IN September 2004, soon after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came to power, it set up the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS). This was in keeping with the commitment spelt out in the National Common Minimum Programme. This body was supposed to examine the Unorganised Sector Workers Bill, 2004, prepared by the previous government. It was learnt that this Commission, which is not a statutory body, was set up at the initiative of the Prime Minister's Office. It was in response to a longstanding demand by trade unions for protective legislation for workers in the unorganised sector. The National Advisory Council had also, in the meantime, drafted the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill.
At first, the draft Bill was found wanting on several grounds, especially in terms of coverage. Secondly, the Commission felt that there should be two Bills instead of one to deal with what it called this "heterogeneous and highly differentiated universe". Thus emerged the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill, 2005, and the Unorganised Sector Workers (Conditions of Work and Livelihood Promotion) Bill, 2005. According to K.P. Kannan, a member of the NCEUS, the two Bills were prepared after wide-ranging discussions with academics, trade union leaders, insurance agencies and Labour Ministry officials. There are an estimated 30 crore workers who will be covered fully within a period of five years.
The Bill on Social Security is more or less comprehensive, covering all workers in the unorganised sector with a monthly income of Rs.5,000 and below. This will include self-employed workers (including small and marginal farmers), wage-earners and home-based workers. In addition, casual workers in the unorganised sector without any social security cover will also be covered. The only problem in the national minimum-security cover is the identification of the employers. Here the suggestion of some of the trade unions has been accepted: wherever the employer is not identifiable and the worker is compelled to change jobs frequently, the contribution of the employer should be borne by the appropriate government or a board (State or Central Board) or shared by the State and Central governments.
But the main stress is on social security rather than working conditions. Though the second Bill proposes to provide workers with a set of minimum entitlements, such as the right to organise, non-discrimination in the payment of wages and work conditions, safety at the workplace and freedom from sexual harassment, in addition to a basic minimum standard on hours of work, payment of minimum wages and adherence to the Bonded Labour Abolition and Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, it is ultimately a question of ensuring that the employers and owners comply with the enacted legislation and do not resort to arbitrary hire and fire.
The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has suggested improvements in the second draft with more specific and concrete provisions on "protection against retrenchment/dismissal" appropriate compensation, working hours, labour inspection, appropriate dispute/grievance settlement machinery and punishment for contravention of the Act. It has also demanded that workers in the unorganised sector be given the benefits under other industrial legislation.