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Labouring to keep alive

Unskilled migrant workers rarely get their dues. It’s time to amend our labour laws.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2010 23:10 IST
Hindustan Times

When it comes to infusing our laws with the finest principles possible, India has no parallel. It’s when we come to implementing these laws that we find many a slip between the proverbial cup and the lip. Perhaps most deceptive of them all is India’s labour and industrial practices. Blessed — or, if one looks at it with a different perspective, cursed — with large deposits of iron ore, mining is big business in the district of West Singhbhum in Jharkhand. With the demand for iron ore increasing to fuel national industrial development, a negative correlation to the length of people’s lives and health index has become increasingly noticeable. Thousands of mineworkers, including young boys and girls, suffer from siderosis, a lung disorder that is caused by prolonged exposure to red (mining) dust. The lifespan of these workers, who have no or minimal protective gear, in this region is a shocking 40-45 years. In the meantime, in 21st century India’s national capital New Delhi, a committee appointed by the Delhi High Court has found workers at Commonwealth Games-related construction sites not being paid minimum wages and, in many cases, being made to work overtime for no extra remuneration. Their living conditions are appalling and in many cases they are bereft of any sanitation facilities.

In both semi-urban and urban cases, we are dealing with serf-like conditions while on paper we are chugging along a First World trajectory. Laws are being openly flouted with the State turning a blind eye and seemingly only concerned that ‘the work’ is done. Some, like Jharkhand deputy chief minister, prefer to put such ‘chalta hai’ issues on the backburner (he has asked for a report). That the working conditions of miners is appalling in this country, more so if the mines are illegal and that many of the workers don’t work with protective gear is an old story. What should be a new story if India is to protect itself from charges of being uncaring towards its own people is the implementation of laws.

Whenever Indian workers are mistreated abroad, especially in the Gulf States, we spare no effort in criticising — and rightly so — foreign governments. But the conditions here are, in many cases, no better. As job opportunities shrink in rural India and a construction boom takes place all across, more labourers will enter the cities. This is a labour class that needs basic protection and policies relating to special target groups such as women and child labour. There was a time when labour unions held the nation’s development to ransom. We can’t now have a callous State holding the lives and livelihood of our workers hostage in the name of progress.

First Published: Mar 18, 2010 23:08 IST