By Dhurjati Mukherjee
Basic living wage in the event of employment loss, basic minimum social security for workers and the setting up of a Labour Authority of India as recommended by a one-man expert commission on labour is a welcome. The intent is obviously to ensure that continued deprivation and harassment of labour force should find a resolution across the country and that actions speak rather than words oft heard from successive governments.
These are significant suggestions made by CV Ananda Bose, a former IAS officer, following the commission being set up under the Labour Ministry’s Central Advisory Contract Labour Board in May 2020, to prepare an action plan for the welfare and development of guest and contract workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Statistics reveal that unemployment had seen a sharp increase in April and May 2020, since economic activity was halted due to the pandemic. According the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, overall unemployment rate in the country was 23.52 per cent in April and 21.73 per cent in May. And there has been a decline in unemployment since then, after staggered reopening of the economy.
At the same time, there is a lack of specific data on migrant workers and even on unorganised employment, which requires attention. Besides, not only are the working conditions of this sector quite pathetic, going against government rules and regulations but the wages given have been found to be under the minimum wage levels in many States. Labour economists have repeatedly pointed out that exploitation of the country’s labour force has been an area of serious concern, but the authorities have done precious little to take action against those violating government rules. Also, the Central trade unions have been protesting and questioned the four Labour Codes the Union government is all set to enforce.
The commission, which went into the conditions of India’s burgeoning unorganised sector, noted that existing legal and protective frames have been inadequate to address these basic issues. But while big projects are undertaken with much fanfare, the growing fiscal deficit makes it difficult of both the Centre and States to sustain existing social security measures. Priorities continue to be misplaced and even though economists speak of the importance of social security measures, a roadmap continues to be elusive.
It is distressing to note that those in authority are largely divorced from the ground reality, the sufferings and pangs of the poor and impoverished sections. Planning is not done keeping in mind how many people would be directly or indirectly benefitted from particular projects. Also when we speak of bringing people away from agriculture, there is no concrete plan how those displaced would get employment and rehabilitated.
The Government’s initiative in facilitating friendly conditions to set up industries is no doubt necessary, but it must also be prepared to take action against business groups, that do not adhere to government stipulations. Sadly, that rarely is the case and exploitation of labour is no secret. Even child labour, which is illegal, goes unchecked, making a mockery of law.
Successive governments have all along spoken of the unorganised sector and so also the trade unions, which have primarily raised demands about pay packages and other benefits. However, this sector continues to languish with very poor remuneration and virtually no social security benefits. Untimely deaths have ruined many families as no support comes their way.
Unfortunately, a concrete labour policy and its strict implementation need much to be desired, as the business community and traders have had a way of influencing government policy. At least that’s what the exploited labour, is certain of. Industry and business houses even tried to get the eight-hour working ceiling to be withdrawn so they could extract more services from labour. This obviously would be more economical than hiring the services of an additional person to the unit.
It is understood that while the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment is giving shape to the National Employment Policy (NEP) it is necessary to prepare a broad road map to improve job opportunities in the country. It is unknown whether this committee would identify the skills or the sectors where thrust has to be given that would gear up the process of employment. However, the Code on Wages, long overdue, should set in motion a uniform wage structure. Though it is well-intentioned with an aim to balance both the employer and the employee interests, loose-ends need to be tied up.
It is also understood that the Labour Ministry would conduct surveys on migrant workers, domestic workers, employment generated by professionals and transport sector by early March 2021 and the results will be available by October 2021.The time period for the results to come will obviously delay improving the conditions of the labour, including migrant workers. A big question hangs whether the government is deliberating delaying the formulation of a wage policy for the informal sector or has too much on its plate to handle?
If the issues to be handled by the Labour Authority are not finalised, the entire purpose of setting it up possibly makes no sense. While we may clamour for higher GDP growth at the highest centres of power and try to project India as an emerging economy, the conditions of suffering labourers at the grass-root level are indeed appalling and needs to be urgently considered.
With labour protests in the offing, this new Authority has a vital role to mitigate the whole problem of labour is a subject that obviously concerns us. There is an imperative need to solve and mitigate problems of the growing labour force which to say the least ends up struggling. Whether it is bringing uniformity of their wage fixation, ensuring their engagement for at least 7-8 months a year or keeping an eye on business entities who want to exploit them in various ways—all need sharp focus.
Whatever this Labour Authority may recommend, it is for the Central government to ensure that those units who falter should be strictly penalised. Secondly, working conditions and working hours should be scrutinised and remedial action be taken, as per extant rules. But it would be a tragedy, if those responsible for ensuring this are found to be corrupt or under pressure not to take action against defaulting companies.
The final work of the Authority would be to work-out an action plan of areas that could generate employment say, in the coming two-three years. However, much depends on the spectrum of work laid out. However, there are expectations of an early decision in this crucial matter. — INFA