Draft Manufacturing Policy : Fresh Assault on Workers’ Rights

Workers’ hard-won rights and labour laws to rein in exploitative employers are today facing attack after attack by neoliberal governments in India. One such attack on the anvil is the UPA Government’s Draft National Manufacturing Policy, which plans to introduce the latest and more expanded avatar of SEZs – NMIZs (National Manufacturing Investment Zones). The Ministries of Labour and Environment have reportedly expressed reservations to the NMIZs proposal, but the UPA Government is pressing ahead with it.           
SEZs, touted as a panacea for development, have already become notorious for land grab and exploitative work conditions. Increasingly SEZs have been facing trouble in land acquisition due to spiralling protests by peasants against land grab. Now, NMIZs are being proposed as the new mantra for development.
As far as land grab and violation of environment and forest laws is concerned, as well as exploitation of labour laws, NMIZs are nothing but a proposed extension of SEZs, albeit in a new packaging. NMIZs are being pitched as a measure to increase the share of manufacturing in GDP and the manufacturing sector’s share in employment. As of now, agriculture in India contributes increasingly less to the GDP even as its share in employment remains disproportionately high. The UPA Government is packaging NMIZs as the answer to agrarian crisis and massive unemployment. But in the name of creating a ‘conducive policy environment’ for manufacturing, the aim is to strip workers of their rights, not just in isolated SEZ enclaves, but in mainstream industrial clusters across India.
The Draft National Manufacturing Policy proposes that NMIZs will enjoy a similar package of sops and incentives as SEZs – including land, infrastructure, water, power etc provided by the government as well as various tax waivers. Like SEZs, each NMIZ will be administered exclusively by a governing body called a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) comprising CEOs and company representatives. The procedures for acquiring environmental and other clearances are to be ‘simplified’ and speeded up. And above all, labour laws are to be “made more flexible.”
The Draft Manufacturing Policy proposes that manufacturing units within NMIZs be given the “flexibility to downsize” (a euphemism for hire-and-fire); exemption from the Contract Labour Abolition Act (i.e. freedom to indulge in labour practices which are deemed exploitative by the law of the land); freedom to extend temporary status of employees; to extend the number of hours per shift; and curtailment of the workers’ right to unionize.
It should be noted that rampant violation of labour laws prevails as the norm in manufacturing units as it is. The automobile industry, to take just one instance, is known to be dependent upon a disproportionately high percentage of contract workers. Even in the public sector, illegal employment of contract labour is on the rise. The right to unionise is routinely denied and suppressed in most factories. Now, in the name of NMIZs, these violations of labour laws are sought to be cloaked in the sanctity of law.
The Draft Manufacturing Policy adds that “Wherever application of labour welfare legislation is suspended or diluted, an alternative safety net will be put in place to take care of the interest of labour by the SPV.” When existing labour laws are ‘suspended or diluted,’ what kind of ‘alternative safety net’ can workers expect from the SPV that comprises of the employers themselves?  
The Draft Manufacturing Policy also proposes that the ‘exit policy’ for ‘sick industries’ be facilitated by relaxing the obligations to pay dues and compensation to workers before closing down sick units. This, according to the Policy, would “ease the pressure on the manufacturing entity considerably.” Instead it proposes a ‘job loss insurance policy’ in place of the workers’ legally mandated rights.

With the NMIZs, the UPA Government seems to be aiming to kill two birds with one stone: to create a new cover for the SEZs (which have become a political liability) and corporate grab of land and resources; and to achieve dilution of labour laws, something the corporate representatives have insistently demanded for long. ‘Development’ cannot be counter-posed to democracy – be it peasants’ democratic right to land and survival or workers’ rights which are the bulwark of industrial democracy. This May, let the working class resolve to join hands with the peasants to resist this double-edged threat to the land and livelihood of peasants and to the hard-won rights of workers.