By S. N. Sahu
India’s history of addressing labor issues progressively predates the celebration of May Day, May 1, 1891, as the first International Labor Day. In 1884, seven years before the beginning of the May Day celebrations in 1891, Narayan M. Lokhande, hailed as the father of the labor movement in India, founded the Mill Hands Association, which marks the beginning of the labor movement in India. . In the absence of safeguards for their safety and security, workers were forced to work in harsh and unhealthy work environments and suffered untold misery and exploitation. Moved by his plight, Lokhande launched a movement against the mill owners and pressured them to accede to his demands for fair wages, a healthy work environment, and the protection of his rights and freedoms.
One of the results of the movement was the establishment of the Factory Labor Commission, of which he was appointed a member. Due to the work of the Commission, the Factories Act of 1891 was enacted. To some extent, it regulated working conditions and gave some special rights to working children and women. Lokhande also focused her attention on people who were not working and who were also victims of exploitation. His movement for labor rights was broad enough to include women’s causes and issues related to Dalits, minorities, and other weaker sections of society. One of the defining aspects of the fight for freedom was the defense of labor rights by our leadership. It was best exemplified in the Resolution on Fundamental Rights drafted by Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. It contained provisions to:
- a) A living wage for industrial workers, limited working hours, healthy working conditions and protection against the economic consequences of old age, sickness and unemployment;
- b) Work to be freed from the easement or conditions surrounding the easement;
- c) Protection of women workers, and especially adequate provisions for maternity leave;
- d) Prohibition of the employment of children of school age in factories; Y
- e) Workers’ rights to form unions to protect their interests with adequate mechanisms for dispute resolution through arbitration.
With such a glorious legacy of taking up the cause of labor from the 19th century onwards, the Indian leadership represented a progressive outlook. He clearly outlined his commitment to carry it forward as the country embarked on the arduous task of drafting the Constitution and remain engaged in the challenging task of nation building.
Article 43 (the corresponding article in the draft Constitution is 34) of the Guiding Principles of State Policy prescribes that the State shall guarantee all workers work, a decent salary, working conditions that ensure a decent standard of living and the full enjoyment of leisure. and social and cultural opportunities. When the article was being discussed in the Constituent Assembly on November 23, 1948, HV Kamath suggested that “the Government will take advantage of this and act in accordance with it and will ensure that, according to the terms of the article, all workers, industrial or otherwise, work, a decent wage and a decent standard of living are assured”.
In fact, the words “all workers, industrial or not” were used in the draft article. S. Nagappa introduced an amendment and suggested that after the words “to all workers, industrial or otherwise”, the word “agricultural” be added. Dr. BR Ambedkar stated that “Mr. Nagappa’s suggestion that agricultural work is just as important as industrial work and should not be referred to simply with the word ‘otherwise’ has some substance”. He therefore accepted the amendment and thus agricultural work was treated on an equal footing with industrial work. Such sensitivity shown by the private deputies to make the idea of labor clear and categorically inclusive, and the acceptance of such ideas for eventual inclusion in the Constitution, speaks volumes about the progressive outlook of the framers of the Constitution.
Article 23 of the Indian Constitution prohibits human trafficking and forced labour. The article was discussed and approved on December 3, 1948, for inclusion in the Constitution. Almost a year later, on December 1, 1949, Dr. MM Das put a question to the Minister of Labour, Jagjivan Ram, in the Constituent (Legislative) Assembly about the measures taken by the Government to end forced labour. The Minister replied that a Special Service Officer was appointed to study the matter and present a report pointing out the insufficiencies in the law and suggesting measures to eradicate the evil.
