A Year Into the Pandemic, the Statistical Vacuum on Indian Labour Hasn't Been Filled

One year after the pandemic and its devastating consequences on India's workers, we do not have credible, time-series, continual and comprehensive statistics relating to the labour market and industrial relations.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave succeeded in doing what many economists and policy experts have struggled to do: put a spotlight on otherwise invisible workers and bring them into mainstream conversations, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.

In India, organised workers should be visible, at least in terms of official statistics. They are registered under either provident fund or medical insurance database. For these workers, even though labour laws such as the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (ISMW) Act, 1979, etc. exist on the statute books, various government agencies without any remorse or regret, brazenly confessed during the peak period of pandemic that there exists no statistics on them.

Now, more than a year has passed by. Do we have statistics on these workers? Have we updated the registrations under some laws like Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996 (BOCWA)? Unfortunately, the answer is still no.

During the pandemic’s peak, a few state governments undertook some temporary arrangements to register inter-state migrant workers and provide direct cash benefits of varying amounts. There are three problems here. Due to the absence of a credible registered workers’ database, the relief extended by state governments would not have reached all eligible workers. Uncoordinated sub-national relief measures, often populistic, eventually hurt the national fiscal health by ballooning the total fiscal deficit. But the larger issue is the requirement of the registration database of all kinds of unorganised workers not merely inter-state migrant workers, who are of course, important. Even though the said labour laws require the government agencies to register these workers and though the apex court had issued directions, nothing was done till the pandemic.

It has taken nearly a year for the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE) to announce on March 17, 2021 that it proposes to develop the National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW). The Supreme Court had in its deliberations on May 24, 2021 and June 11, 2021 urged the Union government to expedite the work on NDUW and even criticised the slow pace of work.

Also read: What Has (Not) Changed Since the Pandemic Ravaged Livelihoods of Workers

On the other hand, largely in a reactive move, the MoLE has also announced the initiation of five all-India surveys – the All India Survey of Migrant Workers, All India Survey of Domestic Workers, All India Survey of Employment Generated by Professionals, All India Survey of Employment Generated in the Transport Sector, and the All-India Quarterly Establishment Based Employment Survey. From the design of these surveys, it is clear that the government will get “estimates” concerning the target labour market agents, be they migrants or domestic workers or others.

A migrant worker rides a cart with his family on a highway as they return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 27, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/Files

It is important to understand and interrogate the utility of these surveys. 

First, has the government assessed the shortcomings in the existing statistical system and then designed these new surveys? We do not have any statistical base on the entire gamut of the service sector which is the single largest contributor to national income. Much of the modern developments in business like the gig economy largely take place in this sector. We have a robust Annual Survey of Industries (ASI) that provides mostly production-related variables like value added, input, output, etc., apart from providing some limited statistics on employment (contract labour, directly employed workers, etc.) and wages.

So, we have some database relating to annual workers, although it is inadequate. For instance, we do not have data relating to various kinds of flexi-category workers like temporary, casual, etc. We also do not have a database on the white-collar employees in both manufacturing and the service sector. The proposed government survey of professionals covers lawyers, medical professionals, cost accountants and chartered accountants. But what about clerks, information technology professionals, teachers, etc.? Should we rely on industry associations or employer employers organisations like NASSCOM for data for IT? We must note that this is also a pressure group, which could lead to biases in the data. How can the government form policies on work from home relating to tech-enabled employees without data on them? 

Should we rely on industry associations or employer employers organisations like NASSCOM for data for IT? Photo: Jake Evans/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Secondly, given the pandemic, the government should have exercised its fiscal and manpower to ensure universal registration of the millions of the unorganised workers.

The new planned surveys as and when conducted can provide estimates only. Historically, the government has always relied on the “estimates-based” system. These surveys are important as the estimates will enable the government to work out various policies including welfare measures for these workers and estimate the fiscal cost of the welfare measures. But universal registration which means formal identification of each and every unorganised worker or gig worker or a migrant worker is the need of the hour. It is time that the government moves away from “estimates-based” mindset to a “universal registry” mindset. 

India has ratified ILO Conventions, Labour Statistics Convention, 1985 (C.160) and Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (C.081) and we are required to generate a variety of labour statistics, including labour inspection. Frequent discussions on a host of economic variables (which were earlier covered by NSSO – like employment-unemployment data and consumption data – have largely relied on CMIE’s database, which reveals huge holes in official statistics.

Also read: As Supreme Court Reaches Out to Migrants, Activists Hail its Intervention

What prevents the government with its huge financial and institutional infrastructure prowess to generate high-frequency database along the lines of NSSO’s quinquennial surveys so that we have competing databases to verify one another? Quite curiously, the latest data on the organised sector employment relates to 2012. With the liberalisation of labour inspection, data on them become rather scarce.

The statistics on the total number of inspections cumulatively assigned and the reports submitted given at the Shram Suvidha Portal (SSP)  is hardly useful for any meaningful analyses. The rationalisation of labour law reforms and the lethargic and possibly chaotic digital system will mean the absence of comprehensive statistics for researchers. More importantly, the stakeholders, employers and workers will suffer. 

A migrant labourer with his family walks along a road to reach Sarai Kale Khan for travelling back to his native place Madhya Pradesh, during the ongoing lockdown, at Anand Vihar in New Delhi, May 13, 2020. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist

In sum, we do not have credible, time-series, continual and comprehensive statistics relating to labour market and industrial relations. More crucially, the governments have utterly failed to register various kinds of unorganised workers to date. They have two adverse and even fatal implications. One, the government cannot form suitable policies based on evidence. Two, the absence of a registry seriously affect the delivery of relief measures.

These discussed failures arise because there is no legal regulation in India to punish government officials and the parties in power for gross negligence and violation of labour laws and administrative failures. On the other hand, the government penalises trade unions, workers and employers for non-compliance of labour laws.

Also read: No Dialogue with Trade Unions, India’s Labour Laws Are Now a Product of Unilateralism

This is a governance paradox. How do we resolve this? There are a number of solutions, none of them wholly adequate. 

The parties in power could possibly be asked to cough up an estimated amount of penalty for their compliance failures. This will make them more accountable and will surely lead to positive action on their part. Even if the ruling parties fail in labour administration, their penalties will enrich public finances.

The Supreme Court can constitute a committee that can function under its scrutiny to determine the distribution of the funds to the workers concerned.  This would lead to positive welfare gains for workers. The question is how this penal system can be legally constructed as the laws are after all passed by the vested interests, i.e. the people belonging to the political parties.

But competitive politics and normative politics could solve this problem. It is a better and more effective disciplinary action than possible electoral losses which depend on many other factors. 

A suitable penal action for  government servants, i.e. labour administrators, must also be contemplated. Their brazen inaction has  serious consequences. Often, ministers are at the mercy of these officials. Implementation of labour laws and data generation are the two primary tasks of labour administration. The administrators have failed to deliver their services and that was painfully evident during the pandemic. 

A lack of political will and absence of systemic scrutiny and punishment leads to gross negligence and huge social welfare losses. The pandemic has taught us harsh lessons; we must evolve systemic corrective measures to ensure that government acts efficiently and well.