A Summary of Comments on Assam State Rules on Labour codes

[Submitted by AICCTU, Other Central Trade Unions and Civil Rights Organisations on the Assam State Rules on Labour Codes]

When the entire country was reeling under the disastrous impact of the first phase of lockdown in 2020, when millions of workers all across the country were forced to walk back thousands of kilometres and rendered jobless within moments of announcement of the lockdown, had not yet returned to their places of work. The Modi government was only busy enacting labour codes and in selling off national wealth from September 2020. The four labour codes that replace fourty four labour laws, have been brought with the stated purpose of simplifying laws and encouraging the ‘ease of doing business’. But, in effect, these labour codes are designed to destroy all important rights of the working class that were earned through years of struggles and countless sacrifices. Just like the farm laws against the farmers, these codes have also been legistated only to favour the corporates and to establish a rule of the companies - a company raj. A detailed analysis of the disastrous impact of the four labour codes- the Code on Wages, Industrial Relations Code, Social Security Code and Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code - have been published in earlier editions of Workers Resistance (also available in our website, ‘aicctu.org’).

In this article, we summarise the response of AICCTU, other central trade unions and civil rights organisations to Assam State Rules on Labour Codes formulated by the Government of Assam.

To begin with, the state rules formulated by the Assam Government were not even made available in Assamese language, thus making it inaccessible to the common workers. These rules were not even widely circulated to ensure proper feedback from workers. In effect, the entire claim of seeking feedback from workers appears to be a sham. We have also demanded from the labour department of Assam that the Assam government should enact its own state specific law keeping in view the specific nature of Assam’s working class as the labour matters falls under the concurrent list.

On behalf of Joint Action Committee for Tea Worker's Wage, All Adivasi Students Association of Assam, Assam Sangram Chah Sramik Sangha, All Adivasi Women Association of Assam, Akhil Bhartia Chah Mazdoor Sangha, Assam Mazdoor Union, the following response is formulated and submitted on Assam Draft Rules on Social Security Code -

1. Failure to  Universalise  Social  Security for Informal Workers:

Following the Labour Code acts passed by the central government, the Assam state government too uses exclusionary threshold of number of workers working in an establishment for applicability under the social security code. By this criteria, majority of formal and informal workers, covered hitherto, will be excluded from the applicability under the SS Code. It is demanded from Assam government to do away with the exclusionary criterion and include every worker who is currently working.

2. Burden of Contribution on Worker- The Assam Draft Rules on Social Security code indicates that the informal workers need to contribute to Social Security fund for availing any scheme. Given the present situation of job market and retrenchments, it will become really difficult for any worker to to pay out of their pockets for social security schemes. And what is social security if it does not guarantee rights when a worker is caught in the most unsecure situation? Thus, it is demanded that the government and the employer should take primary responsibility for ensuring social security to workers and the burden should not be shifted on the workers.

3. Exemption for Employers from Contribution- The Draft rules provide for exemption from contribution for employers, but it does not specify the criterion for such exemption. Thus, the draft rules have clearly opened up opportunities for the employers to evade their responsibility of contributing towards the social security of workers.

4. Evading Worker’s Representation in Social Security Board: By avoiding to clearly mention the procedure of representation of workers and trade unions as well as their rights in the social security boards, the present rules have deliberately created avenues to deny representation of workers in the board and thus deny a role for workers and the trade unions in the decision making process that would have consequences on the rights and lives of workers.

5. No Guarantee of Right to Privacy of Workers: While the Draft Rules do not guarantee right to social security for all informal workers, it provides for centralised collection of data of all workers. The personal information of the workers can be shared with the state by the employer and the aggregator. In the absence of a data protection act in place in Assam, the centralised collection of data of informal workers will only lead to breach of their privacy which can be misused at any point of time by those in power.

6. Absence of Helpline and Workers’ Facilitation Centre: Facilitation Centres  and  toll-free helplines to ensure access of informal workers to social security schemes have not been provided for in the Draft Rules, even though these were mentioned in the Code on Social Security, 2020. The draft rules must create provisions for facilitation centres, starting from district to tehsil level.

7. Missed Opportunity to Expand the Meaning of Social Security via State Legislation: The Labour Code on Social Security 2020 advocates all nine indicators/measures of social security formulated by the ILO convention 102. It also talks about formulating a tailor based social security through a subsidiary legislation. But the Draft Rules formulated by Assam is completely silent on the provision of formulating a subsidiary legislation. It appears that the government of Assam is more interested in copy pasting the central code rather than being concerned about the rights of workers of the state.

On Draft State Rules on Industrial Relations Code

1. Replace ‘He’ with They/Them: The entire draft rules use a male chauvinistic language that makes only males as the workforce and the employer. It is demanded to change the language and make it gender neutral.

2.  Remove Authority of the Employer to Seek Details of Trade Union Membership while Forming Works Committee: Forming works committee is a duty of the employer to address grievances of workers. Seeking details of distribution of membership of Trade Unions should not be under the purview of the employer. Registered trade unions submit such details annually to the registrar. Such details can be sought from the office of the registrar. Repeating that process would mean creating unnecessary hassles in the process of forming Works Committee.

