The labour laws have been enacted since the Independence and till date, there have been many changes and introductions of various statutes to harmonize the structure for labour. The aim and intention were always to benefit the labour class and provide as much respite possible under various Schemes and Programmes which has led India to this stage with a much well recognized labour law. However, such shift wasn’t quite easy, having many obstacles to tackle by and conventions and standards of the International Labour Organization to adopt and adhere to. The major issue is to provide flexibility to the labour market due to which a lot of opportunities has been denied and been rather detrimental to the workers. Now, post the liberalization, such flexibility was essential as India was going to enter into the global world which would entail for competition and a market to face with constant changes. This article aims to delve into such matters where during the period from 2006 – 2011, India with its crucial programmes and strategy tried to adopt for the drawbacks for its previous faults and help in achieving the flexibility along with the various safeguards to the workers from an analysis of Government Reports.
After the First National Commission report in 1969, a need for a Second Commission was required to adjust to the vast changes occurring in the economy. The Second National Commission with an aim to suggest a rationalization of the existing laws and an umbrella legislation for providing minimum protection to the workers in the unorganized sector, came up with various recommendations upon review and were considered while making amendments. Soon, there were amendments and changes recommended to be brought in for Chapter V-B for Industries Disputes Act and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970. In furtherance to this, the Unorganized Sector Worker’s Bill was introduced in 2004 to protect the workers by making string measures to their safety, health and social security for workers being employed in unorganized sectors. It was considered to provide a coverage ranging from health to accident to life to maternity benefits etc. This Bill underwent changes for a long period of time taking it 3 years to be brought in as a Bill after several changes being recommended and then another year to finally being passed as an Act in 2008 in the form of Unorganized Sector Worker’s Social Security Act.
THE WAGE POLICY CRISIS UNDER NREGA
There have been multiple committees set up to evaluate the implementation of the programs, especially on the crisis of wage policy back in 2009-10. The crisis was in respect to the fixation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) wages and to provide the workers under the programme with their entitlements. The Working Group on Wages was constituted to look into the matter where they came up with the following crisis prevailing around the programme. Firstly, they reported that the wages of the NREGA workers are falling continuously for many months with the inflation rate going up. Furthermore, there was no set pattern for determination of these wages nor a guarantee that these workers would earn the statutory minimum wages, as observed in many states. There have also been instances where payment is due and their timely payments are not adhered to, making it extremely difficult for the workers employed under this scheme. The Working Group considering such harsh ground realities have addressed the issues in their Report. The committee also laid down some important and immediate reliefs to tackle the problem where it recommended to index the wages as per the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labourers which would be to ensure at least Rs. 100 per day or more depending on the prices. This way the problem of determining the wages as well as the problem of the low wages is resolved to an extent. Moreover, they also realized the problem for extended working hours and thus recommended to cut back on the minimum working hours back to seven hours from nine hours as updated earlier by the Ministry of Rural Development. Additionally, they also recommended the strict adherence to the provisions of Minimum Wages Actwhich was being undermined due to the provisions of NREGA.
The workers under the Scheme have no respite and legal protection against the minimum wage schemes which have been implemented, especially after activating section 6(1).The committee urged to simply let the minimum wages to be consistent with NREGA rules and the Minimum Wages Act. The danger lies at the state amendments which may follow in the light of the events back then. Though there haven’t been any negative changes regarding the minimum wages, the situation worsened in the couple of years, especially during the COVID-19.The committee have been very clear with the detriments caused to the workers and thus, have strongly recommended to avert the crisis by reverting back to section 6(2).
The Working Committee has also showed concerns towards prolonged delays being carried out in NREGA programmes. The requirement of payment within 15 days are being met up with only few states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Such violations are prevalent from a long time existing still today in states. The Ministry of Rural Development has also not shown any special addressal of these grievances and thus totally neglected the rights of the workers. The Report finally condemns the use of banks and post offices to use as means for payment of wages. It recognizes the presence of middlemen who exploit the conditions of the workers and use to ‘siphon off’ the wages which belongs to the workers. Such problems have neither been rectified nor acknowledged by the Ministry back then, and since then, in the recent times too, there haven’t been NREGA pay-outs. Lastly, the report also focuses on certain issues and aspects which needs to have deliberation in near time regarding fair and equitable wages and the measurement related issues of wage payment. Till date, the principles of fair and equitable wages remain as a standard for payment, however never implemented upon until 2016, where the Supreme Court has very explicitly held that employees performing similar duties and functions must be paid fairly as regard to the other employees, irrespective of them belonging to any class of employees. Such a decision was a leap forward to the progressive and dynamic nature of the society to settle the issue for a long time and end the working-class woes.
