09 Sep 2016 21:30 IST

A life of toil with no light at the end of the tunnel

For the 80 per cent of India’s workers who are in the unorganised sector, job security is a distant dream

All the major trade unions of the country, barring the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, observed a one-day strike last week, protesting against the government’s anti-labour policies. Industry body Assocham pegged the loss of the one-day strike at ₹18,000 crore.

The unions are opposing the government’s various reform measures including easing rules for foreign direct investment and disinvestment of public sector firms. The government’s raising the minimum wages just a few days before the strike failed to satisfy the unions.

The striking workers themselves were an interesting amalgam of blue-collared workers from the shop-floors of the Manesar-Gurgaon auto belt and white-collared employees of public sector banks. 

The nature of work the world over has seen a great deal of change over the last few years with the concept of the ‘worker’ also seeing a big shift. There has been a global trend towards increasing fragmenting of the labour class and a growing trend towards short-term temporary work, or temping. Trade union membership in the western world is also at an all-time low.

A different trajectory

But in India the working class has had a different trajectory, differing significantly from the West. Workers in the organised sector form only a small fraction of the working class. More than 80 per cent of the workers toil in the unorganised sector, a majority of whom fall outside the ambit of trade unions, which have, more often than not, spoken for workers in the organised sector.  Though, of late, some mainstream unions like CITU have begun taking up the cause of unorganised sector workers as well.

Though senior ILO official Sher Verick in a recent interview said that the share of workers in the unorganised sector fell from 86 per cent in 2004-05 to 82 per cent in 2011-12, there are still a disproportionately large number of workers in the unorganised sector.  

In 2004, soon after the UPA came to power, it had set up a committee headed by economist Arjun Sengupta to look into the conditions of workers in the unorganised sector. The UPA’s rationale was that though India had begun to post impressive growth rates in the post-1991 reforms period, the benefits of growth were not being spread evenly. So this study was part of the UPA’s inclusive growth agenda.

The study titled “Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector” was submitted in 2007 and its results were startling. The main finding was: “At the end of 2004-05, about 836 million or 77 per cent of the population were living below ₹20 a day and constituted most of India’s informal economy.”

That 77 per cent of the population did not even earn ₹20 per day did puncture some of the euphoria surrounding economic growth and, more specifically, the ‘India Shining’ campaign of the earlier NDA government.

No safety net

The study said that in January 2005, of the total number of 458 million workers in the country, 395 million were working in the unorganised sector comprising 86 per cent of the total work force. A vast majority of these unorganised sector workers were in the agriculture sector — 253 million. Only 0.4 per cent of the workers in the unorganised sector got benefits such as Provident Fund; hence, an astonishing number of workers were bereft of any job security or social security net.

Another report titled “Importance of Unorganised Sector Statistics” by economist R Radhakrishna said that the informal sector accounted for more than 90 per cent of the country’s workforce and contributed about 50 per cent to GDP.  This report specifically went into the data aspects of the unorganised sector, analysing gaps in existing data and providing clarity on definitions of what constitutes the unorganised  sector; it also suggested measures that could be taken to improve the quality of data.   

The Sengupta Committee report, which is 394 pages long, studies in detail the working conditions of workers in the agriculture and non-agriculture sectors and deals with issues such as bonded labour, child labour and migrant workers. It also has a wealth of data on these issues. The report suggests a course of legislative action to improve the conditions of these workers and an action programme for the unorganised sector as well, including small and marginal farmers.

These unorganised sector workers have been for long been ignored by the established unions, though there have been some recent attempts to include them. There have also been some laudable moves by both the erstwhile UPA II govt (the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008) and the present Modi government to bring unorganised sector workers under a provident fund and pension schemes.

Job security, a distant dream

Though there has been a fall in the number of workers in the unorganised sector, as mentioned earlier, the sector still comprises a huge number of workers, and the government has a daunting task in improving their lives and working conditions.

Apart from the woes of unorganised sector workers, there has been a worrying trend of increasing contract work among the organised sector workers or ‘casualisation’ of work. And this is likely to increase in the future, given the clamour for ‘flexible’ labour laws by industry chambers and a section of economists.  

So, the next time PSU bank employees or insurance companies think of striking work, they should spare a thought to the vast majority of workers for whom job security and pension are still a distant dream.      



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