Labour

The Life of Labour: 99% of MNREGA Funding Unprocessed, DefExpo Workers Crammed in Tiny Shelters

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Where are the jobs in the growing Indian economy?

Month after month, economic reports have revealed a bleak picture of the state of employment in India. While many economists do agree that India is on a growth trajectory, they remain perplexed about the lack of growth in jobs. March’s numbers for foreign trade reveals that labour intensive exports have shrunk yet again, widening the balance between import and export while also affecting job growth in these sectors. The woes of the IT sector, which had been the leading creator of high productivity jobs for the last decade, continues with a series of layoffs impacting overall consumption and having a domino effect on the economy. In this context, many have attempted to explain or even provide solutions to this contradiction in the Indian economy.

One such attempt is a two-part series in Livemint by Parmit Bhattacharya that analyses the trends in job creation over a decade and a half, arguing that while farm jobs have definitely decreased with a more or less commensurate increase in non-farm employment, the bulk of non-farm employment has come from a few sectors, especially construction. Listing the top job generators of this period and the relative productivity of labour in these sectors, he observes that jobs have been generated in the lower end of the productivity spectrum.

Comparing this with other Asian countries which went through structural transformation on the back of the manufacturing sector, he flags the ‘paucity of skilled jobs’ and ‘taxation policy that promotes capital-intensive manufacturing’ as possible causes. In the second part, he discusses at length the issue of ‘employability’ stating that managers find it difficult to find ‘employable’ workers. Observing the failure of the ‘Skill India’ mission to deliver on quality jobs, he argues that it is essential to improve the overall educational standards of the workforce in order to improve vocational skills and employability.

However, the data presented by him reveals yet another distressing feature. The sectors that have shown a significant improvement in productivity and quality of jobs have not been creating more jobs. Whereas, the construction sector that has cornered a third of new jobs created in the past decade, has shown a decline in overall productivity. While surveys reveal that recruiters are facing difficulties finding the right talent and skill sets, it is also true that industry has been lobbying to ease employment norms, allowing for fixed-term employment and use of apprentice in production. Real incomes have been growing at a much lower rate than decadal averages which suggests that companies are not willing to compensate workers for productivity gains. These measures further disincentivise both personal and corporate investment in skill development due to the uncertainty in employment. Such lobbying efforts along with a preference for automation suggests that industry is content with line workers having lower skills and experience than before. It begs the question if the real problem of employability lies in our manufacturing sector seeking high skills at a bargain rather than a remunerative wage.

With most of the productivity gains going to service capital, it is no surprise that wealth and income inequalities are widening at an alarming pace in the developing economies. An article in The Wire by Biswas and Hartley laments that no concrete policy apart from rhetoric is on offer to address this crucial question that threatens economic growth in the immediate future and social human development in the long term.

99% of MNREGS funding remains unprocessed

NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, an organisation agitating for the rights of workers covered under MNREGA, has highlighted in a letter how 99% of MGNREGA wages have still not been paid in April 2018. Given that the financial year has just begun, it’s not the paucity of funds but the stringent regulations placed by the Finance Ministry that has squeezed funding. The letter, recording the delays in processing Fund Transfer Orders (FTOs) over three months, also highlights how the introduction of the National Electronic Fund Management System (NEFMS) to aid in quicker disbursal of wages has allowed the Finance Ministry to “tighten” its leash over MGNREGA funds. “Now it routinely withholds the processing of FTOs,” it reads. 86% of FTOs for the month of March are still pending. NEFMS has also meant that states can’t pay workers from their revolving fund until the ministry processes FTOs. Such delays have become common even after an SC order against such practice, and the central government has blatantly stated that it might not entirely compensate the workers for the arrears.

High Court grants permission to firm to hire non-wage board workers for contract work

The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court allowed a private firm to hire workers from outside the Mathadi labour board to be employed in unloading freight. The move comes after workers from ‘Nagpur and Wardha Mathadi and Unprotected Labour Board’ refused to work citing lower wages. “As the respondent board expressed its inability to assist the petitioner after its workers are not ready and willing, we permit petitioner to get work done through a willing gang and employ additional labour on same terms and conditions for carrying it out,” the judges stated. The court’s orders came after petitioner firm, Swetal Enterprises, approached it for the second time through counsel Firdos Mirza after Mathadi labourers refused to unload rakes which were waiting at the Nagpur railway station since long. This order will decidedly decrease the power of the organised workers to bargain for higher wages.

DefExpo 2018: Workers suffer in crammed shelters

The much-publicised Defence Expo 2018 was held near Chennai over the last week. The event was foreshadowed by massive protests in Tamil Nadu regarding the non-constitution of the Cauvery Management Board. This expo was meant to display India’s defence manufacturing capabilities while also declaring to the international arms industry our commitment to be a major consumer. While the state of the art equipment and the galleries were bedecked for the occasion, the workers who put it up at record speed suffered under deplorable conditions. New Indian Express reports the low standards of accommodation and sanitation offered to these workers, many of whom were migrants. Even the cars of the company officials had better accommodation than those of the workers.

