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It is once again proved that a hardship anywhere the world is an opportunity to exploit the labourers and poorer sections of the world everywhere. Whatever be the form of the government, whatever be the status of the Constitutional values of a country is, the labourers and the poor people of the world had been and are still been oppressed and subjected to inequalities. India is no exception to this, the plight of the migrant labourers and the poorer sections in the country, especially in the last couple of months is the visible example of such a scenario. Unfortunately, instead of redressing their plights, another major blow was thrown to them in the name of labour reforms being taken by various state governments to stimulate the economy.

In the last couple of days several state governments, including the state of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh as well as the state of Assam have decided to make an amendment in the existing labour laws. The decision includes several stringent provisions like increasing the working hours from  8 hours to 12 hours a day, tightening the norms to get registered for enjoying the benefits of industrial laws to its employees, extending the number of labour requirement in an organisation to be brought under the jurisdiction of the labour inspector etc. Sadly, though working hours has been increased by an extra four hours, there is no increase in the wages for overtime works. All these seem to benefit the employers and industrialists who can have the liberty to exploit their employees and these workers and labourers are left with no rights but to get exploited.

It is understandable that the world is going through a tough time due to the outbreak of the pandemic. No country in the world is safe and has to face the blot of the onslaught of this disease. Nevertheless, whenever we read the ethos and values of our Constitution, we understand that our country is a democratic one and this has been evident from the various fundamental rights and directive principles of state policies that opt for several welfare measures to all sections of the population, be the rich or the poor. Under such a scenario, a pandemic like situation causes greater harm to the poorer and the lower sections of the population. Moreover, a change in the labour laws in the name of reform is unprecedented and uncalled for.

Our Constitution under Article 39 (e) provides that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter a vocation unsuited to their age or strength. Moreover, Article 42 of the Indian Constitution provides a direction to the state for securing just and humane conditions of works. Given these constitutional requirements, the present decision of the state governments to amend the labour and industrial laws in a bid to exploit the labourers and employees is an unfortunate one. In the pretext of economic hardships, no welfare and democratic country in the world exploits its workforce.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation on 12th May had proposed for Atma-Nirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India. This was appended with an announcement of a package of 20 lakh crores, around 10% of India’s GDP for the revival of the Indian economy. This sounds a good move given the fact that the prime minister himself advocated for the welfare of the marginal as well as the migrant labours in his address. But the fact of the matter is that the exploitation of labours in one hand and the welfare packages for them in the other hand can’t go together. This carrot and stick policy is not in tune of our Constitutional ethos.

Article 23 of the Constitution of India advocates prohibition of any form of forced labour. Though the term ‘forced’ is not defined in the Constitution itself,  it was interpreted by the Supreme Court for a wider use in a landmark case of Peoples Union for Democratic Rights Vs. Union of India (AIR 1982). In that case, Justice Bhagwati said, ‘ the word ‘forced’ must, therefore, be construed to include not only physical or legal force but also force arising from the compulsion of economic circumstances which leaves no choice of alternatives to a person in want and compels him to provide labour or service’. Given the fact that the changes in the labour laws call for an extended labour period that might cause a detrimental impact on the health and psychology of the labour class, it does amount to ‘forced’ labour, and it is unconstitutional.

It is not unknown to the world that the industrial revolution in Europe had garnered several economic and industrial benefits. However that was followed by a consequence of widespread hardship to the labour class, their health and strength being compromised and the emergence of two-fold classes, the haves and the have nots. Today, if India opts for this imperial policy of labour oppression and exploitations, the outcome will not be a desired one. No democratic country in the 21st century can think of stepping to the ladders of economic surpluses on the hardships of its labours and workforces. Given the backdrop of the ongoing critical situations due to the outbreak of a pandemic, people might have no option other than to bow down to the government decisions and get exploited. But it is not a democratic and welfare decision on the part of India to allow this mischief being happened. A call for status quo in these developments and protect the labour class and employees from these hardships and exploitations is the least that the authorities in power can do.