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India: Right to work and rights at work

by Mukul Sharma, 27 February 2009

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We seriously lack a basic framework for protection of labour rights and an enabling rights-based environment for equity and development.

The discussion on the global financial crisis and the revelation of its effects — large-scale downsizing, layoffs, wage cuts and job losses — at the 42nd Indian Labour Conference held in New Delhi on February 20 and 21 should serve as a wake-up call for all those who care about the economic, social and cultural rights of a majority of Indians. The right to work and rights at work have been heavily curtailed in India in the recent past. And the blame for denial of these rights frequently lies with not only governments but also individuals, groups and enterprises. Defending and promoting jobs, employment and work should be an urgent priority for the government, the national community, the people’s movement and civil society as a whole. Nothing can take precedence over the right to work and live with dignity.

Let us see the government’s own revelation at the conference: A sample study conducted by the Department of Commerce of 121 export-related companies showed a loss in export orders to the tune of Rs.1,792 crore, and a loss of about 65,500 jobs. The Ministry of Labour and Employment got a quick survey conducted by the Labour Bureau to assess the extent of job loss in the industries/sectors affected during the quarter October-December 2008 due to the economic slowdown. A sample of about 3,000 units from the organised and unorganised sectors — mining, textiles, metals, gems, automobiles, construction, transport and IT/BPO — was covered in Delhi (Delhi and NCR towns), Punjab (Jalandhar and Ludhiana), Tamil Nadu (Chennai and Tirupur), Karnataka (Bangalore and Bellary), West Bengal (Kolkata and Howrah), Jharkhand (Ranchi and Jamshedpur), Gujarat (Ahmedabad and Surat), and Maharashtra (Mumbai and Pune). The total employment in all the sectors covered by the survey went down from 16.2 million in September 2008 to 15.7 million in December 2008, resulting in job losses for about half-a-million people. The exporting units have had a higher decline in employment. It was 8.43 per cent in gems and jewellery, followed by metals (2.6 per cent), textiles (1.29 per cent), automobiles (1.26 per cent) and mining (0.32 per cent). The overall decline among contract workers was higher. The average earnings declined at 3.45 per cent a month during October-December 2008. This when the smaller units were not covered in the survey, and the tourism, and financial and construction sectors — which have also been severely affected by the financial crisis — were not included.

This situation is further compounded by the prevailing global and national trends in employment. In 2008, roughly 3 billion people around the world were employed. The three Asian regions comprising South Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific and East Asia accounted for about 57 per cent of global employment. The global employment-to-population ratio decreased by 0.2 per cent during 2008 in comparison to the previous year, which was a result of rising unemployment in 2008 and the labour force participation rate in the world remaining constant at 65.1 per cent in recent years. The number of unemployed in 2008 around the world is estimated to have been 190.2 million, indicating an increase of 10.7 million over 179.5 million in 2007. The global unemployment rate also increased from 5.7 per cent in 2007 to 6 per cent in 2008.

Going by various credible projections, labour misery will continue. According to the Global Wage Report 2008-09, published by the International Labour Office (ILO), the economic crisis is expected to lead to painful cuts in the wages of millions of workers worldwide in the coming year. It predicts that the slow or negative economic growth, combined with highly volatile food and energy prices, will erode the real wages of the world’s 1.5 billion wage-earners, particularly the low-wage and poorer households. Between 1995 and 2007, for each one per cent decline in GDP per capita, average wages fell even further by 1.55 percentage points, a result that points to the possible effects on wages in the current crisis.

The government’s response to the impact of the global meltdown on the economy mainly comprises additional spending, interest subvention and excise duty cuts, which would prevent large-scale job losses through growth in industry and production. However, there is no guarantee that enterprise owners will use these benefits to save labour and employment, and will not continue to pass their burden on to the employees. In fact, this fear is coming true now. It is not clear how the government’s flagship schemes such as the Rajiv Gandhi Shramik Kalyan Yojna and under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act will be reoriented to meet this serious crisis. As usual, since it is not a priority, we are nowhere near finalising the National Employment Policy or the National Skill Development Policy, which would have helped in promoting employment and employability.

Taking steps towards protecting employment is an immediate obligation: deliberate, concrete and targeted steps as expeditiously and effectively as possible, in similar ways as are being taken to support the economy and industry. Such steps might include adopting legislation or the administrative machinery, or establishing action programmes and appropriate oversight bodies to stop retrenchment and layoffs. An understanding of progressive uplift of the economy does not justify the government’s inaction on the immediate and massive sufferings of labour.

The right to work and the rights at work are perhaps the least prioritised in our country today. The concern for workers’ rights includes worries in the international community over processes of globalisation and the social consequences of trade liberalisation. Nowhere more than in the workplace do we see, in practice, an absolute indivisibility of rights. Instances of labour violations throughout the country prove how abuses of civil and political rights compound an already grave situation, where breaches of economic, social and cultural rights have already existed.

Fundamental rights at work — elimination of forced and compulsory labour in all its forms, equal pay for women and men for work of equal value, freedom of association, and a ban on child labour — are missing. The right of access to employment without discrimination, free choice of employment, and a supportive structure that aids access to employment, which includes appropriate vocational education, right to fair wages, safe and healthy working conditions, reasonable limitations on working hours, prohibition of dismissal on dubious grounds and equality of treatment in employment, are less valued. We seriously lack a basic framework for protection of labour rights and an enabling rights-based environment for equity and development.

In an atmosphere where basic principles of freedom of association — the right to organise and the importance of collective bargaining — have been comprehensively cornered by employers and sectors in the past decades, the strength among workers and their organisations to stop downsizing or protest against anti-union discrimination has diminished considerably although there have been some calls for all-India protest actions. No doubt, the primary accountability rests with the governments in whose jurisdiction the violations are occurring. At the same time, the companies too must be answerable for labour rights abuses on their premises.

In the 1980s and 1990s, we witnessed an economic crisis with structural and policy adjustments under the overall dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and along with it a deep ideological and political crisis — a crisis that manifested itself in the shrinking sphere of the secular, progressive ideology vis-À-vis the rise and development of the communal, consumerist and rightist ideology. A substantial section of the working people, peasantry and small farmers, women, and rural population suffered immensely. Millions of working people participated in strikes and protest actions in the 1990s, demanding a halt to the new economic policies but the government was rigid in implementing them.

Today, the reality of liberalisation and corporate globalisation is more exposed and the alternatives are clearer. The immediate challenge is labour redundancy. However, the danger in the present trend is determined not only by their immediate direct significance but also by the fact that like before, they will create the conditions for a further onslaught on people’s democratic rights and for an anti-people restructuring of the economic sphere.

(The above article appeared in The Hindu, 27 February 2009)