforms the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and Payment of Wages Act, 1936 which obliges the employer to pay the minimum wages for the specified working hours to its workmen as decided by the local district administration from time to time. With the dilution of this law the employer is free to pay whatever he may decide with no legal restriction on him. Additionally these governments have also amended the maximum working hours from the existing eight beyond which the worker is entitled to overtime wages, at double the rate, to now 12 hours and no extra time wages.

Imagine the penury stricken starving worker approaching an employer for work and is forced to work for 12 hours at a stretch. Isn’t it the height of cruelty to our working class? But some BJP governments have already enforced it and the Prime Minister in his speech seems to have gladly endorsed it. Hail Modi and the BJP!

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