It is imperative that the committee constituted to look into charges of corruption in the Commonwealth Games should also include violations of labour laws within its purview.
One of the more blatant and visible scams of the recently concluded Commonwealth Games relates to how the thousands of workers who worked on the games construction sites were denied minimum wages, safety equipment, housing and other benefits constitutionally due to them.
In an interview to BBC Radio 4 aired on September 9, 2010, the Chief Minister of Delhi went on record stating that no such cases of violations had been brought before her. This despite the fact that innumerable State agencies such as the Delhi Development Authority, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, New Delhi Municipal Council, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation and others have been involved in litigation proceedings concerning violations of workers' rights in the High Court of Delhi since January this year. The 117-page report submitted in March 2010 by the Expert Committee appointed by the High Court of Delhi (comprising Mr. R.D. Srivastav, Secretary (Labour), Govt. of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi); Mr. A.K. Singh, Commissioner (Labour), National Capital Territory of Delhi; Ms. Arundhati Ghose, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations; and Dr. Lakshmidhar Mishra, Special Rapporteur, National Human Rights Commission) recording large-scale violations of labour laws at various Commonwealth Games and related project sites, also appears to have missed the Chief Minister's attention. A major accident a few days before the start of the Games at a site close to the venue of the opening ceremony was dismissed by the Delhi Chief Minister and S. Jaipal Reddy, Union Minister for Urban Development as a “minor glitch” in a series of events.
Legally, under the provisions of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition ) Act 1970, and the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service ) Act 1979, the final responsibility for construction projects rests with principal employers, which includes amongst other responsibilities the duty to oversee that workers employed on the specific project sites are given their minimum wages, over-time payments, safety equipment, medical facilities, proper housing, sanitation and other provisions as required by law. On October 20, the DA announced that it would invoke the bank guarantee of Rs. 183 crore furnished by Emaar MGF, the principal employer of the Commonwealth Games village, for failing to deliver on agreed standards of quality and design. One may ask as to why prosecution proceedings should not be initiated against Emaar MGF and such other companies for not following safety standards resulting in accidents and deaths of workers, non-production of muster rolls and wage records, and the almost abysmal housing and sanitation facilities made available to workers, as noted in the report of the High Court appointed Monitoring Committee and the status report submitted subsequently by the Delhi Legal Services Authority (DLSA) to the High Court of Delhi.
As a country if we are serious about issues of human security and development, then it is imperative that the Committee constituted, headed by former Comptroller and Auditor General V.K. Shunglu, also include violations of labour laws within its purview. An estimate provided by the Office of the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central) places the total number of workers employed in Commonwealth projects at approximately 70,500. In a survey done by Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) it was shown that savings of approximately Rs. 75-85 from each worker per day were made by contractors through non-payment of minimum wages alone. The minimum wages in Delhi are Rs. 203 for unskilled workers, Rs. 225 for semi-skilled and Rs. 248 per day for skilled workers. As late as September 2010, PUDR had shown how workers were receiving somewhere between Rs. 110-130 for a day's work. If we take the total number of workers to be 70,500, then it can be said that contractors were on average saving approximately Rs.16-18 crore per month by non-payment of the stipulated minimum wages. If one adds savings further made on account of non-payment of overtime to workers at the stipulated rates, and the compensation for working even on holidays, the gross profits for companies works out to be much higher.
Accidents and deaths
Besides non-payment of the legal wage, other equally important issues relating to the Games have not as yet received adequate attention. There is yet no figure estimating the total number of accidents and deaths that have occurred in the course of construction of Games-related projects. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), in an affidavit submitted before the High Court in September 2010, has recorded 109 cases of death at various work sites in the capital. Other agencies have yet to come up with their estimates and figures. In a reply to an RTI filed by PUDR as recently as the last week of September, the Labour Department of the Delhi Government that deals with cases related to Workmen's Compensation admitted to not having any knowledge about the total number of accident and death cases in the capital. This is a shocking state of affairs. It involves victims ranging from a two year-old child at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to young men and women who had come to the capital to work, hoping to build a better life for themselves and their families.
There is another aspect to this story that needs to be addressed. Existing penalties for violation of labour law standards are extremely paltry. A company can as per law get away with paying Rs. 1,000 as fine, which is the maximum penalty that can be imposed for not conforming to safety standards or non-adherence to regulations such as maintenance of muster rolls, wage records and such other provisions.
This was a fact that was brought to light by the Supreme Court of India in the judgment delivered in the Asiad Games PUDR vs. Union of India (1982) case where it was observed that:
‘Magistrates and Judges in the country must view violations of labour laws with strictness and whenever any violations of labour laws are established before them, they should punish the errant employers by imposing adequate punishment. The labour laws are enacted for improving the conditions of workers and the employers cannot be allowed to buy off immunity against violations of labour laws by paying a paltry fine which they would not mind paying, because by violating the labour laws they would be making profit which would far exceed the amount of the fine. If violations of labour laws are to be punished with meagre fines, it would be impossible to ensure observance of the labour laws and the labour laws would be reduced to nullity. They would remain merely paper tigers without any teeth or claws.'
It has been nearly 28 years since the Supreme Court made these observations in connection with the 1982 Asian Games held in Delhi. The situation has only deteriorated for the average worker in the unorganised sector, and the official silence on issues of corruption relating to workers' rights' stands out as a stark reminder of the reality. I am reminded of the words of the Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who once said ‘naivete is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naivete is always a mistake.'
(The author teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is a member of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights.)