Large sections of workers and employees voted for the BJP in the 2014 elections to the Parliament. They believed his promises of ‘achhe din’, development, employment generation, eradication of corruption etc. More than that, by voting for BJP they expressed their discontent and anger against the UPA II government led by the Congress, for the degenerating economic situation, rising unemployment and prices and the huge corruption scandals.
Now the BJP led government under Prime Minister Modi is at the fag end of its tenure. Parliament elections are due in a few weeks. Are the workers and employees happy with this government? Have they any reason to vote for it again?
Let us look at the conditions of workers in our country today.
Soon after coming to power, the BJP led government took up in earnest the task of amending labour laws. In fact, ‘labour reforms’ “to create conducive atmosphere for investors” was one of the pre election promises of BJP in 2014. After coming to power it has embarked upon climbing up the ladder of ‘Ease of Doing Business’ Index by attacking the workers. The ‘labour law reforms’ were meant to deprive workers of their hard won rights and benefits and provide employers with ‘flexible’ labour, i.e. the right to ‘hire and fire’ workers as per their will.
It used its majority in the Parliament to accomplish this, despite widespread opposition from the trade unions and the Left parties.
The Apprentices Act was the first law that was amended after this BJP government came to power. This facilitates employers to engage larger proportion of ‘apprentices’, up to 30%, in the total workers in the establishment. These apprentices are made to perform the same work as the permanent and contract workers but are paid only a fraction of wage of permanent workers in the name of ‘stipend’. They are not given any other benefits.
Then the Labour Law (Exemption from furnishing returns and maintaining of registers by certain establishments) was passed. This raised the threshold level employment for an establishment to be treated as ‘small establishment’, from 19 to 40. Thus 72% factories in our country were exempted from filing returns and maintaining registers related to 16 major labour laws including Minimum Wages Act, Payment of Wages Act, and Equal Remuneration Act etc. Now employers can easily flout all these labour laws; something which they were earlier doing with the connivance of the labour officials has now become legal with the patronage of the BJP led government under Modi.
Amending the Industrial Disputes Act to directly facilitate the ‘hire and fire’ regime proved to be more difficult because of the stiff opposition from the central trade unions including its own sibling in the ‘Sangh Parivar’, the BMS. Labour being a state subject, the then BJP government in Rajasthan took the lead in this. It amended the Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act and Apprentices Act, eliminating the protective measures provided to workers. The BJP state governments in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana and Telugu Desam Party, the then ally of BJP, soon followed suit. The BJP government at the centre wrote to all state governments to follow the example of Rajasthan government and amend these labour laws in their states.
Ignoring the fact that only a small proportion of the total workers, around 7%, were covered by labour laws in our country, and most of those who are eligible are not benefited due to poor implementation, Prime Minister Modi started talking of ‘jungle raj’ of labour laws. This was the major theme of even his inaugural address to the only session of Indian Labour Conference (ILC) held during the entire tenure of his government, in 2015. He claimed that the merging of 44 major labour laws into 4 labour codes was meant to end this ‘jungle raj’.
The real intention of this exercise is to curtail the basic hard won rights of the workers and facilitate unhindered exploitation by the employers; in other words, impose slavery like conditions on workers. But during Modi’s tenure till now, none of the Code Bills could be passed because of the strong opposition from the working class. The Code on Wages Bill was introduced in the Parliament but could not be passed yet.
But the BJP led government, true to its authoritarian nature and committed to neoliberalism that seeks to disarm the working class by eliminating trade unions, has found innovative ways to serve this purpose. It started amending Rules and issuing notifications, bypassing Parliament and avoiding tripartite mechanisms.
It has extended Fixed Term Employment (FTE) to all sectors. Of course the first notification on FTE was issued by the earlier NDA government led by Vajpayee in 2003. Under pressure of trade unions and Left parties, it was withdrawn by the UPA I government. Soon after coming to power, the Modi government issued it again, first for the textiles and apparel sector, then extending it to the made-up sector and then to all sectors. It is natural that a worker having no job security, under constant pressure and anxiety to have his or her job renewed after the term, will not dare to join any trade union to fight for even the applicable benefits.
Another tool deployed by the BJP government under Modi to attack the workers and eliminate trade unions is the National Employability Enhancement Mission (NEEM). Through this so called mission, employers are allowed to get their work done by the ‘trainees’ for a period of three years by paying a meagre stipend. Another batch of NEEM trainees will be ready by the time one batch completes its term. The big companies, particularly big automobile manufacturers including MNCs are now utilising NEEM trainees to replace not only their permanent workers but contract workers as well. The stipend is only a small fraction of the wages paid to the permanent workers and quite lower than even that paid to the contract workers.
Now it has come up with another programme which turns apprenticeship itself as employment. National Employment Through Apprenticeship Programme (NETAP) is a public private partnership programme of Ministry of Skill Development Entrepreneurship, TeamLease Skills University, CII and NSDC, under NEEM of the Ministry of HRD. In the name of ‘building skills of youth through learning by doing and learning while earning’ NETAP proposes to ‘appoint’ 2 lakh apprentices every year for the next 10 years. These trainees can be appointed for up to 2 years; the stipend qualifies as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
The number of permanent workers has already drastically come down under the neoliberal policies being pursued by successive governments at the centre during the last over 27 years. Under the BJP rule of Modi, it has further declined. The number of contract, casual, temporary, part time, FTE, apprentices, trainees etc. has increased many times. The employers get double benefits. The wage share has come down. Workers can also be prevented from joining trade unions and fighting for their rights. An ILO study has noted “increasing flexibility in the labour market is the key factor behind decline in wage share”.
