May Day Special: How Did Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Revolutionize Labour Rights and Social Justice in India?

Although the Dalit History Month culminated with the month of April, Ambedkar is not a person to be confined to the month of April—his birthday. As we celebrate International Labour Day today, it warrants us to shine a light on the fact of how Ambedkar influenced labor welfare policy in India.
Dr. B.R Ambedkar
Dr. B.R Ambedkar

New Delhi- In the past few years, supporters of Dr. Ambedkar have pulled him from the stereotypical mold of “A Dalit Figure.” Ambedkar has been mainstreamed, and his contributions have been widely acknowledged.

Be it the Hindu Code Bill or his role in the establishment of the Central Waterways, Irrigation and Navigation Commission, and even his role in the establishment of the Reserve Bank of India which reflect the moonshot thinking of the great person. Ambedkar proved his mettle in fields such as Economics, Law, Religion, Society, etc.

The Labour Activism of Ambedkar is rarely discussed in the precincts of media and academia. However, one needs to remember that as an ardent supporter of Labour rights Ambedkar did pioneering work.

Dr. Ambedkar was a staunch advocate for the rights of workers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He believed in the importance of labor rights as a means to uplift marginalized communities and ensure social justice.

Ambedkar’s tryst with the labor movement began when he joined the Bombay Textile Labour Union, which was founded by N.M Joshi and R.R. Bakhale. Ambedkar fought against the practice of untouchability in all spheres of life, including labor. He emphasized the need to eradicate caste-based discrimination in workplaces, advocating for equal opportunities and treatment for all workers regardless of their caste or social background.

Ambedkar noted that the scourge of untouchability pervaded the lowest strata of society, and the Dalit workers were excluded from work at the textile mill due to “pollution.”

The weaving process involved dampening the thread with saliva to tie the knot. The Maratha workers said that Dalits working in the weaving department would result in ‘pollution’ for them. They prevented the Dalits in the weaving department of the mill; notably, the weaving department had relatively high wages compared to the other tasks involving manual labor.

During the Bombay Textile Strike of 1928, he managed to secure the Dalits’ access to all the jobs as he warned the Communist leaders that if his demand for Dalits’ access to all jobs in the mill did not find a place, then he would prevent the Dalit leaders from joining the strike. The demand was accepted.

Dr. Ambedkar's labor activism was deeply intertwined with his broader mission of social reform and the empowerment of marginalized sections of society.

The same year, he addressed an issue, which laid the foundation of women's rights in the workplace.

The Maternity Benefit Bill of 1928, brought in the Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1928, was written by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, N.M. Joshi, and M.K. Dixit, who later testified in favor of it before the legislature. It passed the next year in the assembly as The Maternity Benefit Act, 1929.

The Maternity Benefit Act of 1929 was the first legislation in pre-independent India to explicitly address the need for protections relating to childbirth at the workplace. Arguing for the bill in the Bombay Assembly, Ambedkar said, “And I believe, therefore, Sir, that it is in the interests of the nation that the mother ought to get a certain amount of rest during the prenatal period and also subsequently, and the principle of the bill is based entirely on that principle.

That being so, Sir, I am bound to admit that the burden of this ought to be largely borne by the Government.” The Bombay Presidency was the first presidency in India to pass the Act; it was followed by Madras where the Madras Maternity Benefit Act was passed by the Madras Legislature Council in 1934. In independent India, all the Maternity Acts of the states were subsumed into a common Maternity Benefit Act-1961.

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Independent Labour Party:

Although dubbed as the leader of the Dalits for long, Ambedkar forayed into formal politics with the establishment of the Independent Labour Party in 1936 to fight for the social, economic, political rights of the working class. This was the time when provincial autonomy had been newly introduced The party opposed caste and capitalist structures in India, supported the Indian working class, and aimed to dismantle the caste system. Ambedkar was quite clear on the intersectionalities that play between caste and class and therefore addressing a rally of G.I.P. Railway Depressed Class Workmen’s Conference, Manmad, Distt: Nashik (Maharashtra) in 1938, Ambedkar said, “There are in my view two enemies which the workers of this country have to deal with.

The two enemies are Brahmanism and Capitalism.” Speaking to the Mooknayak Mangesh Dahiwale, an Ambedkarite scholar says “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar found both the ideologies of Brahminism and Capitalism not helpful to the common man. In fact, these ideologies were found to be against the interests of the common man. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar worked hard to find solutions to the problems facing the common man that include the majority of the population. As a scholar trained in Economics, he was well-versed in different theories.”

