In an interview given to Mint, the senior leader of Biju Janata Dal (BJD) further said the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, has become redundant as it does not protect the interests of migrant workers in any way. According to Mahtab, the country seems to have woken up to the miseries of workers after they started walking home during the lockdown without food, shelter or employment. Edited excerpts:
The labour committee is required to submit its report on Code on Social Security Bill, 2019, at the beginning of monsoon session. Will the committee be able to submit its report in time?
Our attempt is to submit the report on social security code within the time that has been provided to the committee. Yes, there has been some difficulty in collating information from domain experts, but whatever queries were there have been duly answered. I have already asked our secretariat to draft the report, and I believe it would be ready in a week or so.
What are the focus areas of the committee? How do you look at the urgency among state governments for the Bill to be presented, in the light of the recent migration crisis?
Social Security Code deals with a vast subject. Earlier, the thrust was only on organized labour. Now we have brought in, along with the organized, the unorganized labour force. The government, of course, has a number of programmes for common citizens, which offer them health services, pensions, and such; but for workers, particularly unorganized workers, a specific policy is needed and it cannot be relegated to a future date. Our committee is seriously thinking about it, and I hope it will find place in our report.
As only 9.4% of the workforce is in the organized sector, and over 90% workforce is in the unorganized sector, there is a need to recognize that the present labour laws are unable to look into the interests of the labour force. Our major attempt is to address this and to correct the dichotomy.
The nearly three-month long lockdown to prevent spread of covid-19 has put migrant worker rights in the spotlight. There is growing demand for a separate policy, or law, for migrants; what do you think about it?
The lockdown has brought out the plight of the migrant labour force. Though there is a law—Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979—it didn’t protect the interests of migrant workers in anyway. Rather, during the last 40 years, it has become redundant. It was during the lockdown, when migrant workers, bereft of food, shelter or employment, started walking back to their villages, that the country seems to have woken up to their miseries. The standing committee on labour drew the attention of the Union government to the matter last February in our report on The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, towards the importance of migrant workers, especially inter-state migrant labour. During our interaction with the Union government, we were assured that migrant workers would be treated as contract labour and given benefits such workers are entitled to, such as safety and health. Now as a social security measure it is necessary to ensure habitable shelters to migrant workers. Further, we are considering suggesting portable social security coverage to all the inter-state migrant workers so that they get all benefits they are entitled to, just as they get in their native places/states.
The problem of migration did not exist in the scale it now exists, with more than 7 million labourers returning to their villages in just Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. How will generating employment be different post this crisis?
We have recommended in our earlier report that worker-friendly initiatives be taken and the definition of inter-state migrant workers be broadened by including “employer" along with “contractor". There is a need to also have proper registration of migrant workers in both source and destination states. This will help in proper implementation of the One-Nation-One-Ration Card Scheme.
Relating to providing gainful employment to those millions of workers who have returned to their states, it is imperative on the part of those state governments to map their skill and try to engage them to earn their livelihood.
The decision of the Union and state governments to allow functioning of industries for longer hours and making labourers work for longer hours was opposed by some Opposition-ruled states. How do you look at this opposition since economic crisis during lockdown is a big concern?
The standing committee on labour has recommended in its report that the provision providing for a maximum of eight hours of work per day for labourers be incorporated in accordance with ILO convention. It must be kept in mind that this decision had been taken a hundred years ago. In 21st century, there are certain industries such as textiles, where technology has improved and workers want to work for more hours. Similarly, certain class of workers such as Journalists, audio-visual workers and people working in software industries, hospitality sector, motor transport and such, who do not work eight hours at a stretch and their working hours are spread out. Therefore, we have suggested that due care be taken while making maximum of eight hours of work per day mandatory. However, we have said the limit on overtime hours be prescribed approximately. What we have suggested is to bring in some flexibility in working hours. Nothing should be done that may lead to exploitation of the workers.
The ongoing situation is unprecedented and has affected functioning of the parliament and committees, do you think it is time to relook at the way standing committees have functioned, and both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha should allow online functioning of committees?
Yes, unprecedented situations demand unprecedented solutions. Such a situation is not normal. Accordingly, steps should be taken as has happened in many other countries that have parliamentary democracies. There are two aspects to which I would like to refer to. Firstly, there has always been a view expressed from some quarters that the proceedings of the standing committees should be open for public observation as is happening in almost all developed democratic countries. As committee meetings are like a mini-parliament in session, I feel there should be no confidentiality in its functioning. Of course, certain deliberations can be done in camera, maintaining confidentiality that is of national security and public order, but generally, standing committees need to be made open now.
Second, if we do away with the confidentiality clause, we can conduct our standing committee meetings virtually. Parliament session can also be conducted under a hybrid system, where for a quorum, at least 10% members can be present in the House and the rest can join by videoconferencing, thereby adhering to social distancing.
Several states have brought in changes to labour laws against the backdrop of reverse migration recently. In your opinion, is there a need for greater standardization of labour laws across the country, or do you think federal autonomy strengthens such systems?
It came to our notice during the first month of lockdown that some states brought in drastic changes in labour laws. Every change of course was not relating to migration of labour. Some changes have been made to do away with bottlenecks and some looked forward to do the same.
The labour force in Assam or Kerala, which works in plantations, has a different work culture from the workers of Punjab; we cannot have one system that fits all here. Therefore, every State is empowered to make provisions for labour, keeping their actual needs in view. But as a nation, there has to be a policy guideline, which every state must adhere to.