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June 06, 2023

India: New Labor Law in India: In Favor or Against Those it is Meant to Benefit?

Kalyani Menon

In February 2023, the Karnataka legislature (a state legislature in India) passed a bill (the bill/act) that allows for 12-hour workdays in industries, women to work night shifts and lets overtime extend from 75 hours to 145 hours in three months. The bill amends the Factories Act of 1948, which is a social legislation that was established to ensure the safety, health and welfare of workers at work. This bill was passed without a debate in the Legislative Assembly but was opposed by the opposition party in Karnataka’s Legislative Council. Despite the opposition in the upper house, the bill was subsequently passed by the Legislative Council.

The bill tries to make flexible labor laws to increase investments in India and so that the country can stay in competition with others. The state government argues that such labor reforms will push India closer to its competitors in the manufacturing sectors, such as China, Vietnam and Taiwan. The Karnataka government also stated that the act would increase capacity and create more working opportunities for the women in the state. The participation of women in India’s labor force is abysmal, and China and Vietnam have better representation in comparison. The law tries to increase employment opportunities and economic activities. With this law comes a concern of safety and consent. The bill seems to take this into account by laying down various conditions such as sufficient restrooms for women, transportation at night, good lighting in the place of work, CCTVs and the setting up of a complaint redressal mechanism. It also requires the written consent of workers in order to enforce overtime or night shifts.

However, labor union representatives have been and continue to be highly apprehensive of the amendment provisions. These provisions will set an unhealthy precedent in the state, overstretching worker capacity to the detriment of their health and well-being. It allows companies to reduce hiring more employees to cut costs. The amendment is only applied to a particular sector and is not a generalized law that adversely affects only those who already are oppressed. This bill was passed without any input or discussions with trade unions and has been opposed as being exploitative.

If there is a need for increased production, the companies must hire new people. But the law that was passed only keeps in mind the interest of company owners and not laborers. Further, even though the amendments are based on consent, it will put a higher burden on the workers and may not always be voluntary or consensual. The workers in factories already lack bargaining power, these amendments will only further their issues and could create an environment where humans are made to work like machines.

Kalyani Menon

LLM Candidate, Georgetown University Law Center

Washington, D.C.

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