Ambedkar’s appointment into the Viceroy’s Council:

Augury of a New Era It was on 2nd July 1942 that Ambedkar was appointed as a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. His appointment to the coveted council was an epoch-making moment in Indian history as the Bombay Sentinel read “Depressed Class Leader Invades Citadel of Privilege.” Never before in our long and checkered history has a member of the Depressed Class held such a high office in the governance of the country. Noted the news report by I.A. Ezekiel. He held the labor portfolio till June 1946. During his tenure, Ambedkar introduced reforms which proved to be the foundation of Employee and Labor Welfare in the history of India.

On 2nd September 1945, he released the Labour Charter that became the guiding principle for the Labour welfare schemes in the country. With Ambedkar at the helm, the labor department saw the passage of crucial laws that proved to be a watershed in the history of Indian Labor Welfare It was during this tenure that the historic Factories Act was passed which ensured that the workers got paid holidays and working hours were reduced to provide larger benefits and better facilities. Some of the crucial legislations that were passed during his tenure are as follows:

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Paid Holidays and Reduced Working Hours

During Dr. Ambedkar's tenure as Labour Member, the Factories Act, 1934 was amended thrice to bring major changes. The Factories (Amendment) Bill passed in April 1945 gives effect to the ILO Convention No. 52 of 1936, which called for at least six days of paid holidays. The measure as it finally emerged, turned out to be more favorable to the workers as it provided for 10 days paid holiday for adult workers, 14 days for child workers, and also had provision for accumulation of leave up to two years.

An Amendment enacted in 1946 provided for 48 hours a week and 9 hours a day in lieu of the then existing 54 hours weekly and 10 hours daily for perennial factories and 50 hours in place of 60 hours a week and 10 hours a day in place of 11 hours a day for seasonal factories.

The work in excess of that was to be treated as overtime, and payment was to be made at double the normal rate. Dr. Ambedkar reduced working hours, saying that workers who had worked for longer hours during the war days needed substantial relief. He added that this was likely to address Unemployment due to retrenchment.

Coal Mines Labour Welfare Fund

The Government of India promulgated the Coal Mines Labour Welfare Fund Ordinance on January 31, 1944, for instituting a fund to finance the welfare activities for the colliery workers. The fund was made up of collection of excise duty on coal and coke dispatched from the collieries. Measures for housing of colliery workers are financed from the housing account and measures for General Welfare such as medical facilities, water supply, education, recreation, and cooperation from the General Welfare Account.

Mica Mines Labour Welfare Fund:

The bill aimed to establish a fund to finance welfare activities of the labor in Mica Mines industry. It was introduced by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in the Central Legislative Assembly on 8.4.1946. Ambedkar showed a keen interest in getting the bill passed without much delay as he described the condition in the mica mines industry as 'intolerable and therefore the bill was rushed through the house not leaving any time for the purpose.

Industrial Employment Order

The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Bill was introduced in the Central Assembly by Labour Member Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on 8.4.1946. While making his motion for considering the Bill on 13th April 1946, Dr. Ambedkar said, "The Object of the Bill is to have the terms and conditions of employment reduced to writing that the terms and conditions should be certified by a competent officer appointed for that purpose and that it should form a sort of register of what the terms and conditions of employment are in any particular establishment.

The bill came into force on April 23, 1946. Speaking to The Mooknayak, Prabodhan Pol, Assistant Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities, MAHE, Manipal, Karnataka, said that the welfare funds introduced by Ambedkar were a precursor to the provision of Provident Fund enjoyed by government employees.

Compulsory Recognition Of Trade Unions

The Indian Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill providing for compulsory recognition of Trade Unions was moved in the Legislative Assembly by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on November 8, 1943. The motion to circulate the Bill for eliciting public opinion was moved by him on November 13, 1943.

Protection of Minimum Wages

A Bill to provide for minimum wages in industries, where Labor was ill-organized or unorganized, was moved in the Legislative Assembly by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on 11th April 1946. The Bill provided for constituting Advisory Committees and Advisory Boards with equal representations from. The Bill was enacted into Law on February 9, 1948.

The aforementioned legislations pioneered by Ambedkar proved to be the cornerstone of labor welfare policies in post-independent India. Further, as the Father of Indian Constitution, Ambedkar ensured that the provisions of labor welfare were incorporated into the Indian constitution and therefore several articles such as articles in the Constitution Such as article, 19, 21, 23, 24, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 43A reflect the laborer-friendly approach of our constitution makers.

Therefore, on the occasion of International Labour Day, we need to acknowledge the contribution of Dr. Ambedkar, whose caliber and farsightedness bear a mark in every sphere of policymaking in India.

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