3. Undo the Unequal Power Balance that Favours the Employer in the Constitution of the Works Committee: The rules have been formulated in such a way that representative of the employer will hold the post of Chairperson and the Secretary while the representatives of the employee will hold the position of Vice-Chairperson and Joint Secretary. If the Works Committee is to be transformed into any genuine grievance redressal mechanism, then, this unequal power balance shall be done away with. All the four positions mentioned above should be made rotational among all stakeholders and the representatives of the employers, at no point, should enjoy the status of the Chairperson and the Secretary simultaneously.

We have also demanded that all the four positions be elected from among members of the works committee and by the members of the works committee alone, rather than the employer choosing or appointing the Chairperson and the Secretary. Let the spirit of participation and equal power share be reflected in the functioning and constitution of Works Committee.

4. Ensure Equal Representation of Women in Works Committee: Representation of women proportionate to the number of women workers in the industrial establishment must be made mandatory in the constitution of the works committee.

5. Engage Instead of Co-Opt External Specialists: The present rules state that persons with special knowledge in the field can be co-opted in the committee for any specific matter in a consultative capacity. Rather, the word ‘co-opt’ should be replaced by ‘engage’ if their status is only of consultative capacity and they should have no role in decision making.

6. The Secretary of the Works Committee MUST Put Up Notice Regarding Work of the Works Committee- The Present Rules make it optional, not mandatory for the secretary to put up notice regarding work of the works committee. For the sake of transparency and accountability, it should be a mandatory responsibility of the secretary to put up notice on the functioning of the works committee.

7.  Remove Authority of the Employer to Seek Details of Trade Union Membership while Forming Grievance Redressal Committee: The reason for this proposal is the same as mentioned in our response for the formation of works committee (point number 2 in response to industrial relation rules in this article)

8. Subscription Fee of Trade Unions Should Be Left to the Concerned Trade Union: The rules mention minimum hundred rupees per annum subscription fee for rural and unorganised workers and three hundred rupees per annum for urban and organised workers. Firstly, this is the minimum subscription fee mentioned in the rules. This leaves an immense scope of overe -charging by trade unions closer to the establishment. Secondly, subscription fee should be a matter of consensus between workers and the trade union.

9. In Case of insufficient membership of trade union, the verification of the union should be undertaken by someone who is well acquainted with labour laws, for example, a labour officer appointed by the labour department and not by the municipality or zila parishad officials.

10. The Registrar should provide acknowledgment of receipt of application for registration of any trade union.

11. Ensure Timely Redressal of Registration of Trade Unions: Any application for registration of a trade union shall be processed and finalized within three months of receipt of the application. If any correction is needed in the application, the same should be informed within 30 days of the submission of application and with an additional time of 30 days for correction of any mistake.

12. Remove the Criterion for Cancellation of Registration Based on Proportion of Membership: The rules mention that the registrar will have the power to cancel registration of any trade union if the total membership is less than 10% of all workers or less than 100, whichever is lower. Even those unions which do not fulfill the criteria for representation shall also be offered representation in conciliation and negotiation mechanism as their participation too is needed.

13. Regarding Negotiation : The rules state that the negotiating union or the negotiating council shall be entitled to negotiate with the employer or employers with respect to all  matters pertaining to the Third Schedule to the Industrial Relations Code with the exception of point 10 related to rationalisation, standardisation or improvement of plant or technique. But, as the exemption is likely to lead to retrenchment of workers, a wide consultation with all workers regardless of their union affiliation must be conducted. We have demanded that the negotiating unions/councils as representatives of workers should be empowered to negotiate on the number of working days in a week, as well as on the number of feeding intervals for women workers with children.

As the phrase ‘circumstances over which the employer has no control’ has not been defined anywhere in the Code or the Rules. The determination of such circumstances has been left to the discretion of the employer. Such unrestricted discretion in the hands of employers is against the interests of the workers and therefore shall be omitted in the application of R. 18 of the Assam Industrial Relations Rules, 2021.

14. Regarding Verification of Membership of Trade Unions: We have said that a minimum of 3 months notice period is necessary so that workers are able to file their objections and concerns with the trade unions, and both workers and trade unions are able to resolve any membership related disputes or discrepancies in the said period. We have also demanded that the notification for the verification should be put up in local language.

15. Regarding Who Will Negotiate on Behalf of the Union: We have demanded that the provision of intimating the employer about name of the negotiator should be done away with. Any such intimation may lead to intimidation of the worker, participation hesitancy, and fear of retributions among workers/members.

16. We have demanded that any worker or member participating in discussions held by the negotiating Union/ Council shall be deemed to be on duty as on that day by the employer.

17. Remove Provision of Informing the Employer about Name of Union Member Who Will be Collecting Sums from the Workers - We have demanded removal of the provision because it is a matter of the internal functioning of the trade union as to who is responsible for collecting sums on behalf of the union. We have also demanded that the provision that restricts involvement of more than five workers at the place of collection of sums be removed in its entirety.

18. Regarding General Funds of the Trade Unions, we have demanded that expenses on printing, travelling allowance, meetings and propaganda and miscellaneous be included.

Because of very short period of time given for responses to be submitted, we have not been able to give a full response on all clauses of Industrial Relations rules. Our demand to recall and renotify the rules, publish them in Assamese and widely circulate them to avail response from workers and Trade Unions still stand. These rules are going to determine the rights of workers of Assam in the coming days and forcing them without any consultation will be a breach of rights, even from the very beginning of implementation of the rules. ν