Millennium Post

That’s more smokescreen, little welfare

The central government seems to have mastered the art of demagogy and deceit. Words are not meant to be followed by deeds. They go in different directions. Colourful advertisements in corporate-run dailies about the ‘Shrameva Jayate Karyakram’ only confirm this impression. Named after one of the proponents of the Hindutva ideology, this programme has been trumpeted as an important effort by the new government ‘for the working people in the country’. While the government was trying to showcase the announcements made in the programme as gifts to the workers, the corporate media was applauding it for ensuring ‘ease of business’ by freeing the employers from the ‘inspector raj’. This contradiction was not missed by any observer interested in the issues of labour and industry.

What are the contents of this multi-point programme? The only announcement beneficial to the workers in this entire programme, misleadingly titled Shrameva Jayate (victory to labour), was the universal account number for employees provident fund (EPF) account holders. This allows portability of accounts in case of change of employers. However, this is not a measure initiated by this government. It is the culmination of a long process through which universal numbers for more than 4 crore EPF subscribers have been made ready. The process is expected to be completed in a few more months. The new government, without any of its contribution, simply grabbed the opportunity to claim it as its achievement.

The most important announcement, which created euphoria among employers, is the scheme to end the ‘inspector raj’. It is a virtual ban on the activities of enforcement authorities in EPF, ESI, director general mines safety, director general of labour welfare, and the chief labour commissioner. The inspectors from these authorities will now have a ‘new work culture’, as our PM has declared. What does this mean? The PMO is reported to have sent text messages to all inspectors about the rules for inspection. Is the PMO going to directly supervise the work of the inspectors sending messages on day-to-day basis to the inspectors? The employers will now be allowed self-certification and e-filing of returns in relation to 16 labour laws, putting an end to inspections of factories and establishments.

It is well known that despite the system of inspections, a huge majority of workers are not enrolled in the social security schemes like EPF and ESI. They are also denied other statutory benefits.
A labour ministry report says, “The government has been implementing some social security measures for certain occupational groups but the coverage is minuscule. Majority of the workers are still without any social security coverage.” The latest move will only further aggravate the situation. The other schemes, on responsive vocational training and changes in the apprentices’ schemes, were also initiated earlier but not implemented.

 The government announced the ‘revamping’ of the much-trumpeted Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) without explaining what this ‘revamping’ means.  We are told that the RSBY, Aam Admi Bima Yojana and Indira Gandhi old-age pension scheme will be seeded together under one smartcard!  All the three schemes have been under implementation for many years.

Now we have to wait to know what the revamped scheme is! The entire exercise, clearly, is a mere deception. The main objective of the programme is to satisfy investors – both national and multinational. It is a continuation of the PM’s red-carpet welcome to the investors and his invitation to them to ‘make in India’. It is quite natural that the corporate media and employers’ organisations greeted these announcements with glee while the trade unions expressed their serious concern and apprehensions. The issues of labour, which are being repeatedly raised by the entire trade union movement, were totally ignored in the Shrameva Jayate programme.

To cover this up, the PM resorted to his usual rhetoric and sloganeering. He equated the importance of Shrameva Jayate with that of Satyameva Jayate and talked of labour as Shram Yogi, Rashtra Yogi and Rashtra Nirmata just to deceive the workers and hoodwink them that the government was doing something to help their lot. This comes in the wake of the onslaught on workers’ basic rights through amendments to various labour laws by the BJP/NDA governments at the centre and in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. These are meant to push the overwhelming majority of workers out of the purview of the labour laws. Other state governments are also getting ready for similar actions.

These unilateral actions by the government give a go-by to tripartism that the governments used to swear by earlier, when there used to be at least namesake consultations, though they often ended as a farce. Even the unanimous recommendations of the highest tripartite body, the Indian Labour Conference, are not being implemented.

The new government has dissolved some of the existing tripartite industrial committees without giving any reason, though almost all of them remain only on paper. If the government was really serious about helping the workers, it would have dusted out the files in the PMO, sent by its own labour ministry four years ago, on amendments to the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act. These amendments were on the basis of the conclusions of Indian Labour Conference to ensure equal wages for same and similar jobs. None will be able to object to the justness of such an amendment.

 Many editorials, even in the corporate media, had argued against the type of exploitation that is going on today in the name of contractualisation by referring to the happenings in the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar in Haryana. The public and private sector companies are competing in cruel exploitation under the contract system. As a result, more than half the work force is contractual and causal workers. An indefinite strike by 14,000 contract workers of Neyveli Lignite Corporation has been going on since September 3. This Navaratna PSU has only 12,000 regular workers otherwise.

The workers on strike, many of them working for more than 20 years, are demanding an increase in wage and regularisation on the basis of a supreme court direction. While such exploitation is rampant in the country, employers and their pen-pushers are crying hoarse for labour flexibility.

It is a shame that former PM Manmohan Singh had justified the exploitation of contractor workers on an occasion when Neyveli contract workers were on strike. When a group of MPs pointed out to him that the contract workers are denied benefits in a Navaratna company, he said it was only because of that the company had grown into a Navaratna! The new government wants to be more aggressive. 

In addition to the labour law amendments already moved in parliament, proposals on a new legislation covering small industries, defined as those with a workforce of 40, have been put on the web portal of the government of India. These units will be exempted from 14 labour laws, including the Factories Act, Industrial Disputes At, ESI, EPF and Maternity Benefit Acts. In today’s technological advance not all such establishments can be termed as ‘small’. This is just meant to take a large chunk of workers out of the purview of the existing labour laws. Instead, the workers in these ‘small’ establishments will be provided with some nominal ‘benefits’.

Even EPF and ESI schemes are replaced by IRDA-regulated contributory pension and health schemes. One thing is obvious. The Modi government is going all out to meet the demands of the existing employers as well as the prospective investors to remove all ‘hurdles’ and climb up the ease-of-investment index. All the anti-worker actions to achieve this objective are covered up by deceitful jargons and slogans and marketed by the corporate media.

A section of the media has already started openly demanding the abolition of labour laws. Just some amendments, they argue, are not enough! Neoliberalism in action The working people of the country have experienced the impact of neoliberal policies for the last 24 years. Many are unable to comprehend the extent of exploitation taking place in all sectors with the proliferation of contract and casual system under the neoliberal regime. Crores of workers, most of them women, are forced to work in the much trumpeted schemes of the central and state governments without even being recognised as workers, and not even being paid a subsistence wage. In the academic debates, crocodile tears are shed on the 94-95 percent of informal workers in the country.

The joint platform of all central trade unions and national level federations along with various local and regional organisations, which has been struggling on the ten-point charter of demands, has already taken up the issue of anti-worker amendments to the labour laws. As per the decision of the national joint convention held on September 15, state and regional conventions and local campaigns are being held all over the country. Preparations are on for massive demonstrations in all state capitals as well as in Delhi on December 5. The working class is gearing up for an intense united struggle in defence of its hard-won rights. The coming days are going to be days of struggle.

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