On the trail of India’s 396 m invisible workers

Updated on May 17, 2007 04:43 AM IST
About 44 per cent of unorganized urban workers — mostly migrants who stream in from remote villages, reports Chitrangada Choudhury.
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None | ByChitrangada Choudhury, Mumbai

Wages below minimum. On call 24/7. No compensation for work injuries. No social security. This world of few laws rules the lives of 396 million Indians in the so-called unorganized sector, according to a new report.

The sector contributes 93 per cent of India’s workforce, higher than in any other world economy, according to the ‘Conditions of Work and Promotions of Livelihood in the Unorganised Sector Report’, released by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector for public feedback but not yet submitted to the government.

About 44 per cent of unorganized urban workers — mostly migrants who stream in from remote villages where agriculture no longer supports their growing numbers — work in India’s booming construction industry. Yet no one has computed their contribution to the national economy. And that contribution has been growing steadily, says the 450-page report that pulls together studies from across states and analysis data from the National Sample Survey Organization.

The Commission was set up by the UPA government in September 2004 to recommend policy measures that would, in the words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “give a new deal to the working people”. A draft bill it put out has been pending with the government since May 2006. The report recommends a national fund to finance welfare programmes for unorganised workers and a national board to improve opportunities for them and upgrade their skills.

Illiteracy is the most striking feature among workers in this sector. Rural casual workers have it worse: the men have an average of 1.7 years of education, the women just 7 months; 47 per cent of them are illiterate. “Little or no education prevents entry into the coveted organized sector,” says Commission member Ravi Srivastava.

The average landholding of the rural worker is sub-marginal at a little over an acre.

The sector’s weak bargaining power coupled with uninterested authorities, the report says, ensures that plentiful welfare regulation does not work. “The interpretation of laws by courts sometimes tends to exacerbate the livelihood crisis faced by the poor as their compliance costs are well beyond what workers can afford and governments do not step in either to lower these costs or compensate the workers,” the report says.

Small-town dreams sour

Bharat More was one such worker. In November 2000, the subsistence farmer from Thane made his first annual journey to a saltpan in Raigad, south of Mumbai. He was barely 18. At the end of the six-month work season, the saltpan owner turned away all 75 seasonal workers without paying them. The wages amount to more than Rs 10 lakh and have not yet been paid. A local NGO filed a case in the Bombay High Court, which in 2004 ordered the state to survey working conditions in saltpans and pay the workers. The case is still in court, and the court order, when it does get implemented, can no longer make a difference to More. He died last July.

Stagnant agriculture and falling groundwater levels in tribal villages in Thane drive their men, sometimes entire families, to cities in an annual search for work. They are typically headed for building construction sites, saltpans, brick kilns and sand dredges in the satellite towns around Mumbai or across the border in Gujarat.

Dilip Rao of Dahanu in Thane, who makes the annual trip to construction sites in Vasai, returns home at the start of the monsoon to cultivate millet for his family’s livelihood. Despite working soon after dropping out of secondary school a decade ago, Rao has no savings. He lost his elder daughter to malnutrition two years ago.

“To bind labourers to work,” says Brian Lobo of the Dahanu-based Kashtakari Sangathana, “employers give them a few hundred rupees as advance and some expenses and defer wages to the end of the season. But in several instances, workers are cheated of this too”.

Lobo's NGO has filed close to 100 cases of wage violations with government departments over the past two years, but since formal work contracts are never drawn up, it is difficult to pin down employers or brokers.

Email author: chitrangada.choudhury@hindustantimes.com

(The reporter is National Foundation for India Media Fellow 2006-07)

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