New Labour Codes : How to Prepare for the Challenges Ahead?

A couple of years ago, India’s Parliament approved four new Labour Codes that cover important areas such as Wages, Social Security, Industrial Relations and Occupational Safety and Health. Labour reforms have been a long-pending agenda item for successive governments. The creation of these codes was aimed at modernizing, rationalizing and strengthening India’s arguably archaic labour-related laws. The new codes are also intended to attract investments into various sectors and make it easier to do business in India.

Although the Central Government notified these four new Labour Codes in September 2020, even now, a majority of states have not notified rules; less than half the states have even come up with draft rules. There has been some talk in recent days that the government may decide to implement the new codes effective 1 July. While this has not been officially confirmed, the inevitability of the implementation of the new codes makes it important for state governments to quickly come up with their draft rules and allow time for consultation so that loopholes and lacunae can be plugged before they come into effect. There will naturally be protests against the new laws because any change causes pain by forcing people outside their zones of comfort.

Once the new labour codes come into effect, two key changes will occur that will directly impact employees and organizations:

Working hours: It is expected that working hours may increase from the current 9 hours a day to 12 hours a day. The flip side, however, is that employees will need to work only four days a week, instead of the current five.

Take-home salary: The new wage code stipulates that an employee’s “basic salary” must be at least 50% of the total salary. This will cause changes to allowances and other perquisites that are widely used for tax planning purposes. A higher Basic Salary also means that deductions towards retirement benefits such as provident fund and gratuity will increase. In turn, this will reduce the net take-home salary for employees. However, this also means that employees will accumulate a much larger corpus of money when they retire, in effect, trading off current consumption with future security.

Adapting to this change will require companies to revisit policies, employment terms and contracts and even operating procedures. It may require fresh investments in amenities for workers and other employees at factories, construction sites, stores etc. New compliance requirements will arise, which means that business leaders, HR teams and those responsible for compliance must gear up to ensure that the organisation remains compliant with the new set of rules. This task becomes more difficult because the new codes have amalgamated a number of laws. For example, four laws have been amalgamated into the Wage Code, three into the Industrial Relations Code, nine into the Social Security Code and thirteen laws into the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020.

Organizations must also keep in mind that these new codes will need to be implemented in tandem with hybrid ways of working. Even when employees were required to work for only 9 hours a day, there have been many instances of individuals (across industries and companies) working for 14 hours a day in a “work from home” model. Care must be taken to ensure that work-life balance is not further damaged by the extended working hours that the new codes provide for.

Business organizations with offices and production facilities in multiple locations spread across a number of states will need to be extra careful to ensure compliance with every state’s laws. Enterprises considering M&A will need to evaluate the costs of compliance with the new labour codes as part of their due diligence and strategic/financial assessment during valuation. Expert advice will be needed to minimize the pain that will inevitably accompany the transition. But given the intent of the new labour codes, it is fair to say that if they are backed by pragmatic rules, they will surely play a key role in accelerating the country’s economic growth in the years ahead.

Image Credits: Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Adapting to this change will require companies to revisit policies, employment terms and contracts and even operating procedures. It may require fresh investments in amenities for workers and other employees at factories, construction sites, stores etc. 

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Legal Framework for the Workforce of the Future

Every economic collapse paves the way to a transformative legacy, the pandemic is no exception. Globally, since 2020, the fluctuating and deliberate government-imposed lockdowns have forced the replacement of traditional work operations with automated labour platforms, virtual collaborations and digitized workforce interfaces[1]. According to International Labor Organization (ILO), the work from home arrangement has become an unexpected experiment that has managed to break the traditional barriers of working life and technology.

As the ‘new normal’ fixes its roots into the traditional office space, it is imperative to structure a regulatory legal framework that governs the ‘workforce of the future.’ Considering 96% of the organizations have successfully switched to work-from-home set-ups domestically since 2020, it is time for India to incorporate the new work culture into its legislative framework, in alignment with countries worldwide[2].

This article deliberates upon the exigency and structure of new work from the home regulatory regime, by mapping the work from home policies across the globe and analyzing the gaps in the present labour laws in the country that demand a more sincere reflection in the backdrop of the ‘new normal.’

Need of Comprehensive Legal Framework for Work from Home in India

 

          Fig: The economist[3]                                                              Fig: Statista[4]

The above two graphs illustrate two different statistics of work from home; graph 1 shows WFH working hours of employees per week in western countries, while graph 2 shows a survey of Indian millennials on lifestyle and work during a pandemic.

