The Life of Labour: Kerala’s New Labour Policy, Farmers Protest Against Bullet Train Project

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Minimum wage revision and migrant workers’ welfare feature in Kerala’s new labour policy

The Left Front government in Kerala unveiled its new labour reforms policy that promises to increase floor minimum wage to Rs. 600/- a day, while creating various administrative structures to improve employability and protection of migrant workers. Like in the case of Delhi, the penalties for violation of minimum wages have been made more stringent. While abolishing all forms of child labour, the policy aims to create crèches in all districts to support child care for working mothers. To fund this, the government will impose a crèche cess on all establishments employing women workers. The government has also claimed that it would discourage ‘flash strikes’, which has been a major concern for investors.

Farmers protest bullet train project that will acquire their lands

Mumbai witnessed yet another farmer mobilisation this week against the ‘bullet train’ project which intends to acquire agricultural lands between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The protests were triggered after the state government diluted the powers of the Gram Sabha in consenting for the land acquisition. On Thursday, farmers from Raigad, Thane, Nashik, Vidharbha, Konkan, Palghar, Dhule, Jalgaon, Dahanu, Gadchiroli and Nandurbar came together under the banner of Bhumi Adhikar Andolan to protest against a notification issued by the Governor which dilutes the power of gram sabhas when it comes to infrastructural projects.

In Bhavnagar, Gujarat, over 5,000 farmers have sought permission to commit mass suicide at the prospect of land acquisition for a spate of projects including a petrochemical refinery and high-speed rail corridor. Farmers across Gujarat have been facing state violence for opposing moves to acquire productive farmlands. The threat of losing livelihoods or facing brutal police action has forced many to such desperation.

Has the Mudra scheme created the promised jobs?

When confronted over the promise to create crores of jobs, BJP president Amit Shah had responded claiming the Mudra scheme, launched by the NDA to provide loans to promote entrepreneurship, had created over 7 crore jobs. The Wire’s report, based on RTI information, investigates this claim. While the 7 crore figure comes from the overall loans disbursed by public sector banks under this scheme, the issue of whether or not it translated into jobs, as claimed by Amit Shah, remains a guess as there is no clear data. But the size of loans disbursed so far raises questions about its effect on job creation. The number of loans over 5 lakh rupees, which would be necessary to set up a productive business, was a mere 1.3%. The average loan size remains at a mere Rs. 52,000, too low for creating remunerative jobs. Private research institutions also estimate that the actual jobs created because of the scheme, both direct and indirect, could not be more than 1.7 crores. Unfortunately, the loans disbursed are also classified as risky as there is no collateral for these loans. With over Rs. 2.53 lakh crores disbursed in 2017-18, public sector banks are also highly concerned at the prospect of these loans turning NPAs.

BJP state governments push ahead with labour reforms

While the central government has been facing severe opposition to its attempts to dilute labour laws, BJP-led state governments have been pushing ahead with the changes demanded by employers and investors. This article in NewsClick compiles the various changes enacted by states to amend labour regulation in the past four years. The central government, which had promised to reform the existing 44 labour laws into four codes, has not been able to move significantly ahead in this direction. While the labour code on wages has come close to being enacted, the rest have remained at various levels of drafting and approval. The government had also scaled back certain measures due to severe opposition from unions. Given this context and the impending elections, BJP has used the state governments as a way to bypass national scrutiny of its labour reforms by pushing it at the state level.

Dehradun sanitation workers’ strike continues into the second week

Sanitation workers in Dehradun municipality had gone on an indefinite strike demanding regularisation of employment and increase in wages. Even after four rounds, the talks between the government officials and the workers remained inconclusive. On May 18, the talks broke down after the union representatives claimed that the officials had gone back on their verbal agreement to offer permanent jobs to the workers. The strike has continued well into the second week causing severe sanitary issues in the mountain retreat.

On May 15, the Municipal Commissioner had dismissed 164 workers for failing to present themselves for work in spite of repeated orders. The workers refused to buckle, continuing their united strike, which forced the administration to return to dialogue. Union leaders claim that on May 17, the negotiating officials had agreed to fulfil their demands to give permanent jobs to workers, raise their wages to match the minimum wages in the state and revoke the dismissal of striking workers. They had offered to provide a written guarantee. On this basis, the workers had decided to call off the strike. But the officials, union leaders claim, went back on their word and did not guarantee a rise in wages or reinstatement of dismissed workers.

