Decoding Labour Ministers’ Conference

The Government of India organised a Labour Ministers’ conference at Tirupati on 25–26 August 2022 without any representatives of any central trade unions. The conference was virtually inaugurated by the Prime Minister Modi.

The conference was based on four themes : 1. Integrating e-shram portal with others so as to make it a single portal for any social security scheme by the union and state governments. 2. Swasthya se Samriddhi for improving medical care and services through ESI hospitals run by State Governments and integration with PMJAY (Prime Minister Jan Arogya Yojana). 3. On framing rules under Labour Codes and modalities for its implementation. 4. Vision “Shramev Jayate@2047” or Vision 2047.

Scripting Modern Slavery

The Prime Minister Modi said that the labour laws are from the period of slavery under British and creates slave mentality. He cited that as a reason for scrapping existing labour laws and for introducing Labour Codes. But, the fact is that the Labour Codes are meant to create new slavery for the new digital era dominated by the corporate. The proposed Codes blur the employer – employee relationship and is aimed at informalising the labour and the industrial sector to its hilt. The British enacted labour laws not out of any love for workers but to pacify workers’ militant outbursts and for streamlining labour relations so as to maintain industrial harmony to help the business and the industry. Moreover, for enactment of such labour laws the working class in the country has sacrificed their sweat, blood and lives. Only because of countless sacrifices of the working class, the British was forced to enact labour laws to streamline the industrial relations to establish peace in the industry. What the Modi led BJP government is trying to do now is to throw the working class to suffer under the vagaries of the labour market in the period of neo-liberal policies. In the period of Amrit Kaal, Modi is only disempowering workers by scrapping laws that were enacted thro militant workers struggles and by introducing pro-corporate, anti-labour laws in its place. Labour Codes are nothing but scripting modern slavery in the digital era and industry 4.0. Rather, the Prime Minister is lying that the Codes are meant to meet new changes in nature of employment and the changes in the industrial scenario.

Denial of Minimum Wages

Modi is saying that the Codes will ensure minimum wages, job security and health security. On the contrary, by introducing the concept of floor wages, it is being conspired to deny workers the mandatory minimum wages. Minimum wages based on the industry schedules are being given a go by while geography and demography-based floor wages are being replaced in its place. Even the method of calculation of minimum wages is being altered to reduce the wages. It is nothing but a tactic to depress present wages of workers which are actually starvation wages. The floor wages are not even a full compensation to the fall in real wages because of inflation and price rise and it is expected to be much lesser than minimum wages today. Modi is only shedding crocodile tears to protect his corporate masters while denying minimum wages to the working class.

Robbing off Job Security

With the introduction of the concept of FTE (“Fixed Term Employment”), indiscriminate contractualisation and informalisation of the workforce, the worst victim is the job security but Modi is coming up with a Goebbelsian argument of protecting job security. The FTE is nothing but a euphemism for individual work contracts that cruelly robs off the job security that workers hitherto enjoyed. It is true that the government is introducing Codes to informalise the workforce and to blur the distinction between formal and informal workers. It is being blurred by pushing formal and orgnaised workers into a pathetic status of informal and irregular workers and not otherwise.

A Prescription for Women Enslavement

In fact, in the same speech, PM has also indicated strengthening the growing trend of flexi-work places, flexi-working hours and work from home. Flexi-workplaces, flexi-working conditions, etc., are nothing but legalising and institutionalising the corporate demand and policy of “hire and fire”. Conspiratorially, it is being done in the name of empowering women and increasing women participation in the workforce. Advocating work from home for women by the Prime Minister himself is nothing but advocating Manu Smriti, of confining women into four walls, in the modern era. It is a cunning prescription for women enslavement. The Code as well as Modi are proud that they are introducing women to work in all shifts and occupations without any care for their safety and security. Modi is not advocating any sexual harassment cells at work places as suggested by the Supreme Court to ensure the safety of women. These measures will actually mean legalisation of hire and fire and informalisation which will decrease discourage women participation in the workforce.

Health Insecurity

The so-called health security is nothing but offering health insurance schemes to workers which anyway is available for a premium in the insurance market today. The government is not spending for the health expenses of workers and the people, rather the government is only offering insurance schemes for which workers have to pay out of their pockets. The benefits offered through health insurance is directly proportional to the premium to be paid by the poor and downtrodden workers. Modi's claim that he is offering health security to workers is a sham.

