By B. Sivaraman
Modi Government is abrogating not only labour rights in the name of labour reforms, it has not spared the labour welfare schemes either. Labour welfare cesses are being abolished and labour welfare acts are being scrapped one by one. On 8 August 2019, the government notified repeal of the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976. Earlier, the cess acts or welfare funds acts relating to iron, manganese, chrome, mica, salt pan, limestone and dolomite mine workers has been abolished.
First the government started abolishing the cess acts and cesses in the name of GST. And then the government started abolishing the welfare fund acts under the pretext of subsuming them under the relevant labour codes like social security code. The employers in these industries would no longer have to cough up money to pay these cesses to meet the welfare schemes of the workers employed in these sectors, and workers, henceforth would have to pay one-eighth to one-fifth of the monthly wages for their own social security schemes, like pension.
In another startling move, Finance Minister Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman announced a Sabka Vishwas scheme, a dispute settlement scheme under which the pending tax disputes and litigation would be settled with payment of 50% of the tax default amount. Corporate tax and other tax dues are owed to the government and government is entitled to waive 50% of it. But the welfare cess is the money meant for workers. How can the government rob the working class Peters to pay the capitalist Pauls? What is the legal basis for this?
To get clarification on this move towards abolition of welfare funds and schemes, Ms. R. Geetha, Additional Secretary of Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangham and South Indian Coordinator of National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation for Construction Labour (NCC-CL) was approached. Ms. Geetha said: “They are scrapping 44 existing laws to come up with 4 labour codes. One of the acts being scrapped is Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 (BOCW Act), and the State-level versions of this act are also being wound up.
Now under the proposed codes, the construction workers are supposed to make a monthly contribution of 12.5% to 20% of their monthly wages to their welfare fund whereas under the BOCW Acts the construction owners had to pay 1–2% of the total construction cost as cess. Now the welfare cost has been shifted from construction promoters and owners to workers”.
“The repealing of the BOCW Acts will lead to the closure of all the 36 State-level BOCW Boards, cancellation of about four crore registrations of construction workers as beneficiaries, cancellation of the lakhs of pensions which are being paid to older workers and disabled workers in different States and cancellation of millions of freeships being paid as education assistance to the children of construction workers besides cancellation of several other benefits, including maternity benefits.
“Not only that. With the scrapping of 44 labour laws, the existing 34 labour welfare boards in Tamil Nadu would be dissolved. There would be just one Central Board and one State board for each state and all sectoral boards catering to some special needs of the sector workers would be abolished. Tamil Nadu has 34 such boards and Kerala 25 boards. The benefits they used to get from many of these boards were broader then the benefits envisaged under the proposed social security code”, Ms. Geetha added.
The government was already lackadaisical in implementing the welfare schemes, especially for construction workers, the second major employment area after agriculture.“Symbolic justice – there is nothing more to offer to several millions of construction workers in the unorganized sector – not social justice, not economic justice. The reason is quite simple. No State Government and no Union Territory Administration (UTA) seems willing to fully adhere to and abide by (or is perhaps even capable of fully adhering to and abiding by) two laws solemnly enacted by Parliament, namely, the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 (the BOCW Act) and the Building and Other Construction Workers‘ Welfare Cess Act, 1996 (the Cess Act). Directions given by this Court from time to time to implement the two laws have been flouted with impunity”. With these stinging words began the judgement of the Supreme Court on 19 March 2018 delivered by Justices Madan B. Lokur in a writ petition filed by the NCC-CL.
The judge went on to ask: “We have been informed that under the Cess Act, more than Rs. 37,400 crores have been collected for the benefit of construction workers, but only about Rs. 9500 crores have been utilized ostensibly for their benefit. What is being done with the remaining about Rs. 28,000 crores? Why is it that construction workers across the country are being denied the benefit of this enormous amount?” After blasting the government and pointing out several shortcomings in the existing welfare scheme, the SC directed the government to come up with a Model Act.“All the cess collected under various welfare funds would now exceed Rs.1 lakh crore and this workers’ money is now in limbo. Government grabbing this is illegal”, says Ms. R. Geetha.
“The government did come up with a Model Act and put it up on the public domain and this Model Act draft itself was faulty as it did not have provisions for pension. Ex-gratia for the kin of the workers upon death was limited only to those workers dying before the age of 50. Even before finalising it after consultation with the unions and implementing it, now they are abolishing the Act itself! This amounts to contempt of court. We are moving the court on this.”
Commenting on this issue, Mr. Kumaraswamy, President AICCTU, said: “Under the pretext of Make-in-India, Modi Government has been snatching away hard-won labour rights of workers. But even without that fig leaf, they are dismantling welfare schemes of the underpaid workers. It is no longer a sectoral concern, and the assault is on a broad front. All sections of affected workers are gearing up for a united resistance. More than ten crore workers would take to streets soon to take on Modi regime”! (IPA Service)