Later, on December 16, 1949, RK Sidhwa, a member of the Constituent Assembly, introduced a private members’ bill: the Free, Forced or Compulsory Labor Prevention Bill. While doing so, he stated that while a provision for the abolition of forced labor was already enshrined in the draft Constitution, separate legislation would be required to spell out the punishment for those who would engage in free labor and force others to work for them. they. . Labor Minister Ram, in response to him, assured Sidhwa that he would withdraw the bill when the government ceased the matter. He also argued that a mere constitutional provision or legislation would not eradicate the scourge of forced labor and stated that “a strong social conscience among the people who are removed from forced labor and also among the people who take forced labor is necessary before the evil can be totally eradicated.” Ultimately, Sidhwa withdrew the bill.
It is instructive that Sidhwa also introduced another private members bill, the Workmen’s Provident Fund Bill, on December 16, 1949. He strongly advocated that the then-existing Provident Fund Act was limited in scope. , so he provided in his bill that any worker whose monthly income was Rs. 20 would be entitled to a provident fund, which would consist of contributions from both the employee and the employer. He argued that provident fund facilities should cover workers not only working in the government sector, but also in corporations, charities, factories, shops, residential hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, commercial enterprises, docks, jetties , trams, etc on. He asked: “Is it fair that these men who work for several years, 30 or 35 years, do not get any benefits or advantages after retirement?” He also raised the issue of the workers’ pension so that they are secure in their retired life.
Minister Ram agreed with the core provisions of the bill and requested Sidhwa to withdraw it as the government planned to enact comprehensive legislation to make provident fund provisions for workers in all sectors. Finally, Ram, as Minister of Labour, was the author of the Provident Fund Act of 1952, which was very wide in scope and benefited large sections of the workforce employed in various sectors.
These two cases from the Constituent Assembly (Legislative) debates reveal that initiatives by private members to sensitize the government by introducing bills on labor issues ultimately resulted in the government introducing comprehensive legislation.
Several other laws, such as the Labor Disputes Act of 1947 and the Minimum Wages Act of 1948, were enacted after the Constituent Assembly passed bills relating to those laws.
The legislative intent behind laws like the Provident Fund Law has been watered down and now, in the neoliberal era, the workforce is at the mercy of market mechanisms that are exploitative and dehumanizing. Even pension provisions have been watered down considerably to the detriment of workers in all segments of the organized sector. The conditions of the labor force in the unorganized sector are worse.
Work remains at the root of the rise and progress of any society and country. We can ignore the work only at our own risk. Mahatma Gandhi gave primacy to work. Before starting his first satyagraha in South Africa, he had drafted a petition to safeguard the rights of Indians and he did so in consultation with the workers first. When asked why he was asking workers to draft the petition, he said they had as much right to exercise their brains as anyone else.
He advocated the idea of guardianship to ensure that those who had wealth and knowledge to create wealth would act as trustees of that wealth and, after keeping a certain amount of wealth to live on, should use the rest for society. He proclaimed that the idea of the trust was aimed at resolving the contradiction between capital and labor.
Now, the contradiction between labor and capital has intensified. French economist Thomas Pickety, in his book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, described the massive levels of income inequality in the world today; these inequalities are indicative of growing contradictions between capital and labor. At a time when work is being squashed, Gandhi’s idea of guardianship takes on importance.
It is tragic that India’s ruling leaders have now failed its working class and miserably abandoned it by failing to recognize its members as equal human beings, through their attempts to do away with various progressive labor laws.
Taking advantage of the economic mess caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe livelihood consequences suffered by workers due to the unplanned national lockdown, a new architecture has now been prepared for the revival of the economy regardless of security and protections guaranteed to labor through statutes The recent relaxation of most labor regulations in various states is like introducing forced labour, which has been abolished by the Constitution, and against which Constituent Assembly member Sidhwa introduced a resolution in the Assembly.
What is required in India is a government of solidarity, at the heart of which, as stated above, remains the progressive vision articulated in the 19th century during the struggle for freedom, and at the time of writing the Constitution, by the rights and rights of citizens. work and ordinary people of India. (IPA service)
Courtesy: The Brochure
The publication of the Constituent Assembly held long discussions on major labor issues first appeared on IPA Newspack.