International Labour Supply

Modi also said that the country should become a global leader by supplying skilled and quality manpower to the world. For that purpose, the government is signing Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreements with other countries in the world. In fact, most Indians work in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Quwait, etc., but the government has not signed any agreement with those countries till now. The government has not done anything to protect Indian workers abroad. The government has its eyes set on lakhs of crores of workers' money lying with the Employees Provident Fund Orgnaisation (EPFO). It also dreams of making EPFO, a global leader in social security, in other words, in insurance business in 2047.

e-shram and Migrants

Even in India, the union government has not done anything for migrant workers but for e-shram portal to develop a database of migrant workers. The migrant workers walking for thousands of miles and dying on roads during the Lockdown has not yet been erased from the memories of the people. According to various studies, even fifty percent of migrants who lost jobs during Covid are not able to get them back. Most of them are still in their villages and suffering without any job while NREGA allocations are being drastically slashed down.

In such a backdrop, the address by the Prime Minister in the conference of Labour Ministers was only a bundle of lies and does not reflect the truth behind Labour Codes, privatisation, informalisation of workforce, women disempowerment, etc.

The deleberations took place on all four themes in the Labour Ministers conference have actually proved the suspicions being raised of the Modi led BJP government’s escalating onslaughts on the working class in favour of the corporate capital.

e-shram and the Dwindling Social Security

As apprehended by the observers of the labour movement, the conference has revealed its hidden intention of almost closing down all welfare boards and slashing down the benefits under various welfare acts by introducing e-shram in its place or by ‘integrating’ e-shram with all such portals. The conference documents claim that there are abour 52 crores of workers in the country out of which 28 crores, under 400 occupations, have already enrolled under e-shram portal while the target is to reach 38 crores of workers. It also says that all workers enrolled under e-shram portal should be verified physically by the states. In that process, one does not know how many registrations will actually stand the scrutiny. Already, online registrations have become the most restrictive condition that disables workers from enrolling in welfare boards.

Modi was concerned at the 38,000 crores lying unspent with Building workers Welfare Board. There is every possibility that the funds will be swindled very soon. Already, the building workers funds are being diverted, against the Supreme Court’s direction, to purposes other than the welfare of building workers. It says that all welfare boards will be integrated under e-shram so as to make it a single window for all social security for workers. If such a thing happens, it will be one of the most retrogressive steps in the workers struggles for social security in the country. Workers should be made aware of such a retrograde step and should be organised to fight against it.

In the Name of Improving Medical Care and Services

Effectively, the BJP’s vision 2047 is nothing but getting rid of all securities – from job, wage and social security - in workers lives, embedded in the laws today. It is nothing but a prescription for a world of work that is dominated by insecurity and without any concept of rights and in turn, without any organisations like trade unions to represent their rights.

In the name of improving medical care and services to unorganised and informal sector workers, the union government has promised to bring all districts in the country under the purview of ESI coverage. The state government services are being mustered to run ESI hospitals in the state and for allocation of land for hospitals, etc. The government has not yet revealed its intention of private participation in health services including management of ESI hospitals. Already, ESIC is being transformed into only a regulatory mechanism with enlisting empanelled hospitals, etc. Despite increasing number of hospitals, the government appears to be relying more on private participation in health services, including ESI.

As was already mentioned, ESI is not a benefit being offered to workers but it is workers' own contributory scheme which is fundamentally altering the role of the state and the ESIC from being a service provider to an insurance company.

On Framing Rules Under Labour Codes

Only three states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya and West Bengal and union territories such as Daman & Diu, Nagar & Haveli and Lakshadeep have not notified rules necessary to implement the Labour Codes. Enforcing Labour Codes are being delayed precisely for this reason. Now, the government is also contemplating an idea to enact a central legislation to force the states for implementation irrespective of formulating rules, as the subject falls under concurrent list.

In order to justify the Labour Codes, the government has circulated an interim report, prepared by the VV Giri National Labour Institute and the IIPA (Indian Institute of Public Administration), on the Impact Assessment Study of the Labour Reforms undertaken by the states. The report has compared various parameters, convenient to the government to justify its own arguments, in the pre-reform and post-reform period in some states for which the data of 2011-12 (pre-reform) and 2017-18 (post–reform) are compared. The interim report consciously omitted comparing data after 2020 because it cannot substantiate its argument as the factual data are completely against the argument of the government in the post-Covid period. Moreover, the report also has considered studies related to organised and formal sector only which cannot be considered to be representative models to understand Indian realities.

According to the interim report, the economic survey report 2018-19, “concludes that substantive labour and product market reforms undertaken by Rajasthan has resulted in an acceleration of economic growth by providing adequate incentives to the firms.” The report claims that according to the survey, “… there is higher growth rates of number of factories with more than 100 employees, number of workers, workers per factory, output, output per factory, total wages and wages per factory in two post reform years as compared to two pre-reform years in Rajasthan.”

