The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been trying to introduce major reforms at the national level by attempting a huge exercise of codifying 40-odd labour laws into four codes on industrial relations, wages, social security and occupational safety and health and working conditions (OSH and WC). However, owing to strident protests including the recent one on 5 September from trade unions and others including from the RSS-affiliated BMS and opportunistic political opposition, none of them have seen the light of the day. The principal reason is the absence of meaningful dialogue with the trade unions though India is duty bound to invoke tripartite discussions over labour policy issues among others since it has ratified the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 .

The draft code on OSH seeks to consolidate and amend 13 central labour laws concerning different sectors like factories, mines, docks, plantations, etc. The first impression is that the code is an uneasy amalgam of variety of variables and aspects (like safety, welfare, contract labour system, etc). Secondly, the “omissions relating to the coverage" of the code are striking. The OSH code and the centre’s Model Shops and Establishments Act (2016) (shops and establishments are covered by the state governments and the government of Maharashtra has endorsed this and soon others would follow its suit) apply to establishments and others employing 10 or more workers/employees and thereby exclude at least 95% in any sector that the code covers which employs fewer than 10 workers, according to the Sixth Economic Census, 2013-14, although the share will be much less if we exclude own-account establishments, but the exclusion will still be significant. No wonder that India has ratified only three of the 17-odd ILO Conventions.

Thirdly, on the one hand, we have generic definitions in the beginning and on the other hand, as we move through the huge code, we are confronted with differing thresholds for each aspect like canteen, labour welfare officer or safety committee. Further, the government has either maintained the same or tinkered with the existing thresholds in the code (e.g. contract labour system, canteen, safety committee). Of grave implication is the narrowing of the coverage of the safety committee from the existing 250 to 500 in the case of factories. Factories employing 500 or more in 2012 accounted for 2.8% of the total factories submitting returns and they accounted for 44.19% of total reported workers. OSH is a universal right and regulatory systems should be in every establishment and these observations apply to construction or mines as well.

If the law makers believe in strengthening bipartisanship, they should promote in every sense the role of recognized unions and the legally registered trade unions. For example, ideally the recognized or registered unions should get the primacy of place in the consultation process like the stipulated Safety Committee or the Advisory Boards and failing their absence, the workers’ representatives could come into play. In these times of union avoidance and busting, failures of such stipulation cause extreme concern for decent work. In these times of liberalized, randomised (machine-dictated) and non-discretionary inspection system and when an inspector on an average has to inspect potentially more than 300 factories in a year and in the context of the constricted applicability of bipartite regulation of OSH and disempowering trade unions, any reform concerning OSH is empty and meaningless.

Dismantling several laws which sit uneasily with others, treating some aspects patchily, leaving out laws like Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923, tinkering with provisions in the name of consolidation which anyhow create diversity, and creating a huge labour bureaucracy under this and other codes like social security code defeat the very purpose of reforms and at what social costs! It is better to retain 40-odd laws and tinker in each to achieve the same objectives.

K.R. Shyam Sundar is a labour economist and professor at XLRI, Jamshedpur.