Safeguards for temporary workers

B. Sivaraman

Apprentices, badlis, casuals, probationers and temps—one thing common to all these five categories of workers, besides contract labourers, is their precarious existence as workers. Not only they have no job security, they are also invariably underpaid, often doing the same work as regular workers usually at a fraction of their earnings. In fact, apprentices are not even officially considered as workers. Textile industry now has policy sanction to employ badlis for fixed-term contracts sans all other statutory entitlements. The Modi government has now extended this legally questionable concession to the employers of all industries.
If we include contract workers who comprise around 11 per cent of the Tamil Nadu factory workforce in 2014–15, then all these six categories of workers together would easily account for more than 50 per cent of the total industrial workers in the state.
The sheer numbers of these causal workers add up to a social might, which forcefully surfaces in the political arena and pressures even the reluctant governments to enact progressive legislations sometimes, thanks mainly to a highly vibrant and vocal trade union movement.
During one of his tenures as chief minister, the government of late Karunanidhi unanimously passed an amendment to the Industrial Employment (Standing Order) Act 1946 in the state Assembly in May 2008. The schedules under this Act list areas where conditions and employment of the workers as well as their service conditions are defined. Earlier, they included defining the broad categories of workers like permanent and temporary, rules regarding their working hours and holidays, acts of misconduct and modes of enquiry for disciplinary action etc. The amendment introduced two new sections to the schedule—10 (a) which made it mandatory to include the five specific categories of apprentices, badlis, casuals, probationers and other temp workers and clarify the conditions of their employment and 10 (b) which laid down that the share of such non-regular workers in the total workforce should be specified.
This would bring down the level of arbitrariness and even enable the workers and their unions to challenge any unfair labour practice with greater precision. For instance, once the status of any worker is clearly recorded as per the standing order, badlis, casuals, probationers and other temps can invoke the Tamil Nadu Industrial Establishment (Conferment of Permanent Status to Workmen) Act 1981 to assert automatic regularised status once he/she completes 480 days of work in two successive years.
If any unscrupulous employer deploys more trainees than regular workers to do the same job, then the union can invoke the Supreme Court judgment in the 2003 Trayambak Rubber Industries Ltd. vs. Nashik Workers Union & Ors., which ruled that the practice of an industry running overwhelmingly only with trainees was unfair labour practice. Moreover, they can also invoke the 2011 Madras High Court judgment in the PMP Textiles case to make a case for regularisation of the trainees or priority for them while in any future recruitment of permanent workers. In that judgment, the Madras HC observed that one should not go by the nomenclature attached to a post to determine whether an individual was an apprentice or a regular worker, and it was the nature of the job which was decisive.
Moreover, invoking the recent amendment to the Contract Labour Act and the policy of fixed-term contracts, the temp workers can also demand parity in wages with the permanent workers.
Though the amendment was passed in 2008 by the DMK government, since it was passed by consensus, the following AIADMK government headed by Jayalalithaa also pursued the issue of its clearance by the Centre but the successive Central governments procrastinated that the amendment would drive away investment. However, due to popular pressure and the sustained campaign by some left trade unions, the Central approval for the passed legislation and the Presidential assent finally came in 2016 and the amended Act came into force only in July 2016. Now that it had become the law, the Madras High Court, while pronouncing judgment in a related case, directed the Tamil Nadu government on 20 July 2016 to frame new model standing order accordingly. But the Tamil Nadu government was dragging its feet and so the left wing AICCTU union had filed a PIL to expedite this. Still, the government was dilly-dallying under the pretext that it would bring down investment.
Refuting such arguments, AICCTU national president Kumaraswami argues: “Despite slipping to 12th position in terms of investment and 20th position in terms of growth rate in 2016–17, which the ruling party in the state itself attributes mainly to demonetisation, the cumulative FDI in the state between 2000 and 2017 was $ 20.51 billion and in this respect it remains among the top three investment destinations in the country. With 37,378 registered factories in 2013–14 and 17,41,427 total industrial workers, Tamil Nadu still ranks No.1 in the country in terms of industrial development, overtaking Maharashtra with its 28,949 factories and 12,33,341 industrial workers, but in all industrial belts in the state even multinationals resort to employing more temps than regulars to exploit them cheaply”.
Marshalling such arguments the AICCTU also organised a sustained campaign on the issue with Kumaraswami himself going on a hunger strike recently. After informal assurance from the state Labour department officials that the matter would soon come up before the Cabinet and the new model standing order as per the amended act would be framed in view of the High Court order, Kumaraswami concluded his fast on 24 October 2018. Thus, this union has apparently come closer to forcing the hands of the reluctant government. Lakhs of temp workers in Tamil Nadu are eagerly awaiting the new model standing order, which could provide them some minimum safeguards. Hopefully, Tamil Nadu workers would once again show the way for the rest of India. (IPA)

Saturday, 10 November, 2018