Turns down Sonia's proposal for statutory minimum wages

The battle for statutory minimum wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) seems to be on a slippery ground with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicating that the government could at best cover inflation-induced erosion of wages.

In his December 31, 2010 letter, Dr. Singh has turned down the proposal of National Advisory Council chairperson Sonia Gandhi to pay MNREGA workers the minimum wages statutorily notified by different States.

Responding to her letter, the Prime Minister has instead offered to link the wage rate with the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labour (CPIAL) and implement it with effect from January 1, 2011.

Ms. Gandhi had, in her letter, conveyed the NAC decision to pay the minimum wages with a request that he “give necessary directions” on this urgent matter and the official green signal.

The Prime Minister said he had examined her suggestion “carefully in consultation with the Ministries concerned … [and] the consensual view” was that the wage rate under the MNREGA remain delinked [from] and statutorily independent of the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act. In short, no minimum wages, only inflation-linked hike in wages.

Dr. Singh committed himself to protecting a real wage of Rs. 100 per manday, as announced in the 2009 budget, through a satisfactory index to be worked out by a committee set up by the Rural Development Ministry. The exact increase in wages is being worked out. He expressed confidence that this “mechanism would appropriately address the concern of protecting the real wages of MNREGA workers from inflation.”

When contacted, Rural Development Minister C.P. Joshi refused to comment on the issue, saying it was for the two senior leaders to take a decision together. His Ministry would soon enhance the wage rate as and when the decision was taken at the highest level.

Dr. Joshi said it would be based on the indexation being worked out by the Pranob Sen Committee. He admitted that the committee had not yet submitted its report for, his Ministry had forwarded only recently information sought by the panel. He, however, denied delay on this count.

Meanwhile, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and SR Abhiyan charged that the Prime Minister's refusal to pay minimum wages amounted to violation of the workers' constitutional right.

The two organisations referred to the Supreme Court's observation that non-payment of minimum wages was tantamount to forced labour.

They also regretted that the Ministry had not cared to issue a notification, as promised by the Prime Minister, to link MNREGA wages with CPIAL with effect from January 1.

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