Labour conferences and protection of workers’ rights
Mukul Sharma IN THE HINDU
Lack of priorities, omissions, negligence and discrimination are letting labourers down.
The recently-held State Labour Ministers’ Conference in New Delhi shows that our governments have manifestly failed in meeting the obligations to end job insecurity, exploitation and poverty, especially of the unorganised labourers. They have been unsuccessful in implementing the basics of social security schemes, including skill building, at both state and national levels. Despite expressions of concern and statements of good intent in the previous Indian Labour and State Conferences, there have been no concrete actions. Violations of labour rights, unjust and unfair conditions of employment, and suppression of trade unions are treated as ‘inevitable’ ills that can continue as an unfortunate reality of life. These are not a result of lack of resources. Rather, lack of priorities, omissions, negligence and discrimination by governments and other players are letting labourers down and out, more so in these times of economic recession.
For unorganised workers
One of the agendas placed in the Central and State Labour Ministers’ Conference concerned the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act. The conference also reflected on contract and construction workers, skill development and employment, ESIC schemes and child labourers. According to a survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2004-05, the total employment in both the organised and the unorganised sectors in the country was 45.9 crore, of which 2.6 crore was in the organised sector and 43.3 crore (about 94 per cent) in the unorganised sector. There has been a huge deficit in the coverage of the unorganised sector workers, in matters of labour protection and social security. After a long, time-taking process, the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act came into force in May 2009. The act provides for the definition and the registration of unorganised, self-employed and wage workers. It also offers the formulation of different social security schemes by Central and State governments, the constitution of a National Social Security Board at Central and State levels, and the setting up of workers’ facilitation centres. Social security schemes have been mentioned in the areas of life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, provident fund, employment injury benefits, housing, educational schemes for children, skill upgradation, funeral assistance, and old age homes.
The Labour Conference however brings out the fact that except for the constitution of the National Social Security Board, nothing has moved as yet. No social security scheme has actually been determined on the ground. Instead, the board has constituted a sub-committee to suggest various schemes. There has been no initiative on the registration of unorganised workers. Under the Act, State governments are required to frame State Rules, constitute a State Social Security Board and register the workers. However, there is not much to report at the State level. The conference thus spoke in a diffused way: “The Hon’ble Labour Minister has also written to the State Labour Ministers in this regard. A copy of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and Rules framed under there has been sent to the State Governments.’
It is in the area of contract labourers particularly that the apathy of government is glaringly visible. While no precise estimate of the number of contract workers in the country is available, they constitute a substantial segment of the 132.68 million casual workforce component (according to the 61st Round of the NSSO, corresponding to 2004-05), other constituents being various flexible labour categories like casual (hired for fixed hours, mostly on piece rates), temporary (employed for fixed term), badli (employed in textile mills as substitutes for regular workers), apprentices, etc. The Indian Labour Conference constituted a Task Force some time ago to examine the provisions of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and to suggest amendments in it for the protection of workers. However, despite six meetings in this regard, no consensus could be arrived at, as there were divergences of views.
The report of the Task Force does recognise the problems, but has not provided any clue for finding solutions to them. Our governments have now resigned to a situation of wide and increasing prevalence of contract labourers in the organised and the unorganised sectors: ‘It was becoming increasingly evident that in view of the changing global economic environment, contract labour had come to stay.’
The Union Minister of Labour and Employment Mallikarjun Kharge, and the Minister of State Harish Rawat, both had to mention the inevitability of contract labourers in their speeches, at a forum which is primarily meant for the defence and expansion of labour rights.
‘Skill building’ has emerged as a new thrust area for organised and unorganised workers, to adapt to changing technologies and labour market demands. As per the NSSO’s 61st Round Survey Report, every year 12.8 million people are added to the labour force. However, the current capacity of the skill development programme is about 3.1 million, including all agencies involved in vocational training activities. As per the last National Sample Survey, only two per cent of the Indian labour force has received vocational training through formal sources and eight per cent through informal sources. Whereas, the percentage in industrialised countries is much higher, varying between 60 per cent and 96 per cent. The Eleventh Five-Year Plan and the National Policy on Skill Development recognise the unprecedented challenge faced by India, for skilling or up-skilling 500 million people by 2022. These initiatives have a broad new strategy to modernise/upgrade all public institutes according to the industrial requirement, set up a large number of new institutes in public, private and public-private partnerships, involve the industry closely in the running of skill development programmes, introduce long-term and short-term modular courses to cover all sectors of the economy, fill up existing vacancies of principals and instructors, use information and communication technology tools to upscale skill development efforts, and to modernise employment exchanges.
However, most of these strategies are falling flat in their implementation. Take, for example, the plan for modernisation/upgradation of the existing ITIs. Union Finance Minister in his Budget Speech 2004-05 had announced various measures for the upgradation of 500 ITIs in the country. Subsequently, this was reduced to 100 ITIs. Finally, the scheme was terminated in March 2009. The States utilised only 40 per cent of the money allotted to this scheme. Or let us look at the urgent need to modernise employment exchanges. They have not changed at all in terms of providing quality guidance on talent assessment, employment counselling, vocational guidance and training-related information to the jobseekers, or in imparting timely and reliable labour market information. There are a large numbers of vacancies in these employment exchanges since years. Their interaction and networking with the industry is dismal, and their success rate in getting employment is still less than 10 per cent.
By forming the Indian Labour Conference, the State Labour Ministers’ Conference and the Standing Labour Committees, the country recognised that the workers in the organised and the unorganised sectors can only achieve the right to work and the rights at work, along with the right to organise and agitate, if positive conditions are created together by the State and the employers. Despite this commitment, the persistent denial of labour rights has raised concerns about the relevance and effectiveness of such bodies. The acceptance, scepticism and then denial shown at these labour bodies make the situation worse. This will not do, as labour rights are clearly defined, and it is often possible to identify a violation, a violator and a remedy. The work done by trade unions and labour support groups over the past decades has shown some positive ways. Deliberations, debates and consensus making can no longer suffice as excuses for failure to take action, especially at a time when labour violations are widespread. Labour rights are not just aspirations. They are not just goals that can be deferred to the future. These rights are based on laws, enforceable by government bodies, tribunals and courts. They demand immediate respect and implementation.