Delays in wage payments under MGNREGS not acceptable: SC

The Supreme Court has come down heavily on the central government and state governments for the inordinate delays in paying wages to MGNREGS workers. It has ordered the governments to clear all the back wages at the earliest with compensation for delay. Stating that the governments involved cannot keep passing the buck, the top court said that under the Act, a worker was entitled to get his or her due wages within a fortnight of completion of work and if there was any administrative inefficiency or laxity, it was entirely for the state governments and the Ministry of Rural Development to sort out the problem. The issue of delays in wage payments and the denial of compensations had been covered in last week’s issue of this column.

Other news

The forgotten monument to India’s trade union movement

As we wrote on the occasion of its centenary, not many remember the derelict building in North Chennai that housed the Madras Labour Union (MLU). The building has been lying neglected and shut following an internal feud in the MLU for 17 years. In the centenary year of MLU’s formation, the impasse threatens to dissolve into insignificance the union’s proletarian legacy, its historical significance (MLU influenced the enactment of the Trade Union Act, 1926) and the impact it produced on the nation’s trade union movement in the pre-Independence era. MLU, considered the first recognised labour union in the country, was formed on April 27, 1918. The office building was opened on September 16, 1931. While the union is unable to resolve their dispute, they neither want the state government to intervene nor that the property return to the Pachaiyappan Trust as per the by-law (if the union becomes defunct). According to senior lawyer NGR Prasad, other national unions have also shown little interest as MLU was never affiliated to the central trade unions.

Andaman fishers face an uncertain future

Vardhan Patankar, a marine biologist, writes for The Wire about how the global economics of seafood is affecting the fishing habits of the fisherfolk in the Andaman islands. Read more here.

International news

Drones and Google: A worker’s dilemma

While more than 4,000 employees have signed a petition asking Google to refrain from working with the Pentagon on military technology, now almost a dozen people have resigned from the company. For those who missed the original story, Google was revealed to be supplying AI tech to Pentagon on a drone project called Maven. These drones are remotely-controlled weapons of war. “We can no longer ignore our industry’s and our technologies’ harmful biases, large-scale breaches of trust, and lack of ethical safeguards,” the petition reads. “These are life and death stakes.” The resigning employees are taking a stand. “At some point, I realized I could not in good faith recommend anyone join Google, knowing what I knew. I realized if I can’t recommend people join here, then why am I still here?” a resigning Google employee told Gizmodo.

1,200 workers, including 550 Indians, stranded in Qatar

The workers are stranded in Qatar as their employer, a construction company, has not paid them for months. The Hindu reports that the company, the Doha-based HKH W.L.L., is one of the largest construction companies in Qatar. The company has refused to communicate to its employees why there is a delay in the payment of their wages. The workers, who are from India, Sri Lanka, Philippines and various other countries, compare their situation to that of refugees stuck in a foreign country.

Weekend reading

Asia’s largest housing cooperative is run by women beedi workers

This story was covered last week but, as a rare success story, we thought it would benefit from going more space and more detail. When capital takes flight from a region, leaving workers jobless and destitute, they have a choice to make. They can settle for more exploitation by selling their wage even lower or organise to collectively resolve their issues. When the textile sector moved out and the handloom sector receded, the women workers of Solapur chose the latter and in doing so, they built the largest housing cooperative movement in Asia. The landmark housing initiative, by women beedi workers and ably supported by CITU in Solapur, has already constructed 15,000 houses since 2001 and will complete another 30,000 houses by 2022. The sheer numbers outshine any private or publicly funded housing project in India. The grandeur of the enterprise goes beyond numbers. The average size of the housing units is 50 square meters, much bigger than the size of dwellings offered by the state housing projects. Having design inputs from the residents, the housing colonies all allow for workspaces for the women. Subin Dennis documents this struggle that began in the early 1990s and its achievements so far.

In the first project named after a women trade union leader Godavari Parulekar, each worker was able to buy a house for Rs. 20,000, a third of the total cost. Workers paid their share in instalments, and the funds for this purpose were drawn from their personal savings and their social security funds. The central government’s share for the scheme came from the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund, which consists of the cess collected on manufactured beedis. The workers were also able to get the state government and municipal administration to provide schools, health centres, electricity lines, substations, water lines and water tank for the area, spread across 182 acres.

This and similar projects have had a significant impact on housing in Solapur. It has reduced slum households from a quarter of the population to under 20%. It has provided a better life for the workers, who number in the tens of thousands. Ironically, a national campaign is underway to revoke the recent central government orders announcing a moratorium on cess collection. This measure, which the government touts as part of its ‘ease of doing business’, was taken as excess cash was lying idle in the welfare boards for lack of effective disbursal. The government would do well to take lessons and turn over the administration of the welfare board to workers’ cooperatives.