The broken promise of decent and fair wages

Amidst the upheaval of debates concerning hate-violence, Article 370 of the Constitution, the temple at Ayodhya, and others, the Central government has finally woken up to examine the backbone of the Indian economy (working people), by proposing the rules to the labour Code on Wages Act 2019. Earlier in the year during the monsoon session of Parliament, the government celebrated the passage of this law, vociferously stating that the 70 years of waiting in granting the constitutional right of a guaranteed minimum wage hadcome to an end.

‘Starvation wages’ continue

Accordingly, it was expected that the draft rules to the Act would be a ‘game-changer’ to the status quo as far as the lives of workers in the informal sector are concerned. It was believed that informal workers — they account for 93% of the total working population and contribute to over 60% of India’s GDP — had finally been acknowledged for their contributions to the nation-building process. But it was alleged that this would revive the crisis of the current economic slowdown, as the law proposes to increase income capacity and the purchasing power of the informal workers.

The proposed framework to determine wage will continue pushing ‘starvation wages’ in India. In view of this, the draft rules proposed were received with much hope by solidarity groups and worker collectives in India. It was expected that the rules would have considered the Supreme Court of India’s landmark jurisprudence in the ‘Raptakos’ case (1991) which advocated the concept and the right of a living wage.

However, and saddeningly, an in-depth reading of the draft rules does not match this glorious picture and has in effect, by creating a façade of false promises, struck a blow against the aspirations of millions of workers in the informal sector. This has been done by proposing the concept of a “floor wage: in the draft rules. In effect, this would mean that “starvation wages” which currently guarantees just ₹178 per day, will continue to exist and this government, like the ones preceding it will not go beyond “offering” “roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and housing”).

One can imagine the plight of workers by just looking at the recently reported “Consumer Expenditure Survey” result; it shows the average family expenditure in rural areas to be ₹83 per day, and in urban areas as ₹134. These figures show how workers will continue to live in exploitative and marginalised conditions, where their constitutional right to a fair wage will be infringed upon by employers and the state. This despite ‘Need-Based Minimum Wage’ being a Supreme Court jurisprudence (covering nutrition, health care, education, housing and provisions for old age as well). Therefore, in the draft rules, it should have been treated as a fundamental constitutional right for every citizen of India. On these lines, it is worth mentioning that the governments of Delhi and Kerala have not only managed to achieve a living wage jurisprudence in recent years but have also set the highest living wage in India (₹14,842 a month in Delhi and ₹600 a day in Kerala).

Archaic framework as reform

The concept and intention of floor wage in the draft rules only reiterate archaic principles which were echoed by the Constitutional Bench of Supreme Court in U. Unichoyi And Others vs. The State Of Kerala. Here the court remarked, “In an underdeveloped country which faces the problem of unemployment on a very large scale, it is not unlikely that labour may offer to work even on starvation wages”. Unfortunately, this situation still prevails in India where the labour market preys on the excess availability of workers for whom living a precarious life is their permanent mode of existence. In such a situation, they continue to be lured to work at their will on less than minimum wages, and in exploitative conditions. A floor level wage would only encourage and exacerbate this archaic practice and promote forced labour. Another huge concern with the law is in its provision of an arbitrary deduction of wages (up to 50% of monthly wages) based on performance, damage or loss, advances, etc.

In a country such as India, where employers, due to their higher social status, continue to exploit labour with impunity, this provision will only continue to push workers further into exploitative conditions, stamping on their bargaining power and rights of association. This will make the lives of workers worse as the draft rules do not clarify the governance and institutional structure for the “labour inspection system” in the law.

The International Labour Organisation’s Labour Inspection Convention of 1947 (Convention C081) — it has been ratified by India — provides for a well-resourced and independent inspectorate with provisions to allow thorough inspections and free access to workplaces. Ignoring these provisions, the draft rules propose another ad-hoc and unclear mechanism called the “inspection scheme”. All of this implies that in the absence of clarity in the draft rules, workers will not be able to demand even basic work rights in the fear of wage deductions, and will continue to be oppressed and marginalised.

All these provisions are not surprising when we consider the haste with which the law was passed by Parliament in the last monsoon session. There was not much discussion in view of the everyday survival and livelihood issues faced by millions of workers in India, due to their underprivileged social status and caste in comparison to that of employers and the state.

Therefore, it is disheartening that a law which was expected to provide economic and social justice to most of the population, now has provisions which will exploit workers further. There is no accountability from elected representatives on the broken promises of decent and fair wages. The Labour Code on Wages Act 2019 and the draft rules have failed the lives and the aspirations of over 50 crore informal workers in India. Working people are a national asset; undermining their well-being should be considered the biggest anti-national act.

Chandan Kumar is Coordinator, Working Peoples’ Charter and Member, National Minimum Wage Advisory Board. Raghunath Kuchik is Chairperson for the Maharashtra Minimum Wage Advisory Council

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 7:27:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-broken-promise-of-decent-and-fair-wages/article30070255.ece

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