AMENDMENTS, BILLS& PROGRAMMES DURING THE PERIOD
There have been numerous amendments and revisions along with enactments in the labour laws during 2006-2011. One of them is the Industrial Disputes (Amendment) Act, 2010, where many labour courts and tribunals have been empowered to act of their non-implementation of awards. Also, it extended the scope of the Act to include workmen earning Rs. 10,000 per month.The intention to settle the industrial disputes and maintain good relations between the employee (here the workers) and the employer for a better conciliation is emphasized and in furtherance to that, a Constitution of Grievance Settlement Machinery has also been made mandatorily set up to ensure creation of such peaceful relations.Moreover, the Plantations Labour (Amendment) Act, 2010 had also been passed whereby it extends the coverage to all the gendered workers drawing wage upto Rs.10,000. It eliminates the possibility of gender bias within the system along with the adherence to safety measure as emphasized by its preamble within the plantations and also places responsibility on the states to draft such measures in accordance with the Centre’s approval.The Employee Compensation Act, 1923 was also proposed to be amended in 2010 to increase the ceiling of wage limit to Rs.8000 per month and enhancement for compensation and medical benefits were also ensured in the said amendment in a timely manner within three months. Further similar enhancements were noticed in Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972 to enhance its coverage and the provision for gratuity to Rs. 10 lakhs. The Payment of Wage (Amendment)Act,2005 has also been approved to extend the ceiling to Rs. 6,500 per month from the earlier existing Rs. 1,600 per month along with certain effects on its penal provisions.During this period, the Apprentice Act was also amended to provide for the reservation of OBC, flexibility for the Apprentice Scheme and instructions by the employer. There also had been a notification regarding the Payment of Wages (Nomination) Rules where on the recommendation by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, it has defined such procedure restricting it to the worker’s family with the powers as per section 26(5) of the Payment of Wages Act. Such recommendation again came to have gender neutrality and legal equality of women in the nominations as per the Ministry.On the same line,The Factories (Amendment) Bill, 2005 have been introduced in the Parliament to amend section 66 of the Act to expand the scope of the section to women during night shift in accordance with their safeguards duly taken.Amendments pertaining to Payment of Bonus Act had also been introduced during the period to increase the eligibility and calculation ceilings.
Various Bills were introduced during this period, major attraction being the Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by Certain Establishments) Amendment Bill, 2011 and the Mines Act, 1952 Amendment Bill. The former proposed to increase the coverage as specified in the Principal Act along with some minor changes. The latter proposes to impose heavier penal provisions and fines affecting safety and security of workers.
With respect to the programmes being introduced, the Rajiv Gandhi Shramik Kalyan Yojana was launched in 2006 with an aim to provide for unemployment allowances to variousworkers who have been engaged in insurable employment for not less than 3years and have lost their job involuntarily due to retrenchments, closure of factories and permanent disability are eligible to withdraw their unemployment allowances for a period of 12 months. These workers would be also eligible to have medical benefits for the same and at the same time would be provided with training at various Institutes across the nation. Along with this, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) was launched in 2007 whereby the workers belonging in informal sectors belonging to BPL category can have their family insured with amounts of Rs. 30,000 per year on a family floater basis.Though the RSBY was proposed to increase its limit to 1 lakh,however, the Ayushman Bharat – Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana is to subsume the said Yojana. This can be seen by the reducing budgets which the government has been doing the RSBY to make way for the Ayushman Bharat program by providing health cover of Rs. 5 lakhs per family coming under the BPL category.
RECOMMENDATIONS BY THE COMMITTEES
As per the Report by Working Group on Labour Laws and Regulations, they have quite explicitly analysed and recommended changes, including the need for inclusion of stakeholders and making decisions as per a consensus with trade unions and then refer to the Ministry of Labour and Employment. It must aim to improve the productivity, efficiency, and employment opportunities in sectors from IT to textiles to Special Economic Zones etc. The international standards of labour as emphasized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and various reports by bodies should be given due weightage while considering any proposals pertaining to labour laws. The report also mentioned to speed up the processes pertaining to long awaited bills in the Parliament and to expand the scope and coverage of Provident Fund and Insurance Schemes to unorganized sectors which have been badly impacted. Lastly, it stated for building up a better eco-system with feasible legislations for creating a productive economy for workers and labourers. The Working Group at the end of Eleventh Five Year Plan again reviewed the various legislations and schemes prevailingin India during that time and also recommended few changes amidst all the activities going on for a better and effective labour law situation, in addition to its earlier report. Firstly, it added for the consolidation and simplification of the codifications of such laws to reduce the multicity of laws and to ensure a better and productive operation in relation to the new consolidated laws. Secondly, it recommended to have common definitions within the related laws for a common and mutual understanding. Thirdly, protection of workers in unorganized sectors was again emphasized as from the last report on an urgent basis since almost 94% of the workmen belonged to be employed in such sectors. Measure such as minimum wages, improved regulatory activities, social security schemes, improved health care facilities etc. should be ensured. It applauded the enactment of the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act in 2008 to drive a positive growth for the workers and the society, however the core conventions on ILO must be fully adopted and incorporated which was also emphasized in the last report. Fourthly, it also tried the Government to bring laws with a broad scope and coverage to include workers from various sectors for their betterment and growth. Lastly, among the others, it placed emphasis on the enforcement aspect of these legislations by improving means of infrastructure, various institutional mechanisms for upgradation of skills, making provisions for incentives, faster disposal of cases by the courts, inclusion of trade unions in policy amendments, collective bargaining process to be encourages for resolving disputes, imposition of strict penalties and fines for better enforcement as per the type of offence and its seriousness.
