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Workers at the Receiving End

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
29 Apr 2024

"We are forced to work for straight ten hours, standing on our feet, without any seating arrangement. If we fail to do so, we are fired within moments," says an employee, if it can be termed employment at all. She works with an e-commerce giant in Delhi-NCR. The story was covered in a widely circulated magazine a few months ago.

Many such people are hired on contracts of three to eleven months to suit the company's emerging needs. The company has a history of registering huge profits yearly, yet it pays its workers a pittance. It also must be mentioned that they aren't covered under the government's social security schemes.

The story is not limited to one company or the other or to a particular sector. Be it the manufacturing, services, or gigs, frustration is evident amongst workers. Most employers try to find a way of getting more work done at lesser wages. There are several ways in which minimum wages notified by various governments from time to time can be evaded with impunity, i.e., without inviting the wrath of the powers that be.

This is even though India has several legislations that aim to protect the rights of workers and employees. Incidentally, the same corporates beat their drums regarding compliance with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) or Environment, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) on their websites and in every nook and cranny of their premises. In fact, their high-profile employees speak as if they are the only custodians of social justice and equity.

Come May 1, we will celebrate 101 years of commemorating May Day in India, thanks to M Singaravelu Chettiar, a towering nationalist figure and an early communist associated with the anti-caste movement. He initiated the celebration from Chennai in 1923, taking a cue from the international movement.

What began with a workers' rally in Chicago in May 1886 created momentum that reached Indian shores by 1923 and unleashed consequences still felt in different corners of the world. Despite this long-drawn struggle of workers for eight hours of labour, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest and the United Nations declaring Labour Day as a holiday in 1894, the US accepted the demand for eight hours of work only in 1916.

Forget other regions; this basic right is unfortunately not even available to most people working in the national capital. In fact, the State of Working India Report, 2023, published by Azim Premji University, lays bare another fact. The report says that "between 1983 and 2004, the share of regular wage workers in the workforce did not change much, hovering between 14 and 16 per cent. By 2011, it had jumped to 19 per cent; by 2017, it had reached 24 per cent of the workforce. Between 2004 and 2017, even as India's workforce grew by about 12 million (from 415 million to 427 million), the absolute number of salaried workers increased by 35 million (indicating that the absolute number of workers in casual wage work and self-employment fell during this period).

However, in recent years, there has been a slowdown in the creation of regular-wage jobs. Although India's workforce grew by nearly 65 million between 2017 and 2021, the increase in salaried workers was only 13 million, and their overall share in the workforce stagnated at 23 per cent.

The report shows another emerging trend, where regular jobs or salaried jobs (where written contract and benefits are given) are being replaced with "semi-formal" jobs with either of the two (written contract or benefits) and "informal" regular wage jobs with neither a written contract nor benefits. "Of the 35 million increase in regular wage jobs during the 2004- 2017 period, only 2 million were in the formal category, about 16 million offered either a written contract or benefits and the remaining 17 million were in the informal category," says the report. Interestingly, there was a higher share of women in regular wage work than men.

The report is replete with appalling stories of exploitation, even though the candidates, essentially women, had undergone specialised training under the flagship scheme Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY). A few mentioned how the training was inadequate and that they had to pay another person for actually learning the skills of the trade so that they would be able to get a job. Another story shows how the woman was paid only Rs. 50 for an hour, she was expected to produce 80 pieces of a garment within an hour!

Of course, these workers have barely passed matriculation. However, those who have graduated have a similar story to tell. Another report, 'India Employment Report 2024: Youth Employment, Education, and Skills' published by the Institute for Human Development on labour and employment issues in partnership with the ILO, shows that our youth account for almost 80 per cent of the unemployed workforce. Also, the unemployment rate among those with secondary or higher education has nearly doubled from 35.2 per cent in 2000 to 65.7 per cent in 2022. The report proves that the more educated the youth in India, the higher the possibility of unemployment!

What about trends in bonded labour? Some of you may have heard about this term in Bollywood movies of the 1990s. Unfortunately, India is still faced with the issue of bonded labour, people who are forced to work because they are unable to pay their debts. The agreement often forces the debtor and their family members to work for free for a specified or unspecified period. In other words, this arrangement can even spill over from one generation to another.

In fact, according to the Global Slavery Index estimates by Walk Free, an international human rights group focusing on the eradication of modern slavery, India has around 11 million people engaged in modern slavery, including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, other slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking as of 2021. Depressingly, India is only one of the four countries -- Iran, North and South Korea — in the Asia Pacific region that did not have a National Action Plan on modern slavery.

Interestingly, the government told Parliament in July 2016 that it aims to achieve "total abolition of bonded labour" by identifying, releasing and rehabilitating around 18.4 million bonded labourers by 2030. The ground realities paint another picture: people rescued from bonded labour are not even issued a release certificate to claim financial assistance under the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1976. In fact, the National Crime Records Bureau reported a few thousand cases of bonded labour simply because the state authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the presence of bonded labour as it damages the government's reputation.

While the Modi government has set ambitious targets for the country's economic growth, it is unfortunate that we cannot provide respectable remuneration to the people working hard to achieve this growth. The benefits of this growth are being reaped by those who enjoy power, money, and clout when those at the bottom of the pyramid struggle for two square meals daily. For them, the right to life exists only on paper. May Day has no meaning for them.

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