Another Labour Day, but has the lot of the unorganised workers improved?


Another International Labour Day is here to commemorate the toil and hardships faced by the great many labourers across to contribute towards the comfortable lifestyle for a few elite. While the day honours the labourers' work, the question that arises is if there is any honour in labour work. While in Kerala the situation is such that most individuals opt for white-collar jobs and labourers have to be imported from other parts of India, but it is a far more bleak scene elsewhere in the nation. With caste becoming determinants of one's vocation, those at the lower rungs of society are caught in an inescapable loop -- being forced to shirk from society due to their professions of ill repute, but also unable to take up other professions.

The life of the protagonist of the National-award winning Marathi film Fandry might be a fiction. But it's a fiction largely inspired and reflecting real horrors of casteism that is difficult to fathom. The young protagonist is conscious of his Dalit status, and wants to vehemently break free of the vocation attached with his birth and family (chasing away pigs from the village), but the rural community never gives him a breather. The deep loathing that the young boy feels towards his family's occupation is not because of the task itself but rather the unjust social prejudices attached to it. The story is not of one boy, of one village, one community but rather similar tales can be chalked out from across India.

While it is assuring that caste-based labour is not a rigid practice in Kerala, yet the presence of a large number of migrant workers in the state show how Malayalees feel a general reluctance towards odd jobs and manual labour. Thus, it is evident that across the borders, people would rather opt for organised labour than unorganised work. With changing definitions of job and machines increasingly taking over tasks, big and small, the whole idea of Labour Day and what the day ought to stand for needs a rethinking.

Labour foremost refers to physical exertion than its other connotations of hard work which could be of any kind. While organised labour remains a focus, the unorganised labour, which is the clear dominant workforce (roughly 92%) of the country, still yearns for an updated, concrete list. Every Labour Day is marked by programmes and processions and speeches to raise the spirit of worker community, but many overlook the labours of those in unorganised sectors who are still working under harsher conditions.

While trade unions in Kerala have helped the workers get justified working hours and wages, ironically, their stridency is blamed for tepid growth of industries in the state. The uninhibited call out for strikes at the slightest provocation and an unrelenting and harsh attitude of workforce are major dampeners. Rather than invest time and efforts in acts equivalent to that of ruffians, it would be far meaningful if the unions could help those employed in unorganised sector jobs that require not only arduous physical tasks, but are also exploited through poor wages, poor work places and are also prone to sexual exploitation.

Unorganised labour includes all sorts of occupation that do not come under stringent monitoring, employees in small-scale establishments, rural and urban. They include domestic helps, headload workers, unskilled workers, farmers,fishermen rag pickers, manual scavengers and the like.

While manual scavenging was prohibited since 2013, the recent death of 5 men in Delhi while cleaning a septic tank revealed that the practice was still prevalent with many across the nation employed in it. Manual scavenging involves sewer cleaning, toilet cleaning (domestic helps, railway cleaners employed), cleaning treatment plants etc. It is a job that involves a lot of health hazards and often claims lives due to lack of proper protective gear and inhalation of toxic gases emanating from the waste. The association of caste and gender prejudices with the odious job further make it undesirable. While a few odd surveys claim the presence of scavengers even in Kerala, India’s first robot scavenger 'Bandicoot' too was first demonstrated in Kerala.

Domestic helps are often prone to sexual exploitation. Many complain of having to work continuously, with hardly any food throughout the day. In the haste to cover as many houses, to earn maximum, they hardly care about personal health. With hardly any legal backing, India’s domestic helps were called 'invisible workforce' by the ILO itself. Though provisions for minimum wages for domestic helps them secure jobs many claim how they can easily lose their jobs at the whims of the householders who also extract a lot of extra labour from them. Cases of withholding payment, putting them to starvation and physical abuse have been reported across the nation.

Workers across all kinds of unorganised labour face problems, one or the other. The concerns to be addressed include ensuring a safe working place, providing them protective gear if involved in hazardous jobs, ensuring optimum pay and work hours and enabling a safe environment, free of sexual exploitation, for women and kids. While mechanisation can save many from hazardous and straining job conditions, it also robs many of their job opportunities. Thus, the first step to take as of now is to get data on the unorganised sector and take remedial measures to ensure safe working conditions are provided to all.

In the interim budget announced in February 2019, the NDA government promised a Rs 3,000 monthly pension to those involved in the unorganised sector, earning a minimum Rs 15,000 per month. Aiming a reach of about 100 million labourers, the Pradhan Mantri Shram-Yogi Maan-dhan, makes the pension available after 60 years. While the intentions are right, studies show that the average life expectancy of Indian labourers is often below the 60-year mark. So equally with such provisions, facilities for healthy working conditions too must be improved to make an all-round improvement.

Thus, Labour Day should not be a day of celebration solely for those who have it far easier in the organised sector. But rather, we must strive to give a niche to those in the unorganised sector to voice out their demands and make an effort to improve their working conditions as well.

(Opinions expressed are personal)