The interim report is citing studies by Fallon and Lucas (1991) and Besley and Burgess (2004), which examined effects of labour regulation on employment outcomes in India. These studies suggest that “states with inflexible labour laws and costly dispute resolution mechanisms experienced lower levels of output and employment growth, than states with flexible labour laws and less costly dispute resolution mechanisms.” The said studies are countered with alternative facts and analysis by Sudipta Dutta Roy (1998) and Bhattacharjee (2006), according to the same report. Still, the interim report relied mainly on studies that favour the government arguments and not the studies that disputed them.

The same report also says that “the growth of employment in the state is not just a function of how rigid or flexible labour laws are. Instead, there are larger issues concerning the size of market, capital formation, credit availability, infrastructure, and government policies, which determine the pace and composition of industrial growth. The absence of the necessary pre-requisites a priori in a state may well be the reason for no significant impact of legislative amendments in the state. Therefore, the role of labour regulations may be more modest than the intensity of the debate suggests.” Still, the government is not willing to look at such arguments while insisting on expediting rapid anti-labour reforms.

The interim report also says that regular salaried workers share has increased in the said pre-and post-reform period marking an improvement in the quality of employment. It also says that increase in regular salaried workforce without access to social security also increased. It essentially meant increase in informal workers in formal sector. The report is trying to justify its arguments saying, “absence of any significant results cannot be interpreted as a negative impact of the amendments.”
In its conclusion, the report says “it needs to be seen that labour reforms are just one element in the overall policy mix determining the economic growth and making jobs decent.” Still, it concludes saying that “the impact of the four major legislative reforms and the four major administrative reforms have had their own significant positive impact on different sectors of the industry and businesses ecosystems in terms of ease of doing business; employment generation, etc.”

Vision 2047

Vision 2047 is about a vision for 25 years @ 100 years of our freedom. It says the purpose is to improve the lives of citizens by lessening the divide between villages and cities, reducing government interference in people’s lives and by welcoming new technology.

Informalisation, Piece Work and Hourly Wages

Even though it talks about so many points including gender equality at work to comprehensive social security, what it actually offers is flexi-work place and work from home for women. In the world of work, it says that formalisation may increase but the workers would only prefer piece work and pay according to quantum and nature of work against fixed monthly salary. Effectively, the BJP’s vision 2047 is nothing but getting rid of all securities – right from job, wage and social security - in workers lives, embedded in the laws today. Formalisation is alleged to increase but the vision says the workers would prefer only informalisation(?), piece work and hourly wages. Actually, it is nothing but a prescription for a world of work that is dominated by insecurity and without any concept of rights and in turn, without any organisations like trade unions to represent their rights. Workers may have to fight among themselves as individuals to get a decent job with decent pay and security. Self-employment, individual contracts, blurring of employer – employee relationship which are basically advocating industrial anarchy are perceived to be the nature of relations in the future work in the future of 25 years.

Flexi-Work and Flexi-Space: Corporate Jungle Raj is the Dream of Modi

It also says that the concept of formalisation may undergo changes with flexibility in working conditions and prevalence of gig and platforms workers. All existing traditional work can become obsolete and new jobs resembling gig and platform workers can grow. The number of gig and platform workers can increase from the present 77 lakhs to 2.35 crores. Gig and platform work can transcend the limitation of work time and work space, will increase occupational mobility with low entry barrier. Modi government is considering gig and platform work, without an iota of any security, as the model of work for 2047 while the demand of trade unions and workers in the country is to provide legal protection to these emerging sections of workers. Artificial Intelligence and Robotics can change not only the nature of work but also the lives of the people. No interference of the state in workers lives is nothing but a jungle raj of corporate capital, where workers would be pushed to survive at the mercy of capital. Unfortunately, this is the dream of our Prime Minister.

The government claims to facilitate transition from informal to formal sector in 2047. So, sector may become formal but labour will become cruelly informalised like gig and platform workers. What the Modi government fails to recognise is the emergence of unions even in Amazon and Starbucks operating in virtual mode.

As the old age population is expected to grow upto 31.6 percent in 2047 from the present 13.9 percent, social security is being repeated only as a mantra while the same is being replaced by concepts like life-long employability by upskilling, re-skilling, etc., occupational mobility and portability of social security. You do not even get an old age protection and no retired, peaceful life is perceived. Modi is dreaming an inhuman, cruel world of work where the survival of the fittest is the only rule.

Modi’s vision and dreams for India at 2047 are really frightening and is becoming a nightmare for workers and the people at large.

Decoding Labour Ministers’ Conference