Just lip service to Labour, workers on May Day

On ‘May Day’, even as banks, industrial units and offices remained closed in several states, the vast majority of Indian workers slogged for their daily wages with the government paying lip service

Photo courtesy: Mithilesh Kumar
Photo courtesy: Mithilesh Kumar

NH Web Desk

India exports branded garments to both Europe and to the US, among other countries. But the industry is sustained by informal workers. Low wages and non-existent social security made it a thankless task. A 42-year-old mother of two in Bengaluru—who works for 10 hours and is paid a measly ₹200 a day—confided to the media that she was forced to work as a domestic help as well to augment her income. “They sell one piece of clothing for more than what I am paid for a month,” she says bitterly, pointing out that she produces, in fact, several hundred pieces of such clothing in a month.

“We live in pain and we die in pain,” she aptly sums up the lives of unorganised workers like her.

The story is familiar and can be seen in other manufacturing industries and across the informal and unorganised sectors. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers confined themselves to saluting the “determination of Indian workers” on May Day, BJD MP Baijayant Panda tweeted:

Several messages on the day reminded people of the importance different religions and religious books have put on labour. One of the tweets read:

Others recalled that the Bhagvad Gita had stated that people who eat without making the sacrifice (physical labour) eat stolen bread while the Bible asks people to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow.

But while the vast majority of Indians toil hard for their living, growing inequality, wide disparities in income and the government’s indifference to social security make them vulnerable to exploitation.

This year, BJP-ruled states of Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand increased daily wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (or, MGNREGA) by just ₹1. In drought-affected Tamil Nadu, the wages went up by ₹2; and, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh by ₹3. This has been the lowest wage hike since the scheme was introduced.

Even the US Labour Bureau, in a report on Indian workers noted that there was a “fairly wide disparity” in hourly compensation costs across manufacturing industries in India. “Compensation for industries in the top quartile was on average about three times the compensation for industries in the bottom quartile,” it pointed out. But the highest and lowest compensated industries in India tended to be similar to those in other countries: coke and petroleum products is generally among the highest paid industries, while wood, leather, textiles, and apparel products manufacturing are commonly lower paid industries.

Both organised as well as unorganised workers have been protesting the government’s policies which are perceived as anti-labour. Changes in laws to ensure that workers in smaller units are deprived of statutory benefits, lowering interest rates on Provident Fund and Public Provident Fund as well as on small savings besides privatisation etc have made workers in the unorganised sector poorer and their lives uncertain.

Trade unions last year had called a strike after “talks with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley broke down. The union leaders had rejected Jaitley’s offer to raise the minimum wage for unskilled workers from ₹6,396 a month to ₹9,100.”

The unions have been demanding the government guarantee both social security and healthcare for all, and should be hiking the minimum wage to double of what it is offering, in order to keep up with inflation.

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Published: 01 May 2017, 2:56 PM