As per Graph 1, Britain has the highest percentage of work from home per week, with approximately 40% of the employees’ working-from-home for 5 or more days per week from 9 AM to 5 PM. In stark contrast, the Indian survey shows that work from home increased the office workload of 81% of employees which indicates that Indian employees are utilizing more energy than an average British employee. 

Additionally, 55% of Indian employees claim they do not enjoy work from home and 57% of employees say that work from home has pulled their career back. From these statistics, it appears that the issues outlined hereabove are the specific product of a lack of legislative or contractual conventions surrounding the treatment of employees participating through the Work From Home Model[5], and they indicate the urgent need to implement a compulsory legal framework in India governing work-from-home regime to prevent exploitation and loss of valuable human resource in the country, especially in the very important the service sector.

In this light, the Government of India has proposed to formalize work from home facilities for the service sector, leaving the manufacturing sector beyond the legislative scope. The parameters of the regulation are yet to be ascertained[6].  

Lacunas of the Extant Labour Codes in Dealing with the Work From Home Arrangement

 

  1. The draft Model Standing Orders for Service Sector 2020 – The policy is under the discretion of companies for implementation subject to the appointment of an employee. However, this is a very loosely framed guideline to build a sustainable framework for work from home. There needs to be a strong regulatory framework that recognises the need to work from home, protects the interest of the employees and the employers and deliver resolutions accordingly. However, the draft Model Standing Orders may get complicated with the individual state labour laws.
  2. Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 (OSH Code) – The OSH Code defines the working place of employees as “establishment” refers to the physical working place of employees[7]. The OSH does not recognize work from home as the working place of the employee.[8] This puts relevant questions of safety and health of workers working outside a physical establishment of a company. As work from home becomes the new norm, the term “establishment” shall have to be broadened to normalize and adapt for the workforce of the future. Further, the OSH Code needs to ascertain strict compliance to working hours and leave policy, including making the employer liable to pay double wages for any work done beyond working hours/shifts/during leaves, also, security to employer’s data, equipment, confidential information, reverse engineering, data theft, etc., along with strict provisions curbing moonlighting by employees may be included to protect the interest of all parties concerned in a work from home scenario.       
  3. Code on Social Security, 2020 (CSS) – under the CSS few key definitions of terms that are present significantly digress from the international definitions of ILO[9], for example –“home-based work”, “remote work”, “telework”, “work at home”, “information and communications technology” etc. Categorizing and defining such terms in a unified manner is crucial for policymaking and regulating. For instance, the ILO definition of “work at home” overlaps with “home-based work” defined under CSS, but both terms have different meanings, and they collectively exclude “work from home”. The definition of “establishment”, “employment injury”, and other related provisions may be aligned with the concept of work from home to provide security to the employees in a work from the home setup.
  4. Code on Wages, 2019 (CoW)[10] – Companies has cut the pay of their employees since the economic downturn, particularly during and after the second wave. Several other factors[11] affected the evaluation of wages and allowances of employees working from home. Therefore, it is important to amend the exclusive legal framework for WFH so that employees get the promised salaries, and companies are under the express liability to pay their employees with a contractual obligation.

Additionally, to ensure that the laws pertaining to work from home are effective and efficient, it is pertinent that issues specific to work from home set up, such as the ones detailed below, are thoroughly studied and understood, before framing the regulatory framework:

  • Measurement of the time of work and conduct of work by the employee in a remote environment – The approach legislature takes with respect to the same and how the same may be incorporated into the wage structure.
  • Measures to protect employees from injury, damages, losses, etc., in a work from home set up –  Requirement on employers to provide the necessary equipment, connectivity, seating arrangement, periodic risk assessment, etc.
  • Maintenance of equipment provided to employee in pursuit of work from home, and regulation of use thereof, with consideration to allied privacy concerns.
  • The manner in which misconduct and harassment of various degrees will be evaluated in the remote environment and the application of existing legislation to such scenario.
  • Maintenance of confidentiality, exclusivity and contained environment of the employees during working hours in such remote environment, including restriction on moonlighting, data theft, confidentiality breach, reverse engineering, etc.

With the above concerns in mind, it would be pertinent to explore instances in which comparative jurisdictions where such concerns were addressed.

A Comparative Overview on Formulated and Implemented “Work from Home” Laws Across the World

 

In the recent pandemic “work from home” emerged as a pragmatic approach for employers of most sectors across the world making work feasible for individuals primarily involved in white-collar jobs. However, it did bring major challenges and inconsistencies for employees who were made to work after office hours were overburdened and sometimes exploited. Observing the changing workplace scenario, governments were proactive in finding solutions to make employees dependable and employers accountable.

