Concrete, targeted policies and actions needed to address impact of pandemic on informal workers, women

Enhancing transition from informality to formality as a means towards improving living and working conditions, productivity, and job growth will need access to quality employment, social protection

Representative image
Representative image

Dr Gyan Pathak

“Ministers, in your meetings in 2019 and 2020, you expressed support for the principle of a human-centred approach to development. Now is the time to convert these aspirations … into concrete action,” the head of ILO said while addressing the BRICS Labour and Employment Ministerial Meeting under India’s Presidency. It was just an indirect way of saying that the governments of BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – did voice their aspirations year after year, but failed to take concrete actions.

The BRICS 7th Labour and Employment Ministerial Meeting held on July 15, 2021 just reiterated these aspirations, and it cannot be taken at its face value because of the prior experience of the performance of the governments in past several years.

The adoption of a declaration is, however, significant because it recognized exacerbation of already prevailing largescale unemployment, decent work deficits and inequality during the COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 has turned our world, and the world of work upside down, and has derailed progress in reducing poverty around the world, and made achieving decent work for all even more of a challenge.

The member countries did express their ‘strong determination’ to recover with stronger markets and social protection systems for the workforce, but not on recovery plans which need to be human-centred, resilient, inclusive, and sustainable, as the ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, emphasized.

Repairing the damage caused accordingly will require great efforts and considerable resources. However, the ‘strong determination’ of the governments implies things other than what they have been talking about in words. The declaration adopted do addresses critically important challenges – informality, gender equality, social protection, and the growth of the digital economy – but the real challenge of unemployment and unemployability looms large.

The severe impact of the crisis on informal workers highlighted the need to accelerate progress on the shift from the informality to formality, because hundreds of millions of people earn their living in the informal economy – six out of every ten workers in the world.

Then there is gender disparity. Women lost more jobs than men, and more of them, comparatively, withdrawn for the labour market. Gender inequality got worse in the care work dominated by women.

If we are to address these issues effectively, we need concrete, targeted policies and actions, not merely ‘strong commitments’ in words.

We have been witnessing such ‘strong commitments’ without proper actions in India, as the Union government has been trying to push the controversial ‘labour reform’, which central trade unions, bank employees unions, insurance employees unions, and many more call anti-labour and pro-corporate.

However, Union Minister of Labour has talked about the controversial ‘labour reforms’ boastfully, and called them ‘path breaking reforms’ brought by the government through amalgamation, simplification and codification of its labour laws into four labour codes, namely “the Code of Wages 2019, the Code on Social Security 2020, the Industrial Relations Code 2020, and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020.”

India’s stance in the BRICS meeting clearly shows that the government is bent upon implementing the proposed ‘reforms’ in the near future despite still opposition of the labour unions of the country.

The Union Minister of Labour said that the new labour codes provide integrated pathways towards robust formalization of the labour market, increasing participation of women in labour force and enhancing the role of gig and platform workers in the labour market. In the backdrop of the dismal performance of the Modi government in all the areas of aspirations expressed, the stress on enhancing intra-BRICS solidarity and promoting sustained, inclusive, full and productive employment and decent work for all, is nothing but hoodwinking of workers in India, and trying to get international support for its controversial ‘labour reforms’.

The need of signing of social security agreements among BRICS nation was emphasized, but it was for international migrant workers, not for domestic workers within the country.

“Formalisation of Labour Markets” is has now been seen as an important tool for eradication of miseries of informal workforce in every country. Enhancing the transition from informality to formality as a means towards improving living and working conditions, productivity, and job growth will need access to quality employment and social protection. It has been reiterated for quite some time but near to nothing has been done. It was yet again reiterated and the ministers expressed their commitment to it.

Promoting sustained participation of women in the labour market, in remunerative, productive and decent work was agreed upon by all as top priorities in the national policy agenda. Enhancing the role of gig and platform workers in labour market was also agreed upon. But an expressed commitment has no value if not followed by appropriate actions.

Apart from the ‘labour and market reforms’, emphasis was also given on development of the digital economy, including digital delivery of services, which is of course technology-centred, not human-centred as the ILO wants it should be, to overcome the workers tribulations. Though digital technologies can boost labour productivity, increase flexibility, encourage greater inclusion, and create new jobs for higher skilled workers, it can undermine fundamental principles and right at work, if not properly regulated.

We need a legal framework for protecting the gig and platform works, ensure decent work for all, and bring strong and inclusive social protection systems.

(IPA Service)

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