By B. Sivaraman
With the Union Budget presentation approaching, expectations are rising among the salaried—not only about a possible hike in income-tax exemption limit but also on some major path-breaking schemes like unemployment allowance for youth and retrenched workers. However, some TU leaders are sceptical given the policy paralysis of Modi Government on labour issues.
The only move in recent times on labour issues was the decision by the Modi Government on 30 November 2017 to drop the proposal to allow companies upto 300 workers to sack them without obtaining government permission. This was the immediate response by Mr. Modi after getting the feedback ten days before polling in Gujarat that the going was getting tough for BJP. When the chambers of industries started squealing, while participating in the India Development Debate of ET Now on 18 November 2017, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley chastised the industrialists: “Though we have been amending some of the labour laws, I think these two issues [of land acquisition and labour reforms] are being overstated as challenges as far as the Indian economy is concerned. There is a way of getting around them and carrying the labour along with us and dealing with the land problem without really being able to sacrifice any form of reforms”. Exactly a month later and a day after the Gujarat poll results were out, when asked about the fate of labour reforms, Jaitley, chastened by the results, said, “I think you wait for this session (of parliament) and the next session.”
In fact, in 2014 itself, the Modi Government launched labour reforms in the name of consolidating 44 labour laws into four hold-all labour codes but under that garb tried to push some new proposals like free exit policy upto 300 workers, exemption of small industries from labour laws and keeping the professional TU leadership out in the name of restrictions on outsiders.
Of these, four codes, only the Draft Code of Wages Bill 2017, the least controversial among the four, could be readied and though it was tabled in the parliament in August 2017 itself, the government could not muster the courage to pass it in the monsoon or winter sessions. There have been conflicting reports on the Code of Industrial Relations Bill. Initially, the media reports said that a Group of Ministers headed by Jaitley had finalised it but reportedly in the face of threats to go on a 3-day strike by the TUs, Jaitley agreed to revoke the provision to allow companies upto 300 workers to freely retrench them without permission.
After this an agreement was reached with the TUs, the government claimed, and promised to pass the IR Code Bill. The TUs also did not clarify whether they had agreed on the Code and what happened to their earlier opposition to several other controversial clauses. Incidentally, the RSS also reportedly asked Jaitley to reconsider the proposal barring outsiders as TU office-bearers as majority of the RSS-affiliated BMS leaders would become unemployed. Anyway, it is clear that the government might not go ahead in the pre-election year.
Pink slips to more than a lakh IT workers due to a structural crisis in IT sector and a few tens of thousands of e-commerce workers losing their jobs when the e-commerce bubble burst and closure of several much-hyped BPOs due to the Euro zone crisis posed several policy issues. In fact, more than a million industrial workers lost jobs due the economic slowdown. But the government failed to even consider some effective unemployment allowance as in the West and state-funded re-skilling of IT workers to cope with the tech overhaul.
Worse still, millions of workers lost jobs for a few months due to demonetization but the Modi Government was not ready to pay a single rupee as compensation to them. There was heavy workload on bank employees and they too went uncompensated. The livelihood of more than a million textile workers, including handloom and powerloom weavers and workers, have been affected badly due to GST and it is a non-issue for Modi Government. Insolvency Code is a de facto exit policy and bank employees are on warpath against FRDI Bill.
Instead of implementing the ban on manual scavenging with iron hand, Modi Government is reportedly considering an amendment to increase compensation in case of deaths, thereby legitimising it. Likewise, instead of curbing child labour more vigorously, the NDA government is allowing it in some areas. It claimed to have expanded maternity benefits to women workers but they actually curtailed it by reducing the cash benefit of Rs.6000 to one child only instead of two. So the workers can’t expect much from the coming budget.