Labour, Jobs and Employment – Harmonization of labour laws, gender gap, unemployment, etc.

Is the suspension of labour laws a silver bullet?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Various labour laws.

Mains level: Paper 2- Legal issues in the suspension of labour laws by the States.

In keeping with the exigencies caused by the pandemic, some State governments have suspended several provision of labour laws. This article analyses the implications of such suspensions. And also emphasises the lack of legal basis in the State governments actions. Evolution of the labour laws in India is also discussed here. So, what are these legal issues? Read to know more…

Some labour laws suspended by the UP government

  • The Uttar Pradesh government has issued an ordinance keeping in abeyance almost all labour statutes.
  • Which includes laws on maternity benefits and gratuity.
  • The Factories Act, 1948.
  • The Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
  • The Industrial Establishments (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.
  • The Trade Unions Act, 1926.
  • This will take away the protection conferred on organised labour by Parliament.

Some repressive labour laws in colonial era

  • Bengal Regulations VII, 1819 was enacted for the British planters in Assam tea estates.
  • Workers had to work under a five-year contract and desertion was made punishable.
  • Later, the Transport of Native Labourers’ Act, 1863 was passed in Bengal.
  • The Act strengthened control of the employers and even enabled them to detain labourers in the district of employment and imprison them for six months.
  • Bengal Act VI of 1865 was later passed to deploy Special Emigration Police to prevent labourers from leaving and return them to the plantation after detention.

Workers’ struggle in British India

  • The labour laws in India have emerged out of workers’ struggles, which were very much part of the freedom movement against oppressive colonial industrialists.
  • Since the 1920s there were a series of strikes and agitations for better working conditions.
  • Several trade unionists were arrested under the Defence of India Rules.
  • The workers’ demands were supported by our political leaders.
  • Britain was forced to appoint the Royal Commission on Labour, which gave a report in 1935.
  • The Government of India Act, 1935 enabled greater representation of Indians in law-making.
  • This resulted in reforms, which are forerunners to the present labour enactments.
  • The indentured plantation labour saw relief in the form of the Plantations Labour Act, 1951.

Acts passed in India to protect workers’ rights

  • The Factories Act lays down eight-hour work shifts, with overtime wages, weekly offs, leave with wages and measures for health, hygiene and safety.
  • The Industrial Disputes Act provides for workers participation to resolve wage and other disputes through negotiations so that strikes/lockouts, unjust retrenchments and dismissals are avoided.
  • The Minimum Wages Act ensures wages below which it is not possible to subsist.

Constitutional basis of the labour laws

  • These enactments further the Directive Principles of State Policy.
  • These laws also protect the right to life and the right against exploitation under Articles 21 and 23.
  • Trade unions have played critical roles in transforming the life of a worker from that of servitude to one of dignity.
  • In the scheme of socio-economic justice the labour unions cannot be dispensed with.

Is the suspension of labour laws legally sound?

  • The Supreme Court, in Glaxo Laboratories v. The Presiding Officer, Labour (1983) said about contract between employer and employee “the contract being not left to be negotiated by two unequal persons but statutorily imposed.”
  • The ‘two unequal’ here refers to the inequality between employee and employer.
  • In Life Insurance Corporation v. D. J. Bahadur & Ors (1980), the Supreme Court highlighted that any changes in the conditions of service can be only through a democratic process of negotiations or legislation.
  • Moreover, Parliament did not delegate to the executive any blanket powers of exemption. 
  • Section 5 of the Factories Act empowers the State governments to exempt only in case of a “public emergency”.
  • Which is explained as a “grave emergency whereby the security of India or any part of the territory thereof is threatened, whether by war or external aggression or internal disturbance”.
  • There is no such threat to the security of India now.
  •  Labour is a concurrent subject in the Constitution and most pieces of labour legislation are Central enactments.
  • The U.P. government by Ordinance has said that labour laws will not apply for the next three years.
  •  How can a State government, in one fell swoop, nullify Central enactments?
  • The Constitution does not envisage approval by the President of a State Ordinance which makes a whole slew of laws enacted by Parliament inoperable in the absence of corresponding legislations on the same subject.
  • The orders of the State governments therefore lack statutory support. 

Consider the question, “Several State governments have resorted to the suspension of labour laws in the aftermath of corona crisis. Examine the implications of the suspension of the laws for the rights of the labours.”


Governments have a constitutional duty to ensure just, humane conditions of work and maternity benefits. The health and strength of the workers cannot be abused by force of economic necessity. Labour laws are thus civilisational goals and cannot be trumped on the excuse of a pandemic.



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