Short on goodwill

Print edition : February 27, 2009

Workers at a construction site in Mysore. The schemes relating to life and disability have not been specified in terms of a concrete financial commitment in the Bill.-M.A. SRIRAM

THE 422.6-million unorganised workers in the country have little to celebrate despite the passage of the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill, 2008, on December 18. The widespread feeling is that the ruling United Progressive Alliance government has been unfair to the sector, which contributes more than 60 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The Bill was passed along with several other Bills at the fag end of the 14th Lok Sabha. Passed earlier by the Rajya Sabha, the Bill got the clearance of the Lok Sabha despite strong voices of dissent from the Left parties and a small section of the opposition National Democratic Alliance. The government disregarded most of the amendments moved by these parties and by the central trade unions represented by them. It also disregarded the unanimous recommendations made in the 25th Report of the Standing Committee on Labour (2007-08), which had specifically expressed its dissatisfaction over the Bill in its existing form.

The legislation in its present form is incomplete. It does not have the teeth to implement the clauses contained in it for the simple reason that it lacks any form of mechanism to address disputes or provide redress. Neither does it specify a time frame for the implementation of the schemes.

The Bill merely states that the Central government would formulate and notify, from time to time, suitable welfare schemes relating to life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection and any other benefit that may be determined by the Central government. No specific time frame has been suggested, despite the trade unions demanding that the schemes be fixed within three years and the value of benefits adjusted for inflation every two years. Not only have the schemes relating to life and disability not been specified in terms of a concrete financial commitment, but the pattern of funding itself has been left vague.

The amendments moved by Tapan Sen, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member in the Rajya Sabha, relating to concrete terms of coverage, were not included in the Bill. Tapan Sen, who is also the national general secretary of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), had participated in the debate on the Bill and moved the amendments on the basis of the recommendations of the Standing Committee. He said it was unfortunate that no minimum benefit had been laid down in the legislation. All the benefits should have been specified and made within the main body of the Bill, rather than being appended to it, he said. He also wondered how the Act could be made justiciable in the absence of any dispute-settlement mechanism.

Under the section Social Security Benefits, it is stated, in Clause number 4, that any scheme notified by the Central government may be wholly funded by it or partly funded by the State or Central government, or partly funded by the Central, State and through contributions collected from the beneficiaries or the employers as may be prescribed in the scheme by the Central government. The term may has no binding sense as compared with the term shall. In fact, the trade unions had faced an uphill task in getting the government to agree to modify may into shall in some places in the Bill.

The idea of having one Bill to cover the entire unorganised sector, agricultural and non-agricultural, was itself opposed by the trade unions. All through, they had demanded separate legislation for workers in the agricultural sector and the regulation of employment and conditions of service for all unorganised workers. There were two all-India strikes to press for this one a general strike by unorganised workers on August 8, 2007, and the second one a year later by trade unions.

The Bill itself went through several avatars. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) examined the issue under the chairmanship of Arjun Sengupta and submitted a report to the government in 2007. The NCEUS came up with two pieces of draft legislation. But the government wanted only one piece of legislation. Based ostensibly on the report of the NCEUS, the government came up with its own version of a social security Bill and introduced it in the Rajya Sabha on September 10, 2007. It was subsequently referred to the Standing Committee on Labour, which improved on the Bill considerably and suggested a time frame for its passage and the creation of a social security fund for the beneficiaries. The committee underscored the need to bring in separate legislation for agricultural workers.

The All India Agricultural Workers Union, in a memorandum submitted to the Standing Committee, stated that comprehensive legislation was needed to regulate working conditions and working hours and ensure minimum wages and equal wages for equal work, among other things. It stressed that a clearly defined form of funding, not just welfare, was imperative. Unless proper service conditions are ensured, no amount of social security is going to be meaningful, said Tapan Sen. All trade unions were satisfied with the Standing Committees recommendations. But the government was not.

In fact, the majority of recommendations of the Standing Committee were ignored. A few cosmetic changes were made, including a change in the definition of the Bill. The word sector was dropped from its title. The rationale behind this was that the Bill represented unorganised workers as a whole including contract labourers in the organised sector who did not get any social security benefit. The trade unions and the Standing Committee had recommended a national minimum social security benefit and a national and state social security fund, neither of which found mention in the final draft.

If the trade unions were critical of the Bill, the observations of the Standing Committee were no less scathing. It said that it was convinced that the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill, 2007, in its present form would not be able to meet the aspirations of the millions of workers in the unorganised sector. The committee went on to recommend that necessary amendments be made to the title of the Bill, in the definition of various significant terms in the Bill, to the various clauses relating to the provision of a statutory right for national minimum benefits for all unorganised workers, and so on.

The Standing Committee observed the Bill had not made it mandatory for the Central government to introduce schemes for the welfare of workers in the unorganised sector. It was also critical that no time frame had been suggested for the coverage of all workers. The committee also expressed its concern over the powers vested in the Central government to amend the schedule pertaining to the schemes.

One of the main criticisms of the committee pertained to the proposal regarding the funding of the schemes. It had recommended that a proper, transparent and institutional mechanism devising a clear and unambiguous methodology be laid down for the creation of a National Social Security and Welfare Fund.

This fund would ensure permanency, continuity and sustainability of social security benefits.

The committee had also envisaged a more meaningful role for the National and State Social Security Board for Unorganised Workers. In its opinion, these boards, apart from their advisory nature, could be assigned the task of implementation of the schemes. The governments stand of not assigning the role of implementation to the boards was contradictory and irreconcilable, the committee observed. It also found the suggested composition of the national board lopsided. The committees suggestion to include more than five State government representatives and elected representatives went unheeded.

The Bill does not contain any penal clause to deal with those who might violate its provisions. Besides, the committee had found the Bill to be silent on regulating employment and on the conditions of work. It said that almost every group that appeared before the committee or every memorandum submitted to it had emphasised the need for looking into the working conditions of the unorganised sector.

The government has had its way. Not only has it taken over two years to get the Bill passed, but it has come up with a half-baked piece of legislation that may not mean much for the workers in the long term.

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