By B. Sivaraman
It is really between a devil and the deep sea kind of situation for the trade union movement. Labour inspectorates were the most corrupt outfits. In major industrial centres, the labour inspectors promptly visit the industries once in every six months only to take a fixed amount as bribe and go. Whenever the workers make a complaint, they would promptly handover the names of the complainants to the management. True, they would also pinch the corporate pockets with their bribe demands but they used to harm the workers’ interests much more. Workers would shed no tears if the factory inspection regime in its old form goes for a toss.
But the employers have been equating inspector raj with license raj, making out enforcement of laws itself as harassment and have been crusading for its dismantling. Modi Government did oblige and in the name of ending inspector raj, it is doing away with labour inspection and enforcement of laws itself.
In the name of ease of doing business, it has been proposed that it would suffice for the employers to file single unified annual return in place of maintaining separate registers and filing half-yearly returns under 8different labour laws and 10 Central Rules. Earlier employers had to maintain 56 registers, and the number has been reduced now to 5 registers only. Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by Certain Establishments) Amendment Act, 2014 was passed to this end. Start-ups and MSMEs can file self-certified returns, meaning there would be no inspection. Small Factories (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Bill, 2014 sought to exempt small units upto 40 workers from the applicability of 14 labour laws. The very system of compliance with labour laws was being whittled down in the name of putting an end to corrupt labour inspectorates. The baby too is going down with the bathwater. What is gradually replacing the inspector raj is the lawless jungle raj.
But the issue would not vanish. The labour struggles would flare up with greater ferocity. This was clearly evident when 350 workers of Motherson Automotive Technologies & Engineering, an auto component unit, rallied under the AICCTU union, have been on a strike from 26 August 2019. One of the key demands of the workers is that all those workers who had put in 480 days of work over two years should be regularised as per law. Though there are more than 2000 workers, the management shows only 568 as regular workers and around 500 as NEEM trainees and around 1000 workers are contract workers, and it keeps trainees endlessly as trainees only in violation of the law. The industry which is located in Pondur in Orgadam supplies components to auto majors like Hyundai and Nissan.
This struggle is notable because, defying the threats of shutdown due to auto industry slowdown the workers have boldly embarked upon struggle. It should also be noted that the Tamil Nadu government notified a ban on strikes in auto component industries recently and the AICCTU had moved the Madras HC and obtained a stay on that ban and in the very next month this struggle is taking place. More importantly, workers and trade union leaders from both Hyundai and Nissan visited the struggle spot and sat with the struggling workers in solidarity. With Modi Government giving a free license to evade compliance with labour laws, there would be many more Mothersons in the days to come.
It is not only a question of workers’ own employment security. The enforcement of various labour laws cover vital issues like occupational health and safety, child labour prevention, equal remuneration for women, enforcement of maternity benefits and prevention of allocating them hazardous work, and payment of minimum wages. Enforcement of ESI and PF rights of workers also fall under the purview of inspections only and so also regulation of contract workers. There are wide variations in enforcement provisions across states, and Modi Government is bulldozing the autonomy of the States and their federal rights to have their own labour regulation regimes.
Under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, during 2010–14, more than 9.73 lakh inspections were carried out, resulting in approximately 0.24 lakh prosecutions resulting in 6101 convictions. This gives an idea of the scale of violations and similar convictions in other kinds of violations are no longer possible. License to criminality cannot be the essence of labour reforms under any rule of law.
The Indian Labour Year Book 2015, summarising the data from the annual returns under the Factories Act, says that in 2013 there were 1,00,932 factories in India out of which only 22,447 were inspected. In other words, only around one-fifth of the factories were facing inspection on law enforcement and even this paltry record of enforcement is now being abolished.
How effective the labour inspection regime in India is has been revealed during the Motherson struggle itself. After the struggle began, when a team of labour inspectors visited the factory, even while they were entering through one gate the management hurriedly sent out 300 workers through another gate! The workers are waiting for the inspection report and are preparing to take the labour inspectorate also to task if they give a clean chit to the management. The workers not only of Motherson and the auto majors for which it is supplying components, even the workers of other component units in this Special Economic Zone area have volunteered to come and participate in the struggle in solidarity as they understand clearly that under Modi’s labour reforms, end of inspector raj means end of inspection system itself and instead of ending corruption in the inspection system they are ending law enforcement itself. The consciousness is spreading fast among workers that the degree of compliance of employers with the labour laws is directly proportional to the strength of their unions and intensity of their struggles and the level of solidarity among them. (IPA Service)