Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Nov 07, 2005
Industry & Economy
Columns - Random Walk
An El Dorado for workers?
AMONG its developmental virtues, Kerala is renowned for the status it accords to its workers, treating them in a manner that few other States do, motivated in large part, no doubt, by its own history of working-class struggles for a fair and decent livelihood.
Thus the State Government's official labour policy reiterates the "concerns of this government for the welfare and protection of labour." By seeking to "empower them and improve their quality of life," the policy goes on to add, "Government is also committed to providing labour market security, income security and decent working conditions for the working population."
That, unfortunately, was not the experience of the migrant workers from Bihar who were admitted to the General Hospital in the State's capital last week, hungry to the point of starvation, and feverish with suspected malaria and dengue. Two of the migrant workers - engaged in rebuilding the capital city's roads, employed by an outside company - subsequently died.
The consequent uproar forced the District Collector to temporarily stop all road work in the city that engaged migrant labour. As six other workers of the company were shifted to the Medical College Hospital when their condition worsened, trade unions, workers and concerned citizens grew understandably restive.
This is not the Kerala we are familiar with - that seemed to be the common refrain. Media accounts soon spoke of atrocious conditions at the workers' camp, where they survived 14-hour working days in sheds made of galvanised iron sheets, with just bread for sustenance.
Reportedly, though they were promised Rs 2,700 a month as pay, they actually got only between Rs 750 and Rs1,000.
As Kerala turns into an El Dorado for migrant workers from other States - a deliciously ironic reversal of the traditional outbound experience for aspiring young Keralite jobseekers - it becomes all the more imperative to ensure the highest and most humane standards for labour.
These include strict adherence to the Inter-State Migrant Workers' Act and the Contract Labour Act, applicable for workers from other States.
The International Labour Organization's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work obliges member States to eliminate forced labour and guarantee that a work relationship be freely chosen and bereft of threats.
As an example of forced labour, the ILO points to situations where "villagers, whether they want to or not, have to provide substantial help in the construction of roads, the digging of irrigation channels, etc., and where government administrators, police officers or traditional chiefs brandish a credible menace if the requisitioned men, women or children do not turn up."
To be sure, Kerala is, by and large, in line with most ILO principles and has often been proactive in the matter of labour. For instance, it sent a high-level committee, under the leadership of the Labour Commissioner, to Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal to study and report the problems of migrant workers from Kerala employed there. Also, conscientisation camps were organized in various districts in 1999.
At present, the lowest level of minimum wages that Kerala offers in many of the employment categories are higher than those vin many other States. The prevailing wage rates in agriculture, construction, timber, plywood industry, etc. are two or three times the rates notified under the Minimum Wages Act.
Many years ago, the National Committee for Construction Labourers, headed by Justice Krishna Iyer, had suggested that the government set up a Board to channel employment for construction workers.
Such a Board would register all contractors and subcontractors, ensuring that the employer did not hire and fire workers at will. Each State, of course, would have to supply the infrastructure and manpower to implement these procedures.
Nothing emerged from the Committee's recommendations. Perhaps it is now time for Kerala to show the way in establishing new standards of employment and recruitment of migrant workers.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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