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Haplessness Of Indian Workers

Haplessness Of Indian Workers

On this May Day it is befitting to reflect on the workforce of country and their living conditions. It is all the more important during this time of general elections since the workers are the ones most affected by development as well as retrogression. This day commemorates the 1886 Labour Movement in Chicago advocating eight hour work day that paved the way for healthy working standards globally. It gave power to workers to bargain their rights, right to organise for good. However, in India we are sceptical about unionization. In this regard, one needs to emphasise that union does not mean destroying the organisation or bringing it to standstill.

The Catholic Church stands with the workers. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII published  Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour) and expressed support for human dignity, the rights of workers, responsible use of private property, and labour unions. Poverty forces people to take up any work which is not their choice. Pope Francis led Good Friday services a few days ago were dedicated to the victims of human trafficking and highlighted the plight of migrants. He underlined harsh realities of modern-day slavery like forced labour, sex trade, marketing of human organs and other crimes against humanity in his various messages.

Human trafficking has become a serious issue in India and the world at large. Often, it is the unorganised workers who fall prey to human trafficking and bonded labour. The nation’s unorganised workers constitute 93% of the working population. All our institutions enjoy the hard labour of these unorganised workers. It is a sad factor that these human beings are invisible and are ignored when policies are made. For them, particularly for the unorganised migrant workers, social security is still an illusion.

Crippling decline in the unorganised sector

Official data claims that the Indian economy is growing at more than 7% per annum. But unofficial data contradicts that contention. A recent survey by the All India Manufacturers’ Organisation revealed that the economy has not yet recovered from the blows of demonetisation and the GST. The survey, based on data from 34,700 of the AIMO’s 300,000 member units, showed that the number of jobs in micro and small enterprises had declined by roughly a third since 2014. In medium-scale enterprises, about a quarter of jobs had been lost, and among traders the decline was over 40%. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a business-intelligence firm, shows a loss of 11 million jobs last year, most of them in the largely unorganised rural economy, reported the Caravan Magazine.

Workers are significant contributors to every country’s economy. Unorganised workers bore the hardest brunt of demonetisation. This reality—that the unorganised sector is in sharp decline—accounts for many of the adverse symptoms that the economy shows today. The unorganised sector employs 93% of the workforce. If it declines, employment gets hit. Growth in the organised sector creates few jobs, since it is highly automated. Take the example of local retail stores competing against e-commerce, reported to be growing at 30% per annum. The automated operations need far fewer workers to accomplish the same amount of work compared to unorganised retailers. Further, if the organised sector grows at the expense of the unorganised sector, the result is a net decrease in jobs—hence the millions of desperate job-seekers amid an official growth rate of 7%. The current government’s economic policies have left the country in a very precarious situation.

Woes of migrant workers    

Migrant workers make an enormous contribution to the region’s economies – through skills, labour, services and competitiveness in countries of destination; and financial remittances, skills and knowledge upon return to their countries of origin. In destination countries many migrant workers fill labour market niches by doing jobs that nationals do not want or cannot fill. Yet many migrant workers are subjected to labour exploitation and abuse during recruitment and employment. 

The effective governance of labour migration poses big challenges and is shaped by powerful socio-economic and political factors. The implementation of policies and laws still has gaps in countries of origin and destination.

Without the contribution from Indian workers abroad, the state cannot function. World Bank reports that remittances to India from its diaspora have increased 22 times to $69 billion in 2017 from $3 billion in 1991, when such remittances increased nine times worldwide during the same period. But these remitters, especially the unskilled labourers, or their families receive no social security from the government. It is disheartening to note that several of our unskilled labourers languish in prisons, many are cheated into slavery and some even die there.

Trafficked for Bonded Labour

Bonded labour, which is characterized by a long-term relationship between employer and employee, is a specific form of forced labour in which compulsion into servitude is derived from debt. While expert estimates vary on the number of bonded labourers, with National Geographic Magazine estimating 27 million bonded labourers worldwide and the National Institute for Human Rights in Bangalore putting the figure at a staggering 65 million in India alone, all studies agree on one point: there are more bonded labourers in South Asia than any other region in the world.

Bonded labour is most prevalent in rural areas where the agricultural industry relies on contracted, often migrant labourers. However, urban areas also provide fertile ground for such practices. One cannot forget the March 2017 incident where t he National Human Rights Commission initiated the rescue of 26 boys, in the age group of 8 to 13, years, from bonded labour in a jeans factory in Delhi's Seelampur area. Many such cases are reported from various parts of the country. It is shocking to see that there are incidents of domestic workers being kept in the houses as bonded labourers, that too with the educated.

Bonded labour is legally prohibited in India. The practice of bonded labour violates the right to life and liberty guaranteed in Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Article 23 specifically prohibits the practice of debt bondage and other forms of slavery both modern and ancient. Traffic in human beings and forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law. As the issue of bonded labour was serious a separate act was passed - Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.

The Supreme Court of India has interpreted bonded labour as the payment of wages that are below the prevailing market wage or the legal minimum wage. Anyone failing to pay minimum wage to his or her employee attracts punishment under Bonded Labour Abolition Act.

It is unfortunate that these laws are not implemented properly and bonded labourers are increasing day by day. The domestic legal treatment of individual labour rights are clearly articulated but seldom enforced. The Bonded Labour System Abolition Act of 1976 stipulates that the monitoring of labour violations and their enforcement are responsibilities of state governments. The Indian government has demonstrated a severe lack of will to implement the ban on bonded labour. Such pervasive non-enforcement may be attributed to several factors, including government apathy, caste bias, corruption, a lack of accountability, and inadequate enforcement personnel.

Human trafficking - Migration - Bonded Labour

Human trafficking, migration and bonded labour are intertwined. Many victims are from poor rural areas and lured by traffickers with promises of good jobs, only to find themselves or their children forced to work in fields or brick kilns, enslaved in homes as domestic workers, or sold to brothels. The causes of human trafficking in India include gender discrimination, a vulnerability of the impoverished population and the desperation of the impoverished to support their families. The NCRB data released on Nov. 30 showed that over 60% of the 23,117 victims rescued were children.

We need policies and actions, which ensures the rights of labourers in the market and stop forced labour. The recent announcements made by the Government on the Labour Code powers the employer to further exploit the worker. A labour law is toothless when there are no tripartite mechanisms in it. Trafficking in persons is primarily a gross human rights violation. However, the anti-trafficking bill, 2018 over-emphasises on the criminal action and does not give due consideration to the rights and needs of victims and their effective protection and proper rehabilitation. The local government institutions that can provide more information to people who wish to migrate need to be involved. Institutional mechanisms should be put in place to safeguard workers’ mobility and security. 

Celebrating international workers day doesn’t mean giving a day off for our employees, but giving them due respect for work and dignity as human beings. The untiring efforts and contributions of our workers need to be recognized and applauded. On this Labour Day, remember to salute the determination and hard work of the countless workers who play a big role in India's progress.

(Published on 29th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 17 & 18)