These words from John Steinbeck’s iconic novel ‘Grapes of Wrath’ echoed in the head as you met and spoke with labourers participating in the protest held by trade unions across the country on Sept. 02
There was a tremendous sense of déjà vu at the protest by trade unions on September 2 at Jantar Mantar. The same date the previous year had witnessed a similar demonstration at the same place. The Minister of Labour & Employment then too was the same – Bandaru Dattatreya, and he had uttered almost the same things at the time – “we are working on facilitating ease of doing business” ….. “want to simplify and rationalise laws”, “a committee will be constituted for scheme workers to be covered by Social Security benefits”, and “we are not in a hurry”.
No, the Government has certainly showed no hurry, so unfortunately what also remains the same is the wretched stock of the labourer and his/her family across the Indian sub-continent – under or mal-nourished, anemic, with no social security, with none or poor access to health and educational services, and heaven forbid if there is an accident, chronic or debilitating illness.
So, the trade union groups – primarily CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) and AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress) presented the same 12-point charter of demands to the Ministry, which included minimum wages of Rs 18,000/- p.m; pension of not less than Rs.3,000/- p.m, against Central/State PSUs disinvestment and FDI in railways, insurance and defence; same wage & benefits to contract workers for similar work, immediate ratification of ILO Conventions C 87 and C 98, etc.
In response, the Government got into a huddle – Dattatreya was joined by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal and Minister of State for Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh - to start a simplification exercise of Labour Laws. The group has proposed amalgamating 44 central labour laws into four codes relating to: wages, industrial relations, social security and working conditions and health and safety.
This document will be referred to the Cabinet shortly. Dattatreya has said that then a Bill to this effect will be sent for approval in the next parliamentary session.
As a quick populist measure, Dattareya under the glare of media unveiled a scheme categorizing security guards as ‘skilled’ workers and armed security guards and supervisors as ‘highly skilled’ workers. “It will entitle them a minimum monthly wage of Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000, respectively,” he beamed.
However, a gargantuan more needs to be done. Two female-dominated groups that participated in the protest included nurses and anganwadi workers. While the nurses wanted the fifth pay commission upgradation to be implemented for them, the anganwadi workers want their fig leaf status of “volunteer” changed to those of full-fledged workers. Currently, this group works at a ridiculous wage of Rs. 5 - 6,000 with no benefits whatsoever. Unless their demands are addressed in a serious manner the Government’s commitment to protect female workers, as well fixing abysmal health and education services comes into question, especially since the female work-force is steadily shrinking in the country.
The one thing that was different this year were the numbers who participated – even if ignored largely by mainstream media – the protest was bigger and more widespread, in Delhi and across the country.
Disregarding or discounting the genuine needs of labour in the country will be perilous for the government and the society at large. The next generation is restive, better informed and more confident about expressing themselves – we need to make sure it’s done positively and constructively.
The ILO (International Labour Organisation) Conventions that trade unions in India want followed:
C087 - Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948
Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation.
1. Workers' and employers' organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes.
2. The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or
Workers' and employers' organisations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority.
Workers' and employers' organisations shall have the right to establish and join federations and confederations and any such organisation, federation or confederation shall have the right to affiliate with international organisations of workers and employers.
C098 - Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949
1. Workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment.
2. Such protection shall apply more particularly in respect of acts calculated to--
(a) make the employment of a worker subject to the condition that he shall not join a union or shall relinquish trade union membership;
(b) cause the dismissal of or otherwise prejudice a worker by reason of union membership or because of participation in union activities outside working hours or, with the consent of the employer, within working hours.
1. Workers' and employers' organisations shall enjoy adequate protection against any acts of interference by each other or each other's agents or members in their establishment, functioning or administration.
2. In particular, acts which are designed to promote the establishment of workers' organisations under the domination of employers or employers' organisations, or to support workers' organisations by financial or other means, with the object of placing such organisations under the control of employers or employers' organisations, shall be deemed to constitute acts of interference within the meaning of this Article.