Wipro founder and chairperson Azim Premji on Saturday said he was “shocked” at state governments’ decision to suspend labour laws that protect workers on the pretext of attracting much-needed investment to an economy battered by Covid-19.

Premji said the assumption that dilution of these laws will spur economic growth and create employment is a fallacy, or a “false choice” which is not only unjust but also dysfunctional. “Such measures tend to pit workers and businesses against each other,” he said. “Diluting these already lax laws will not boost economic activity, it will only exacerbate the conditions of the low wage earners and the poor.”

He talked about the 16 migrant workers who were killed in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad last week. “Like millions of others who lost their livelihood, they were starving,” he said. He called these deaths an “unforgivable tragedy” and one of the “most wrenching markers of the tremendous misery” that the weakest and poorest of citizens are bearing. “Those sixteen young men died because we have almost no social security and too little worker protection – not because we have too much of it.”

Premji said that such kind of “unjust treatment” of migrant workers amid a prolonged shutdown has soiled the “social contract between business and labour”. “This is a false choice,” he said. “This triggered the mass reverse migration of labour, undermining businesses.”

According to him, the importance of the rights of workers should be understood in the larger context of the economic devastation of the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on the agrarian sector, the informal economy and on small business across rural and urban areas. “The economic damage and the ensuing humanitarian crisis are immense,” he added.

The pandemic must be dealt with on the healthcare front fully and comprehensively, while the people and the economy must be supported equally to reduce the plight of the people and minimise long-term damage, he said.

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While the Centre’s Rs 20-lakh-crore economic relief package is an important step to revive the economy and help the poor, Premji said the financial outlay should be used to take some immediate critical actions. According to him, expanding MGNREGA may be the most important step to help the most disadvantaged and poor to whom it should be provided. Meanwhile, enhancing social security is the most important action to mitigate the widespread humanitarian crisis, he added.

He also stressed on the need to investment in public health. “No one should be forced either to stay back or to return to their home states,” he said. “Stranded migrant workers should be allowed to travel for free on buses and trains.”

Labour Laws

On May 6, the Uttar Pradesh Cabinet decided to suspend 35 of the 38 labour laws in the state for three years. Three laws have been exempted from the ordinance: the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996; the Workmen Compensation Act, 1923, and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, which relates to timely payment of wages, will also continue to be in force. Madhya Pradesh exempted firms from inspections by the labour department and maintenance of registers while also allowing flexibility in extending the shifts of workers.

At least seven states have raised maximum working hours from 48 to 72 a week. Factory workers in India may now be required to work 12 hours a day, with six-hour shifts spread over 13 hours. While Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana will pay overtime rates specified under Section 59 of the Factories Act of 1948, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have said that they will pay only regular wages. Rajasthan has been silent on the subject of overtime payment to workers.