Labour code on social security to reduce employer contribution to gratuity

In yet another attempt to subsidise corporations and reduce their social security burden, the government has decided to push for a lower cap on their contribution to gratuity. The proposed code on social security intends to lower the employer contribution to 17.5% of basic wage instead of the prevalent 20%. While the corporates had sought a halving of their contribution to just 10%, this lowering of their commitment to long-term social support for workers indicates a willingness to accede to industry requests at the cost of workers.

Other news and updates

JK Tyres workers re-join work after an interim agreement

The 15-day long strike by JK Tyres workers came to an end on April 6 after a late night conciliation between workers and management in front of the labour department. In this conciliation, the management has agreed to give Rs. 7,500 per month as interim wage increase which will be reconciled with the collective wage agreement, once finalised. The management has also agreed to complete the wage agreement negotiation within one month. The next conciliation meeting is scheduled for April 10. Prior to the strike, the management had cut Rs. 6,000 from 140 workers’ salaries accusing the workers of going slow. This will be given in advance and will be settled during the collective wage agreement. In the meantime, the company had also obtained an injunction from the High Court against any protests near the factory. The workers’ union maintained that they were not even heard before the injunction order was delivered.

Organisations rally behind the plight of nurses in Kerala

For more than 6 months, nurses from KVM Hospital in Cherthala, Alappuzha have been on an indefinite strike. According to an open letter to the Kerala chief minister circulated by the union, “The demands of the workers are that the Kerala State wage revisions of 2013 be fully implemented, statutory benefits paid, statutory work-load hours respected, and the reinstatement of 112 nurses unfairly dismissed for taking part in a peaceful and lawful industrial action.” The management has refused to negotiate with the nurses. The open letter initiated by Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA) network has the support of a number of people’s organisations like National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), People’s Budget Initiative and Public Services International (PSI) South Asia.

18 workers killed in a road accident

A speeding truck carrying construction labourers from Bijapur district in Karnataka to Pune overturned in western Maharashtra’s Satara district in the early hours of Tuesday, according to a report in Deccan Chronicle. 18 workers died and 15 were injured in the accident.

Sanmina workers allege safety failures at factory site

Sanmina workers, who had re-joined work after a successful 66-day strike that concluded with 65 suspended workers re-joining work, have alleged unfair labour practices like unrealistic production targets, undercutting grade pay and other forms of victimisation. They have also flagged two recent incidents for safety failures. An electrical fault had led to a minor fire on the shop floor, but the fire alarm did not activate and the electronic locks on the entry and exit doors did not disengage. This might become a fatal failure if the fire was more severe. Secondly, a snake had entered the shop floor indicating the danger from these reptiles. They are seeking a safety audit and precautions to prevent any untoward incident.

International news

How privatisation sparked the massive Oklahoma teacher uprising

About 30,000 teachers in Oklahoma state are marching from Tulsa to Oklahoma City in protest. While mainstream media has been “marketing poverty porn” about the dire straits of the poorest teachers, In These Times reports that “there’s a bigger issue at hand than the impoverished state of teachers and their support staff: privatisation. For more than a decade, state legislators—Democrats and Republicans alike—have marched the state off the proverbial financial cliff, then used budget shortfalls to push privatisation.” Oklahoma’s budget for education belies the large amounts of money coming from oil. The teachers’ strike questions the priorities behind the state’s budget and why education isn’t one of them.

Massive nationwide strikes in Germany continue

The Ver.di union, which represents 2.3 million public workers in the country, has called a strike of public sector workers ahead of upcoming talks on wages. With the public transport workers on strike, whole districts have come to a standstill. Public officials had to call off work and Lufthansa reportedly had to cancel 800 flights. The union has threatened to intensify its agitations if the government doesn’t cooperate next week.

Weekend reading

Archiving labour through art

Thirty-three student-artists from the Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai and Kumbakonam recently presented their work in an exhibition titled “Archiving Labour”. The exhibit was curated by Krishnapriya C.P., an artist from Chennai. Krishnapriya writes in The Wire about the experience, “Most of the students in the two colleges come from families that are involved in occupations of hard labour or traditional crafts, and have migrated to cities to hone their own artistic skills, some even as first generation learners. Studying their own families, people located close to them, and the work they are connected with became the crux of the students’ endeavour.” The art on display asks questions about the work of stone cutters, manual scavengers, rice huskers, laundrymen, bronze lamp makers, sign painters, labour pain and childbirth, the industrial roots of arts and craft education and much more.

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