Sukumar Mahato works at a brick kiln for almost 12 hours a day for a measly ₹230. He sends a portion of his earnings to his family in Gopiballavpur Jhargram (West Bengal).
The 32-year-old loader at a brick kiln in Barbaria area of North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal is just another faceless figure among 52.9 crore Indians whose daily earning is below ₹375, a minimum daily wage suggested by a government-appointed committee.
A report titled: ‘State of Working India 2021: One year of COVID-19’, released by the Azim Premji University recently, said the number of below-minimum-wage workers at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 was 29.86 crore. The number saw a 77 per cent rise at the end of October last year, eight months into the pandemic.
Not that the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indians like Mahato were any better before the pandemic; and it’s not likely to change for good anytime soon as the Centre continues to flip-flop and dilly-dally on fixing a universal, pan-India minimum wage.
A Union government-appointed expert committee led by Anoop Satpathy in 2019 had recommended fixing ₹375 as a national minimum per-day wage (₹9,750 per month) as per July 2018 prices.
The trade unions had been demanding that the amount should be ₹690 per day. Even the 7th Pay Commission fixed the minimum pay of a new government recruit at an entry-level at ₹18,000 per month. This comes to ₹600 per day.
“Junking the recommendation of its own committee, the Union Labour Minister Santosh Gangowar in January this year announced that under the new Code on Wages, passed in the Parliament on August 2, 2019, the national floor-level wage would be Rs 178,” said general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress Amarjeet Kaur.
It is just a hike of Rs 2 from the previous floor-level wage and less than half of what the high-powered committee headed by Satpathy had suggested.
The new Code on wages consolidates four wage-related legislations namely the Minimum Wages Act (1948), Payment of Wages Act (1936), Equal Remuneration Act (1976), and Payment of Bonus Act (1965) under one code.
The Centre seeks to make the new floor-level wage binding on state governments. Currently, various states in India have their own minimum wage ranging mostly between ₹150 and ₹350.
The new floor-level wage naturally received widespread criticism, particularly from the trade unions. The unions pointed out that the ₹2 hike in minimum wage is actually a decline in real wages if inflation is taken into account.
Amidst criticism, the Centre last month set up another expert panel– second in three years– to recommend the minimum wage, prompting the trade unions to term the move “as a delaying tactics”.
The new panel headed by director Institute of Economic Growth Ajit Mishra has been given a time-frame of three years.
The minimum wage has not been revised in the past seven years and now it is expected to be further delayed by at least another three years.
“The formation of a new committee is nothing but an attempt to further delay pronouncement of a fair minimum wage,” Amarjeet Kaur alleged.
“Such a delay in addressing this serious issue will push more and more people into abject poverty,” she added.
Incidentally, the new panel has no representative from the trade unions.
Even the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) has expressed concern over the delay in fixing the minimum wage.
“Further it is notable that the government has given the committee three years to present its report, which sounds ridiculous as the tenure of the incumbent government is set to end, under normal circumstances, before the completion of the tenure of the committee,” BMS general secretary Binoy Kumar Sinha said in a letter to Union labour minister.
To protest the Centre’s alleged apathetic attitude towards the working class, a joint platform of 10 non-BMS central trade unions is likely to meet sometime this month to decide on its protest plan.
“We will be meeting in July to work out our next course of action. We are planning a major protest programme after the COVID-19 induced curbs are relaxed. To be heard we need to intensify our agitation,” Amarjeet Kaur said.
The 10 trade unions are INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF and the UTUC.
Even as the farmers’ protest against contentious farm laws continues, the government seems to be now heading for another confrontation, this time with the workers.
If the delay in revising minimum wages was not enough, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government’s disinvestment plan has become another bone of contention.
To pre-empt any worker unrest, the Union Government promulgated an ordinance on June 30, banning workers from striking work in ordnance factories. The move comes after about 80,000 workers of 41 ordnance factories threatened to go on strike.
Demanding the withdrawal of the “draconian ordinance”, the AITUC in a press statement, said: “It stands firmly with the defence employees in their resolve to defend this precious asset of the nation (the ordnance factories) from being robbed by the agents of the corporates – the Central Government – in broad daylight.”