India was a founding member of International Labour Organization (ILO). India have signedvarious conventions and agreements laid by ILO regarding the adoption of standards of labour laws. In 2010, a similar agreement was signed up by the Government of India to the ‘decent work agenda’ with ILO. It is the ILO umbrella strategy for improving the condition of the workers and those in vulnerable employment. It basically encapsulates the worker and labourers from informalized sectors and to those who have their own arrangements.ILO had found the desperate need to include the workers in this category who were exposed to low earnings and highly unsafe work environments. The ILO gradually under the programme shifted from their traditional notions of enforcing labour standards globally to have a social agreement over the standards with all the countries. It was not an easy shift as it led to many reforms within the system.The social security aspect has received attentions and the required recognitions by many countries worldwide which was confirmed by the ILO in its conventions in the later years. It led to organizations such as United Nations(UN) to join in to dedicate itself to have implemented basic set of rights for ensuring a minimum goods and services to all.
The decent work programme was aligned to India’s Eleventh Five Year Plan focusing on employment creation, social protection in informal economy, and elimination of ‘unacceptable forms of work’. As per Jens Lerche, the labour laws focused more towards the organized and formal sectors of the economy, leaving out the population which are engaged in informal sectors and form a majority of workers during that period. There are only a few acts such as the Contract Workers Act, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and the Migrant Workmen Act who have covered the informal labour. As observed by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS), about 85% of the workers in rural areas and 57% in urban areas get wages below the minimum rate.Moreover, the penal provisions are too small in relation to any violations of the Act during that period.The need for regulation of the informal economy was recognized back then but however, the aim of the Government was to generate employment rather than making provisions for decent work, being a major contravention with the ILO objectives towards the programme. National legislation was not in accordance with the agreements of ILO conventions which was evident by agreeing to ratify only four out of the eight fundamental conventions during that time.Apart from the laws, there were systems which operated the non-agreed conventions but was very limited in scope and didn’t made much impact. Even after the trend of government shown during that time, ILO went ahead with its programme.
With the decent work programme, India has undertaken initiative to improve upon the social protection scheme via three major changes. Firstly, with the introduction and enactment of the NREGA Scheme back in 2005, providing for a guaranteed 100 days of employment per year.Secondly, with the Social Security Bill passed in 2008 in the Parliament for each state to implement the said Act with little or no support from the Centre.Thirdly, the National Food Security Bill which aims to provide subsidized food grains to the population. This Bill was considered to be the first national law to provide for such grains across the nation apart from the already existing state laws. The three policies though having a much weightage has failed to address the situation prevalent in the informal sectors due to the socio-political culture of India. The Acts as supposed to its impact did a very less when compared to other countries.
ILO’s decent work agenda has proved to be the new standard for international labour policies. Though, the recognition of social security laws has begun, it still has had a very little impact especially on the informal sector labourers. Despite of many efforts, the policies have had not shown much signs of positive growth and in countries like India, the socio-political landscape has made it even more tough to improve the position for such sectors.
The ILO must have well-built social policies for the world to adopt for the betterment of the worker groups. In this light, NREGA has become one of the most successful standard and initiative around the world. Though the intricacies of NREGA are still something which must be addressed regarding the advantage provided to the informal sectors.The liberalization policy since 1991 has made the government even much stronger in promotion of the organized workforce with the element of global competition. Though, changes have been now shifting gradually towards the informal sector of employment with the organized sector being reduced to negotiations and cut backs, however the ground realities regarding the various rights being taken away still persists, adding on the latest amendments made by various State governments in the pandemic.The conditions of work and pay are not improving despite the steps taken by the government from those times and with these social policies, the impact has been at a low rate.
Article Written By-Kushal Tekriwal
(HRDI Work From Home Internship)
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