Spain: Spain legislated on remote work in September 2020. Remote work must be voluntary and reversible, and formalized in a written agreement without prejudice to general employment legislation or existing collective bargaining agreements. The law clarifies whom it applies to, i.e., those under an employment contract, and who have rendered “remote work” for a minimum period of three months, for at least 30% of an employee’s working day, or an equivalent percentage based on the contract. It also differentiates between “telework” and “work from home”. Companies are to provide resources, equipment and consumables necessary to perform and maintain work remotely. Further, employees have a right to payment and compensation for expenses on equipment, the right to privacy and data protection, and a right to digital disconnection, amongst others. At the same time, the law empowers employers to ensure that remote employees fulfil their duties well.

Finland: Finland has provided flexible working opportunities for years. This is partly because of legislation, allowing employees the right to adjust their working hours for maximum flexibility, since the mid-1990s. The Finnish Working Time Act, 2019 was recently amended[12] to introduce key changes towards creating adaptive working arrangements on flexible work hours, flexible working arrangements and the introduction of ‘working time accounts’. The Act has several features affording flexibility. Employers and employees may agree to flexible working hour arrangements, subject to regular working time not exceeding 40 hours and adjustment of excess hours worked. The Act also permits individual flexible work arrangements where employees decide on placement and performance at least half of the working time, setting out a number of aspects such an arrangement must cover (such as days on which working hours may be allocated, weekly rest periods and fixed working hours). The Act enables agreements on working time accounts, where working hours, earned time-off and monetary benefits can be exchanged for time off. Agreements on working time accounts must cover certain elements.

The United Kingdom: Flexible Working Arrangements (FWAs) were allowed via a process of proposal and negotiation in 2002, to assist employees with care-taking responsibilities in requesting FWAs. The UK’s approach to flexible work is predicated on three main pillars viz. qualifying employees proposing changes in relation to hours, time and location of work; an employer’s duty to consider such application in a “reasonable manner” with refusal only on pre-specified grounds (such as additional costs and inability to re-organise work amongst existing employees); and escalation to employment tribunals by employees, in limited circumstances. The UK’s approach is considered “light-touch regulation”, and is based on a foundation of dialogue and negotiation between employers and employees. Australia and New Zealand have also adopted similar legislation.

The European Union: The European Union (EU) has a “Work-Life Balance Directive” adopted in 2019, which provides FWAs for parents and caregivers.

Singapore: Singapore has an interesting alternative to the rights-based approach to FWAs adopted in the UK. Through a set of voluntary “Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements” formulated in consultation with multiple stakeholders, employers can adopt practices that assist employees better managing work-life needs, while enhancing productivity. Such employers are employers of choice, and can use a logo-mark in recruitment and marketing.

Re-evaluation of Laws Necessary to Accommodate the New Work Culture

 

In a nutshell, the present labour and employment laws in India are incapable of addressing the concerns of work-from-home regime. Hence, re-evaluation of the present laws is important to amalgamate the “Work From Home” model into legislation to ensure welfare of the employees, workers and other relevant stakeholders. The above discussed international legislations aim to sustain a healthy and safe working environment for the employees within and outside the “establishment”. Finland and Singapore’s legislation provides flexible working hours and arrangements. The UK approach of “light touch regulation” is also innovative and promotes healthy relations between employees and employers. Taking que from the regulatory frameworks of countries across the world, India should aim to formalize “Work From Home” policies that benefit the employees while balancing the burden on employers. Worker and employee rights should be the central focus of development in the country, in order to fully reap the gains of this transformative legacy!

The present labour and employment laws of India are incapable of addressing the concerns of the work-from-home regime. Hence, re-evaluation of the present laws is important to amalgamate the WFH model into legislation to ensure the welfare of the employees, workers and other relevant stakeholders.

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Consolidation of Labour Laws - Balancing ease of Business with Employee Right

Over the last few years, there have been talks by the government to reform the existing labour laws, which are mostly archaic, to make them compatible with current issues and needs of the labour market. In the Union Budget 2019, the Government has pushed ahead with such reforms and proposed to streamline over 44 central laws and over 100 State laws pertaining to labour into 4 major Labour Codes, with the objective of increasing the ‘ease of doing business’ and ‘Make in India’ initiatives.

The government hopes that by standardizing definitions, registrations, and filings, there would be less conflict and fewer reasons for disputes.

