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Introduction Quote

B.R. Ambedkar therefore argued that fundamental rights must also “eliminate the possibility of the more powerful having the power to impose arbitrary restraints on the less powerful by withdrawing from the control he has over the economic life of the people”.

Labour rights

  • The 1931 Karachi Declaration and Bill of Rights expressly placed labour rights on a par with ordinary civil rights such as the freedom of speech and expression.
  • The Right Against Forced Labour (Exploitation) is guaranteed by Article 23 of the Constitution.
  • In this context of exploitation, it is important to understand that – compulsion that may not take a physical form, but instead, have a social or economic character that is nonetheless as severe.

Judicial stand

  • In 1983 the Supreme Court was called upon to address the exploitation of migrant and contract labourers, and in the landmark judgment, PUDR vs. Union of India, the Court held that the right against forced labour included the right to a minimum wage.
  • Often, migrant and contract labourers had no choice but to accept any work that came their way, even if the remuneration offered is less than the minimum wage.
  • The compulsion of economic circumstance which leaves no choice of alternatives to a person in want and compels him to provide labour or service was no less a form of forced labour than any other, and its remedy lay in a constitutional guarantee of the minimum wage.

Understanding Forced Labour in the Present context

  • A market economy is sustained by a set of laws — the laws of contract, of property, and so on.
  • This legal structure ensures that capital and labour do not face each other as equals across a mythical bargaining table.
  • There is a structural inequality that enables the capital to “make rules” or “force” the labour.
  • The purpose of labour laws, which arose out of a long period of struggle has always been to mitigate this imbalance of power.
  • In some countries, the path chosen has been to give workers a stake in private governance, through strong trade union laws and mandatory seats for labour in the governing boards of firms (“co-determination”).
  • In other countries (such as India), the path has been to create a detailed set of laws, covering different aspects of the workplace, and depend upon State agencies for their enforcement.

The Indian situation

Criticisms of Indian Labour Law Structure:

  1. It is argued that it sets up a labour bureaucracy that is prone to corruption
  2. The adjudicatory mechanisms are inefficient
  3. The rights that labour laws grant, are effectively submerged in a creaking judicial system, thus providing no relief
  4. The system creates an unconscionable tiered structure where a majority of the workforce, engaged in contract labour or informal employment, has very few rights

These problems certainly call for a debate on the future of labour rights, especially in a world where the rapidly changing nature of work is already rendering old concepts of jobs and employments obsolete.

Various State governments are in the process of removing labour laws altogether (for a set period of time). What this means, in practice, is that the economic power exercised by capital will be left unchecked.

Way Forward

  • This debate must be guided by B.R. Ambedkar’s insights that remain relevant even today, the Constitutional guarantee against forced labour, and the understanding of force and freedom that takes into account differences in power.
  • B.R. Ambedkar pointed out that “increase hours of work and reduce rates of wages” will leave the economic power exercised by capital uncontrolled.
  • If the Constitution is to remain a charter of freedom, however, it must be equal freedom — and that must be the yardstick from which we measure proposed legal changes.

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024