Cynics vs . Labour-law reform | Sunday Observer

Cynics vs . Labour-law reform

13 August, 2023

The big debate on labour law reform is not over yet. It’s probably not that big of a debate too, but it’s not over yet. The JVP for instance has been making some obligatory sounding noises about the unfair nature of contemplated reform of existing labour legislation.

Are they obligatory noises or real laments about an overhaul of laws that have stood the test of time? Are laws that purport to protect females on shift work so beneficial that any thought of tampering with them leave alone getting rid of them altogether is heresy?

If labour laws are essential to protect women workers, is that a reason to keep the entire lot of current labour legislation intact? Are good laws even assuming that they are indeed good and are not be reviewed in any way shape or form whatsoever, not to be touched even if it means keeping an entire edifice of discernibly bad laws intact, to protect these few bad ones?

That seems to be the argument of the anti-reform fringe. Fringe it is even though entire political parties have put their clout behind this position. Are there any merits behind laws that protect women workers and prohibit night shifts for females, and so on?

There are such laws and they may have done well protecting women from predatory tactics of supervisors and various males who are dominant in the factory and office worker hierarchies. But should they stop the bulk of labour laws from being reformed? Is the entire slew of currently prevailing labour law sacrosanct because it’s deemed that a few laws are so good that they ought never to be touched, so much as with a feather? (The laws that are currently opposed include those dealing with working hours, and these can be ironed out to everybody’s satisfaction in any final draft legislation. But the accent seems to be on protecting women’s shift work.)

If the NMRA (National Medicines Regulatory Authority) laws are to be reformed in their entirety why not the prevailing labour laws? Is it because these Acts and Ordinances are etched into the national psyche as being pro-worker and therefore perfect exemplars of how post-independence, the exploitative nature of society was tempered by the reformist tendencies of the pro-worker post independence political elite?


Is there something inherently obstructionist with the political parties that are not in favour of rewriting all the laws because they feel a few of them are far too good to be tampered with? Besides all that, this is a day and age where equality is a byword and it goes for eschewing gender based disparities as well. Isn’t it better to give females the equal opportunity to work any shift they want provided that they are guaranteed their personal security?

There is an emerging consensus about overhauling obsolete labour laws that make it extremely difficult for employers to get rid of workers even for disciplinary reasons. Hamstrung by such labour legislation that makes it impossible for businesses to rationalise their workforces, we are being kept from servicing the markets that would have been ours for the asking.

This is galling, when we do have many of the other attributes that make for an efficient production line that produces goods to suit the exacting demands of the modern consumers in international markets.

Besides that, we need to compete. We cannot on the one hand lament that our revenue streams are inadequate while on the other hand taking pride in labour legislation that we think is our signal post-independence achievement.

Why is it necessary to keep the entirety of our archaic labour legislation intact? Because some have said that there are a couple of laws in there that are extremely favorable in terms of protecting women’s rights?

We are competing for markets with countries such as Vietnam which don’t even have regular elections leave alone labour laws that are deemed to be the best this side of the Suez?

It’s not surprising that certain political parties want to keep archaic labour legislation intact because they feel that it’s their trump card with the labour vote. They feel they can obfuscate the issues, and instead of talking about revamping the economy, advance the cause of protecting labour.

They are probably making the miscalculation of a lifetime, but fringe parties are used to perpetuating their fringe nature, even when they proclaim that they are now the party that the majority of the population wants to place their faith in. This is delusional.

Do they think that they can attract the majority of the female voters with a populist cry for retaining all labour laws in the interests of keeping intact the narrow band of laws that prohibit certain types of shift work for women? This thinking is cynical in the extreme. They must be knowing that in any case, females work the shifts these days if not in the shops and the offices, at least in the corporate work spaces that don’t somehow seem to know or care about labour laws. Female pilots serve as captains of flights crews and take pride in helming aircraft, and breaking the glass ceiling. Is anybody flouting labour laws when these pilots — bless them — criss-cross time zones and prove to the world that anything males can do, they can probably do better?

Go to any airport and see who ‘mans’ the check in counters and the baggage carousels for the flights that leave late, or the ones that arrive early before the crack of dawn?

We are past the jet age, and onto the era of digitisation and beyond, and there are ideologues who swear fealty to labour laws regarding female night shifts to such an extent that they want the entire gamut of archaic labour legislation to be preserved, because they think these female centred laws are sacrosanct and need to be preserved at all costs. It’s quite bizarre.

Which planet are these people living in, is a fair question. The whole point of new draft legislation should be to rethink the laws altogether. Yes of course it would make a whole slew of case law obsolete and would entail to some extent, starting from scratch. But that’s the entire idea.

Our laws have been woefully inadequate in meeting contemporary challenges and this is why we are not competitive or at least not competitive as we should be. It takes a lot of doing to set up a business here, and then imagine being told that you have to shut up and put with labour laws that are designed to protect emancipated women who want to compete as equals.


It’s this sort of thinking — that we are the paragons of virtue when it comes to protecting the perceived downtrodden or marginalised — that led us to a place where we are hamstrung with the kind of labour laws we have in the first place. Yes of course some of that legislation has protected workers and notably the laws that ensure that employers contribute to pension funds or other post retirement trust funds are not just emancipated, they are now a sine qua non in any part of the world.

But there is no point in getting emotional about the the rest of the laws that come with the essential and important EPF and ETF legislation. When there is veritably a war to get the economy back on track, and get investor confidence shored up after the most harrowing economic crisis we went through since independence, there are ideologues that want to keep us burning incense at the altar of old-left labour glory.

The old-left had its heyday, and it’s leaders are still to be saluted for putting a stop to exploitative labour practices that were a hangover essentially from a colonial era feudalist past. But they did their bit and some of those best practices are now the accepted norm worldwide.

Why we don’t want is old left fervour that ties us to practices that are so archaic that we appear to investors either local or foreign as a species out of a different age, where we bow and scrape before some antiquated laws our dear departed leaders made for us ages ago.