Author : Ashita Jobanputra
Co-Author : Jhanvi Shah
Forced labour in India has become a pervasive issue. The problems related to such forced labour and slavery needs to be tackled in the country in order to provide justice for the said community. The multi-faceted legal system needs to address the exploitation and slavery towards such labourers. Considering the COVID-19 crisis, it has a huge impact on all our lives. COVID-19 has had a negative degree of interest in many other organisations, including the economic and labour market, which are very significant and are likely to continue in the near future. In the case of the labour market, millions of workers across the country are directly affected due to lockdown. We believe there is a direct relationship between distress migration and vulnerability to trafficking, forced labour and slavery. We must oppose policies that aggravate this vulnerability caused by the environmental crisis. The government must protect the rights of migrant workers and make sure that there is no exploitation of such rights.
WHAT DOES ARTICLE 23 (Prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labour) SAY?
According to Article 23, Traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
Forced Labour means not only the physical and legal force but also arising out of the compulsion of the economic circumstances.
In this context, the Supreme Court of India in People’s Union for Democratic Rights and others Vs. Union of India and others  the petitioner was an organisation formed for the protection of democratic rights. It undertook efforts to investigate the conditions under which the workmen employed in various Asiad projects were working. This investigation found out that various labour laws were being violated and consequently public interest litigation was initiated. In this case, labourers were not given the minimum remuneration as mentioned in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. If a person is forced to provide labour for less than the minimum wage, just because of poverty, want, destitution or hunger, it would be accounted for as forced labour. It is said that not only begar, but all forms of forced labour are prohibited.
ORDINANCE AMID COVID-19 PANDEMIC:
The Uttar Pradesh government has issued an ordinance stating temporary suspension of all labour statutes including Minimum Wages Act, Trade Unions Act, Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act, Contract Labour Act, Payment of Bonus Act, Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, Working Journalists Act, Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act. The four laws that were retained are Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, Workmen Compensation Act, 1932, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996. According to Section 5 of The Factories Act, 1948, this exemption can be given only during a ‘public emergency’ for a period not exceeding three months at a time. However, Uttar Pradesh has approved an ordinance suspending for three years.
Uttar Pradesh and Punjab had already allowed 12 hours shift per day (72 hours per week) in factories without overtime payment to overcome worker shortage after the migrants have left in the wake of nation passing a controversial order which mandated 12-hour shifts for workers in industrial units, the Uttar Pradesh government withdrew it following a notice dated May 8,2020 from the Allahabad High Court. However, it will not bear any consequences on the recently amended labour laws as the order to increase the working hours against the usual eight-hour shifts was separate.
Because of the public health crisis created by COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of misfortune in the lives of many people. Talking about the workers being abandoned by their employers and even the State, they had to face starvation and no payment was ensured. Lakhs of workers started walking back home, many even died on the way.
Instead of ensuring livelihood support and safety, state governments have sought to strip workers of their fundamental rights. Industrial performance is not just the function of the labour law but of the size of the market, fixed investment growth, credit availability, infrastructure and government policy. The way to restart the economy is to provide income support and restore jobs of the workers. Depriving workers of fundamental rights such as adequate living wages, limits on hours of work and safe and healthy workplaces will create fertile ground for the exploitation of the working class. Presently, over 90% of India’s workforce is in informal jobs, with no regulations for decent conditions for work, no provision for social security and no protection against any contingencies and arbitrary actions of employers. It will increase informal employment in the formal sector instead of encouraging the growth of formal work.²
The Supreme Court, on June 12, 2020, asked employers and employees to negotiate and settle between themselves issues relating to payment of wages amid the COVID-19 lockdown. In the meanwhile, the Court’s earlier order directing that no coercive action be taken against employers, will continue to operate.
The suspension of labour laws by several states reduces the bargaining power of labour, their right to negotiate and hence may turn them into Forced Labour. And due to this, there will be no way for the workers to seek redressal. Government have a constitutional duty to ensure just, humane conditions of work. The health and strength of the workers cannot be abused by force of economic necessity. Labour laws are thus constitutional goals and cannot be trumped on the excuse of Pandemic.