Invisible Labour

May 1 commemorates working-class self-organisation and its rich history that stretches back over a century.



Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a country-wide lockdown on March 24 at 8 pm, to be effective from that very midnight. While the lockdown was brought into effect to ostensibly break the transmission cycle of the virus, the sudden announcement and the lack of administrative foresight ended up disproportionately impacting the country’s poorest informal migrant workers. The impetuous and haphazard way in which the COVID-19 induced lockdowns were imposed revealed a lack of policy for the protection of workers, rendering these workers completely vulnerable in the cities they built with their own hands. Unwelcome and uncared for, a majority of them decided to return to their homes by any means possible. The crisis that followed the pandemic-induced lockdown in India brought to the surface the vulnerability and precarity that governs the lives of this often overlooked segment of the population, in terms of their employment relations, living conditions, and lack of social protection. And so began the languishing march back. Many did not survive the journey. A publicly maintained database estimates that by July 4th, more than 300 people died during the mass migration. The invisibly of these workers resurfaced when the time came for the central government to wash its hands off the largest forced migration in the history of the country since partition in 1947 –by claiming that there existed no government data on the number of deaths resulting from the lockdown.

According to the Indian government’s think tank, NITI Aayog, about 85% of the country's total workforce is employed in the unorganized sector. Why then has the government abdicated its responsibility of protecting the interests of over 35 crore workers?


  While the Ministry of Labour and Employment claims to have no data, an RTI filed by The Wire revealed that the Indian Railways did have a conservative number with regards to deaths onboard their Shramik Special Trains (special public trains which ran during lockdown to transport migrant labourers). In their response to the RTI, the Railways confirmed that at least 80 lives were lost on these Special Trains. Among the confirmed deaths were that of two new-born babies and one 8-month-old infant.


Even the government’s denial was incomplete. Narendra Modi took to Twitter to express his condolences over “lost lives” while strategically choosing not to name the 15 migrant labourers lost their lives in Aurangabad. If not other deaths, state bodies could have recorded the ones acknowledged by the Central government. 


Social media: a tool for a few

We live in a digital age. Social media can wield power to hold stakeholders accountable. In September, aspirants for the Railway Recruitment Board examinations stormed the website over non-communication of exam dates. This compelled the Railway Minister to announce the exam’s tentative timeline. But the same did not happen with migrants who can rarely afford the time to acquaint themselves with Twitter. Workers utilizing the site to demand assistance in reaching home was a rare occurrence. Around this time last year, Narendra Modi tweeted once every two hours. It is easy to ascertain why he and other government figures easily avoided maintaining the same level of engagement with some of the most at-risk people at a time of intense crisis.


Old laws and new codes


In pursuance of the second National Commission on Labour's recommendation, the current government aims to take under their ambit all the existing labour laws and replace them with the four codes. For this process, the Standing Committee submitted its report in February of this year, just before the lockdown, making the codes void of any information on the current conditions of a large segment of workers across India. Here we briefly look at two codes with significant loopholes which benefit employers.


Industrial Relations Codes, 2020

This amended Code increased the number of employees required for standing orders to 300 from 100. Now, any establishment that employs less than 300 people is under no obligation to provide its employee's information related to their “classifications, hours of work, holidays, attendance, leave [medical or otherwise]”, conditions of suspension or termination, and any available routes to redressal. This would give employers substantial room for exploiting workers by deregulating workplace practices. Additionally, the Code mandates that management be notified before the commencement of any strike initiated by distressed workers. These measures effectively leave labourers unprotected in a playing field already tilted against them.


Santosh Gangwar's, who holds the Labour Minister's office, comments on the Code were not assuring. Prioritizing big businesses and capitalists, Gangwar stated, “Investors will be encouraged to set up big factories and employ more and more workers''. The law allows the ‘appropriate government’ (either central or state) to exempt any establishment from the provisions of even these diluted regulations making accountability that much more difficult to come by. Any establishment with up to 300 workers can impose immediate mass retrenchment and lay-offs without facing any consequences. This places the labour force in an even more tenuous position than it was in during the pandemic.


The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code

During the pandemic, at least 75 industrial workers in India have been killed on-site due to perilous occupational practices. According to K.R Shyam Sundar, Professor at Jadavpur University, the Code is “poorly drafted”. Sundar draws attention to the callous and confusing terminology of the Code in which words like “workers'' and “employees” are used interchangeably. He highlights how the supposedly revamped version of the 2019 code still carries many flaws of its previous version. The Code does not bring under its purview the unorganized sector. It removes the statutory existence of a Bipartite Safety Committee for factories involved in hazardous work. The constitution of such a committee is now subject to a special enforcement order. Appointment of safety officers has become mandatory in factories or construction sites employing more than 500 labourers and in the mining industry employing more than 100 labourers. By prioritizing profit over safety, this provision puts the lives of workers at stake. Since the code does not acknowledge the unorganised sector, it is quite evident that it is poorly drafted and definitely not drafted for the poor.


The only possibly redeeming feature of the code seems to be the promise of a cross-country Public Distribution System for food-grain and insurance benefits among other securities to inter-state migrant labourers. 


The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (ISMW) Act which dates back to 1979 now comes under The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020. Organisations like The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) oppose the amalgamation of two and press on better implementation of the act and the four codes. The ISMW Act came as a guarding force in favour of labourers. This Act mandates the registration of any establishment that employs inter-state workers and ensures the same wage a local worker may receive for the migrant labour force. The 1979 act makes it necessary for the employers to maintain record files of the migrant labourers, which now find no mention in the new codes. Although India adopted the Foreign Direct Investment policy decades ago, it doesn't seem ready to safeguard the builders of those offices that shelter these planners and investors.

The new codes were not passed until the lockdown was lifted and parliament came into action once again. The question remains the same; who will guarantee the proper implementation of the new codes?


Given the serious lack of implementation of pre-existing labour freedoms, this rapid stripping away of worker rights is concerning, to say the least. These codes were passed under minimal oversight and with the same haste that now characterizes the central government's proceedings, most recently witnessed in the new Farm Bills' one-sided approval.