Markets everywhere tend to be exploitative of people – whether as workers, consumers or producers. To protect people from such exploitation, the government makes certain laws. These laws try to ensure that the unfair practices are kept at a minimum in the markets.
Private companies, contractors, businesspersons normally want to make as much profit as they can. In the drive for profits, they might deny workers their rights and not pay them wages. In the eyes of the law it is illegal or wrong to deny workers their wages. Similarly to ensure that workers are not underpaid, or are paid fairly, there is a law on minimum wages. A worker has to be paid not less than the minimum wage by the employer. The minimum wages are revised upwards every few years.
As with the law on minimum wages, which is meant to protect workers, there are also laws that protect the interests of producers and consumers in the market. These help ensure that the relations between these three parties – the worker, consumer and producer – are governed in a manner that is not exploitative.
Through making, enforcing and upholding these laws, the government can control the activities of individuals or private companies so as to ensure social justice. Many of these laws have their basis in the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. For instance, the Right against Exploitation says that no one can be forced to work for low wages or under bondage. Similarly, the Constitution lays down “no child below the age of 14 shall be employed to work in any factory or mines or any other hazardous employment.”
One reason why foreign companies come to India is for cheap labour. Wages that the companies pay to workers are far higher than what they have to pay to workers in poorer countries like India. For lower pay, companies can get longer hours of work. Additional expenses such as for housing facilities for workers are also fewer. Thus, companies can save costs and earn higher profits.
One part of the answer lies in what is perceived as the worth of an Indian worker. One worker can easily replace another. Since there is so much unemployment, there are many workers who are willing to work in unsafe conditions in return for a wage. Making use of the workers’ vulnerability, employers ignore safety in workplaces. Thus, even so many years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, there are regular reports of accidents in construction sites, mines or factories due to the callous attitude of the employers.
As the lawmaker and enforcer, the government is supposed to ensure that safety laws are implemented. It is also the duty of the government to ensure that the Right to Life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution is not violated.
With more industries being set up both by local and foreign businesses in India, there is a great need for stronger laws protecting workers’ rights and better enforcement of these laws.
In 1984, there were very few laws protecting the environment in India, and there was hardly any enforcement of these laws. The environment was treated as a ‘free’ entity and any industry could pollute the air and water without any restrictions. Whether it was our rivers, air, groundwater; the environment was being polluted and the health of people disregarded.
The Bhopal disaster brought the issue of environment to the forefront. Several thousands of persons who were not associated with the factory in any way were greatly affected because of the poisonous gases leaked from the plant. This made people realise that the existing laws, though weak, only covered the individual worker and not persons who might be injured due to industrial accidents.
In response to this pressure from environmental activists and others, in the years following the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Indian government introduced new laws on the environment. Henceforth, the polluter was to be held accountable for the damage done to environment. The environment is something that people over generations will share, and it could not be destroyed merely for industrial development.
Laws are necessary in many situations, whether this be the market, office or factory so as to protect people from unfair practices. Private companies, contractors, business persons, in order to make higher profits, resort to unfair practices such as paying workers low wages, employing children for work, ignoring the conditions of work, ignoring the damage to the environment (and hence to the people in the neighborhood) etc.
A major role of the government, therefore, is to control the activities of private companies by making, enforcing and upholding laws so as to prevent unfair practices and ensure social justice. This means that the government has to make ‘appropriate laws’ and also has to enforce the laws. Laws that are weak and poorly enforced can cause serious harm, as the Bhopal gas tragedy showed.
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