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In Search of Decent Workplace

India is a founder member of the International Labour Organization. So far India has ratified 41 Conventions of the ILO, and influence of ILO Conventions as a standard of reference for labour legislation and practices in India, and not as a legally binding norm, has been significant. Even where India may not be in a position to ratify a Convention, it has generally voted in favour of the Conventions reserving its position as far as its future ratification is concerned.

However, with the recent dilution or suspension of Labour Laws in several Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra, Goa, Odisha and Rajasthan, in the backdrop of COVID-19 found to be the blatant violation of International Labour Standards codified by ILO.

The specific International Labour Standards that are violated in the process of dilution or suspension of Labour Laws by different states are Core Convention of ILO (Eight hour working day), Right to Freedom of Association (ILO Convention 87), Right to collective bargaining (ILO Convention 98) and Tripartite Consultation Convention 1976(ILO Convention 144). India have not ratified ILO Convention 87 and 98 till date.

The labour law reforms currently implemented in many Indian States are thus justified by the argument that making labour markets more flexible is one of the best responses to the crisis. In some states it consists only of piecemeal although significant deregulatory measures, while in others it involves far-reaching overhauls of the whole labour code.

Furthermore, in several states fundamental changes are being made to industrial relations structures and processes which might jeopardise social dialogue and collective bargaining there. In most cases such reforms are presented as necessary means to get out of the economic and other form of crisis.

Such reforms generally render existing labour law provisions more flexible and loosen minimum standards, shifting the emphasis to soft law (deregulation). However, globally it has not been proven that such reforms work in the long-run. Moreover, there is no empirical evidence to prove that the economic and other crisis is the result of labour law provisions in the respective country.

On the contrary, evidence suggests that, with the dilution of labour laws and elimination of collective bargaining process definitely lower the standard of rights recognised so far and anchored in legislation and collective agreements, as well as affecting fundamental employment conditions related to working time, pay, work organisation, working environment and social protection.

It will also have an impact on health and safety at work. Experience suggests that working long or excessive hours has a serious impact on workers health and safety. In the long-run, people suffers from Burnout syndrome. Moreover, after allowing further flexibilisation of working time it might prove difficult to turn the clock back in future, even though these measures are often intended to be only temporary.

Labour law reforms tend to adjust labour regulations designed to combat precarious employment, labour market segmentation and a certain labour law rigidity, taking it for granted that these have a negative impact on productivity and employment.

The aim is to flexibilise labour law protections perceived as too complicated, too expensive and too burdensome for enterprises. Experience from various countries suggests that labour reforms tend to deregulate already flexibilised labour law regulations and thus in most cases represent a step backwards in terms of workers' protection. In addition, the flexibilisation of Labour law must be regarded critically, in particular because it will create more (long-term) unemployment and more precariousness on the labour market.

In addition, such reform leads to explosive growth of inequalities and insecurity in most of the countries. Setting this alongside measures affecting social security benefits, reduction of job seekers benefits, salary cuts and so on, calls into question the concept of quality employment and the international concept of decent work, which labour law reforms no longer seem to meet. There is a strong belief that quality employment is perceived as being incompatible with competitiveness. This indirectly affects labour law protection and emphasises economic freedoms, at the expense of democratic traditions.

The meaning of the social model is also undermined. In most cases, the procedure do not respect democratic traditions thereby jeopardising the reforms' legitimacy. Furthermore, experience also suggests that steps taken within the framework of labour law reforms run counter to labour law principles, not least the principle of trade union autonomy and trade union freedom and even the right to equality and non-discrimination.

Another striking characteristic of such reform is, in some cases anti-crisis measures and labour law reforms affect fundamental social rights, directly or indirectly. As a result, increasingly workers explore alternate source of livelihood outside industrial hub.

In India, with COVID-19 crisis we are already witnessing this trend where millions of urban returnee migrant labourers are deciding to opt for low-profile simple village life as the source of future livelihood. It is because that offers safety, security and peace of mind instead of much hyped and notoriously unsafe, unsecured urban industrial life which no longer remains a dream job or for that matter preferred job.

This is the message echoed very loudly by millions of urban returnee migrant labour during last few weeks. Such development will lead to serious shortage of quality talent in urban industrial hub moving forward.

Moreover, the assumption that labour law reforms are needed to exit from the crisis can be questioned, as it is difficult to distinguish whether labour law reforms are a response to the ongoing economic and other crisis or merely accompany the crisis, with no certainty about any causal link between them.

Globally, there is clear evidence of a deconstruction of labour law under the guise of the economic and other form of crisis. In several instances, these structural reforms were required or indeed forced upon policy makers by national/international institutions and organisations, such as the major financial institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) etc.

In several occasion, they also organise reviews of the economic programmes of the country they financially support in order to solidify economic growth while maintaining macroeconomic and financial stability.

Currently, in several countries the first' anti-crisis measures are under review and discussions are taking place on the need to make temporary measures permanent (Germany, Greece and Spain). In some cases, the positive impact of anti-crisis measures is being questioned. In other cases, labour law reforms have been adopted with no link direct or indirect to the economic and financial crisis, thus following a deregulatory path.

On September 14, 2011 in his address to the European Parliament, Mr. Juan Somovia, Director-General International Labour Organization stated:
Respect for fundamental principles and rights at work is non-negotiable: not even in times of crisis when questions of fairness abound. This is particularly important in countries having to adopt austerity measures. We cannot use the crisis as an excuse to disregard internationally agreed labour standards.

On September 26-27,2011 at the G20 meeting of Labour and Employment Ministers in Paris, promoting the effective application of social and labour rights and ensuring respect for fundamental principles and rights at work also constituted one of the key recommendations (G20 2011a) and was endorsed in the Declaration of the G20 Heads of State adopted at the Summit in Cannes on November 3-4, 2011 (G20 2011b).

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