The 4 Labour Codes passed by the Government in 2019 and more recently in September 2020 are as follows:

Labour Code

Passed in Lok Sabha

Passed in Rajya Sabha

Presidential Assent

Existing Laws Subsumed

Code of Wages 2019

30th July, 2019

2nd August, 2019

8th August, 2019

·  Payment of Wages Act, 1936

·  Minimum Wages Act, 1948

·  Payment of Bonus Act, 1965

·  Equal Remuneration Act, 1976

Industrial Relations Code 2020

22nd September, 2020

23rd September, 2020

28th September, 2020

·  Trade Unions Act, 1926

·  Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946

·  Industrial Disputes Act, 1947

Code on Social Security, 2020

22nd September, 2020

23rd September, 2020

28th September, 2020

·  The Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952

·  The Employees State Insurance Act, 1948

·  The Maternity Benefit Act,1961

·  The Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972

·  The Building and other Construction Workers Cess Act

·  The Employees Exchange (Compulsory Notification of Vacancies) Act, 1959

·  The Cine Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1981

·  The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008

·  Employees Compensation Act, 1923

Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020

22nd September, 2020

23rd September, 2020

28th September, 2020

·  The Factories Act, 1948

·  The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970

·  The Mines Act, 1952

·  The Dock Workers (Safety, Health and Welfare) Act, 1986

·  The Building & Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979

·  The Plantations Labour Act, 1951

·  The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979

·  The Working Journalist and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1955

·  The Working Journalist (Fixation of rates of wages) Act, 1961

·  The Cine Workers and Cinema Theatre Workers Act, 1961

·  The Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961

·  The Sales Promotion Employees (Conditions of Service) Act, 1976

·  The Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966

Brief Overview of the Labour Codes

All the Labour Codes have been aimed at broadening the scope of coverage, rights, and protections, reducing multiplicity in definitions, authorities, and compliances, and embracing more digitization in registrations/compliances. However, at the same time, the Labour Codes is largely a consolidation of existing laws rather than a significant overhaul of them, with there not being substantial changes in the position of law itself.

Code of Wages, 2019 – The Code of Wages largely covers the various aspects of wages payable to employees. The most significant aspect of the Code of Wages is a uniform definition of wages which has also been adopted across the other Labour Codes. The Code of Wages is applicable to all establishments regardless of industry, another move away from the existing position where it was limited to certain types of employment or classes of employees.

Industrial Relations Code, 2020 – The Industrial Relations Code is the Code that governs employer-employee relationships including collective bargaining, labor disputes, separation from employment and employment terms. This Code in particular has received a lot of flak from the workmen and trade unions in India, their belief being that they have been stripped of their rights and that the Code heavily favours the employer. These negative views are on account of the threshold for applicability of certified standing orders and the requirement for permission to fire employees (in certain industries) being increased greatly as well as their right to go on strike without notice being curtailed. However, the majority of rights and protections have actually been retained for employees and in fact, the coverage has broadened on account of certain definition changes. It also encourages more industries to expand operations since the law is not as onerous in some respects as before.

Code on Social Security, 2020 – Code on Social Security is intended to create a comprehensive social security system to provide retirement, health, old-age, disability, unemployment and maternity benefits to a vast majority of the population. Provident fund coverage has expanded to all establishments meeting the employee threshold. Unorganized sector, gig and platform workers have been brought in as beneficiaries under the schemes and the concept of aggregators has been included for funding of some benefit schemes. This Code has certainly been beneficial to a number of classes of employees but may prove to be a greater financial burden on employers.

Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2020 – This law has been codified in a single regulatory framework, the various laws applicable to factories, mines, plantations, contract labor and construction establishments. There has been a huge simplification of the regulatory framework, with the commonality of definitions, maintenance of registers and records, and health and safety measures. The threshold aspects have also changed in most cases, some increasing the threshold thus excluding more establishments from compliance and reducing in some cases offering welfare measures to more people.

Impact of the Labour Codes

As stated earlier, the laws in itself have not truly been significantly reformed by the Labour Codes and anyone reading the same will likely find the content quite familiar to the present situation. While many workmen and trade unions feel that the Labour Codes have curtailed their rights, it may be seen as the law finally catching up with modern times and encouraging more cooperation between parties as opposed to one-sided legal force, especially in terms of work responsibilities. The Labour Codes still offer a great deal of protection to employees and the benefits largely tilt in the employees’ favour. From a business standpoint, with the reduction in multiplicity of definitions and duplicate compliance requirements, as well as more freedom for digitization, employers will find it easier to set up or even expand their business without necessarily worrying that the labour law implications would be a huge hindrance.

Please watch out for this space as this is the first in the series of comments on the labour law amendments to be followed in further blogs in detail on each of the new codes.

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The laws in themselves have not truly been significantly reformed by the Labour Codes and anyone reading the same will likely find the content quite familiar to the present situation. While many workmen and trade unions feel that the Labour Codes have curtailed their rights, it may be seen as the law finally catching up with modern times and encouraging more cooperation between parties as opposed to one-sided legal force, especially in terms of work responsibilities

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