ESSENTIAL DEFENCE SERVICES BILL: WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?

Mr. Rajnath Singh, the Minister of Defence, introduced the Essential Defence Services Bill,

2021, in the Lok Sabha. The Bill aims to repeal the Ordinance that was passed in June of 2021. The bill gives the federal government the power to prevent strikes, lockouts, and layoffs in defence-related organisations.



The union government has been working hard to corporatize the Ordnance Factory Board, which consists of 41 companies that produce ammunition and other equipment, so that it can be split into seven government-owned corporations. The government described the move as a way to improve efficiency and transparency. Unions and federations representing Ordnance Factory employees have been outspoken in their opposition to the union government's decision, which has resulted in periodic strikes.


The union government responded by enacting the Essential Defence Services Ordinance in June, effectively prohibiting employees of units that produce goods and services for the military (including ordnance plant workers) from striking. The Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021, was passed by Parliament on August 5, 2021 to replace the ordinance.

The Parliament debated for less than an hour before enacting the Bill, which has far-reaching implications for workers' fundamental rights.


The following are some of the most important defence services:

1. Any business or organisation involved in the manufacture of defence-related goods or equipment.

2. Any armed forces or military-related establishment, as well as defence. These services can include those that, if discontinued, would jeopardise the safety of the business or its personnel.

3. Furthermore, the government may declare any service to be an essential defence service if its discontinuance would have an impact on:

i. the production of defence equipment or goods,

ii. the operation or maintenance of industrial establishments or units engaged in such production

iii. the repair or maintenance of products related to defence.


KEY FEATURES OF THE BILL

1. The government chose to define the word "vital defence services" in such a way that it might be interpreted and applied in a variety of ways. As a result, every service that is even remotely involved in supplying goods and equipment to the military or is associated with it is included. Furthermore, the government gave itself the authority to declare any establishment essential defence services if ceasing its operations would have an impact on the production, repair, and maintenance of defence goods, as well as the operation and maintenance of the industries involved in the production.


2. Public utility services – The Bill adds vital defence services to the list of public utility services included in the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, requiring employees in the

former to give a six-week notice if they intend to strike or lock- out in violation of the contract.

3. Strikes are defined under the bill as a group of people acting together to stop working.

The same is expanded upon as follows:

I. Thousands of people are on unpaid leave.

II. Coordinated refusal to take employment or work, including overtime, when such work is required to keep defence services running smoothly.

III. Any other behaviour that jeopardises the defence services' ability to function.

IV. In the interests of India's sovereignty and integrity, the security of any state, public order, decency, and morality, the government can issue a prohibition order for strikes, lockouts, or layoffs. Apart from the first three reasons, it's unclear how the others relate to the country's military interests.


4. Employees who engage in illegal strikes, lockouts, or layoffs while the order is in effect will face up to one year in prison, a fine of Rs. 10,000, or both. Those who aid or abet such strikes by providing financial assistance or encouraging or agitating them will face up to two years in prison, a Rs. 15,000 fines, or both.


Finally, all of these offences will be punishable by law and will not be subject to bail.

80,000 workers at 41 Ordnance factories are directly impacted by the bill. "It is being argued that the Bill denies the right to peaceful protest," Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated after introducing the Bill. I'd like to make it clear that this bill in no way restricts the freedom to peaceful protest... We wish to boost the ordnance factories' autonomy as well as their efficiency."


NEED OF THIS BILL: IS IT AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY?

The government stated in June that the Ordnance Factory Board will be corporatized, with the 41 factories that supply ammunition and other equipment to the armed forces becoming part of seven government-owned corporations. The OFB was an arm of the government that reported directly to the Department of Defence Production. The move, according to the government, is intended to improve the efficiency and accountability of these factories.



The interests of OFB personnel will be protected, according to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who announced the decision- "I guarantee you that the change will have no impact on the employees' working conditions." However, according to the bill, there is a risk that the workers at these factories would go on strike in protest of the decision. "In response to the abovementioned decision, the recognised employee federations announced an indefinite strike." In a meeting conducted on June 15, the government's conciliation efforts at the level of the Chief Labour Commissioner failed.


Despite the government's guarantee that it will look after the Ordnance Factory Board's employees' working conditions, the government said in the Bill's goals that "the recognised federations of the workforce have reiterated their determination to go on indefinite strike".


WHO WILL IT AFFECT?

It directly affects roughly 70,000 employees of the country's 41 ordnance manufacturers, who are dissatisfied with OFB's corporatization and fear that it would affect their service and retirement conditions. Even the Cabinet note, via which the decision was approved, stated that there should be no alteration in the service conditions of the approximately 70,000 OFB personnel cited previously by the defence minister. Last year, when the government announced that it would begin the process of corporatizing the OFB, employee unions and groups threatened to go on strike.

The danger of a strike by workers' unions was referenced in the Bill's "statement of objects and reasons" section.



"In response to the abovementioned decision, the recognised employee federations announced an indefinite strike." The government's conciliatory efforts at the level of the Chief Labour Commissioner failed in a meeting conducted on June 15... The recognised federations of employees have maintained their determination to go on indefinite strike from July 26, 2021, despite the government's pledge to look after the terms of service of the Ordnance Factory Board personnel," it added.



Because an uninterrupted supply of ordnance items to the armed forces is critical for the country's defence preparedness, and ordnance factories must continue to operate without interruption, especially in light of the prevailing situation on the country's northern front, it was felt necessary that the government should have the power to meet the emergency created by such attempts and ensure the maintenance of essential defence services in a timely manner, it was felt necessary that the government should have the power to meet the emergency created by such instances.



This article is written by Mohd Saqib Husain, of Lloyd Law College.

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