The wages of workers have stagnated. For workers in many sectors they have declined. The Azim Premji University Report 2018 says that despite positive growth in GDP, 67% of households at the national level reported that they earned below Rs 10,000 a month. According to the 2015-16 report of the Labour Bureau, the maximum monthly income of 57% of the self employed was Rs 7000. The average monthly income of over 50% of total employees was up to Rs 5000 only.
In 2016, Supreme Court has given a judgment reiterating that contract workers and others doing the same work as the permanent workers should be paid the same wages and benefits. But till today the government has not taken any measure to ensure implementation.
The Code on Social Security of this government is intended to dismantle the entire social security system and use workers’ hard earned money to boost the share market and push their retired life into uncertainties. Already the BJP government has decided to invest 15% of provident fund accumulation in the share market, despite opposition from the workers’ representatives in the central board of trustees of EPFO. It has decided to deploy Rs 75,000 crore of Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) fund for speculation through Reliance Company despite opposition. Is this is not a clear case of looting of workers’ money for the benefit of the corporate/ big business lobby?
Suspicions of workers about investment of PF funds in the stock market are proving to be right as recently, such funds of over 50 big companies which were invested in IL&FS securities have come under threat, after IL&FS went bankrupt.
Large sections of government employees, including the defence and railway employees, particularly the young employees who joined after 2004 are today highly worried about their pension. The New Pension System (NPS) or the Defined Contributory Pension System does not ensure guaranteed amount of pension as the Old Pension scheme.
One of the priorities of the BJP government under Modi is total dismantling of the public sector including the sensitive and strategic sectors like railways, defence, telecom etc. Despite all its talk of ‘nationalism’ and slogans of ‘Make in India’, it is taking measures to kill our manufacturing capacities built over 70 years after Independence and also threatening the jobs of thousands of employees working in these sectors.
The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto promised to improve the conditions of anganwadi workers and helpers. But after coming to power it has drastically cut down the budgetary allocation for Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme. It has dismantled the Planning Commission and replaced it with the NITI Ayog which recommended winding up of many centrally sponsored schemes. It has drastically cut down the share of funding by the government of India. Attempts to hand over schemes like ICDS and midday meal programme to NGOs and private players have intensified.
During the entire tenure, not a single paisa was increased in the remuneration paid by the government of India to the scheme workers. After playing deaf to their demands raised repeatedly by their unions the Prime Minister suddenly woke up just before the elections to announce a meagre increase in the remuneration to the anganwadi workers and helpers and the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs). But the midday meal workers were totally left out. The finance minister reportedly said that he ‘missed’ to include them!
The 46th ILC which Prime Minister Modi inaugurated reiterated the recommendation of the 45th ILC that the workers employed in various schemes of government of India should be recognised as ‘workers’, paid minimum wages and provided social security benefits. There are around 1 crore such workers. But the BJP government has totally ignored this recommendation.
Demonetisation and GST have wrecked havoc with the livelihoods of workers in the small and medium establishments and the small peasants. Many of the establishments as well as the lakhs of workers employed in them have not been able to recover till today. Under this exercise carried out with the hidden agenda of promoting digital banking to benefit the digital platforms, the public sector bank employees were forced to work round the clock. Over 100 people including bank employees died. Most of the employees have not been compensated for their extra work.
The BJP government is spending thousands of crores of people’s money on its advertisement blitzkrieg about its welfare schemes for the unorganised workers. The reality is that not a single new scheme has been specifically formulated for the unorganised workers during its entire tenure. The few existing welfare schemes applicable to the BPL people in general were subjected to permutations and combination to announce schemes with new names. Even worse, the amount which was sanctioned for the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act by the earlier UPA government was returned to the finance ministry by the labour ministry under this BJP regime.
In its last Budget, presented on February 1, 2019, just weeks before general elections, the Modi govt. announced with much fanfare a pension scheme for unorganised sector workers allocating just Rs.500 crore for it. The scheme promises to provide Rs.3000 per month when the worker retires at the age of 60 years. Calculations show that the measly amount allocated for this scheme won’t even begin to cover a fraction of the estimated expenditure involved. There are about 40 crore workers in the unorganised sector.
Despite all the hype about ‘Swatch Bharat’, safai karmacharis, the people really involved in keeping the cities, towns and village clean, continue to live in most miserable conditions. Despite the ban on manual scavenging, this inhuman practice continues to be prevalent. It is reported that women manual scavengers in some cities in Rajasthan are paid 1 or 2 rotis per household for manually clearing human excreta.
No section of workers – those in organised sector, public or private or the unorganised sector, government employees, scheme workers contract workers – nobody has benefitted under the Modi govt. Meanwhile the Sangh parivar – the ruling BJP’s mentor – continues to divert the attention of the people and particularly the energies of the youth into unproductive and destructive channels, creating animosities on the basis of religion, caste, region etc, for electoral gains of the BJP.
The massive protests by workers – two all India strikes and several massive demonstrations in the capital – indicate a groundswell of anger against the indifferent Modi govt. The coming elections will surely see workers ensuring its defeat.