The first case of COVID-19 was reported in India on 30 January 2020. Over the month of February it became apparent that the coronvirus would not just pass India by and its effects elsewhere in the world were for all to see. Yet the government did not act until the middle of March and it did slowly. All of a sudden Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the draconian lockdown on the evening of 24 March 2020 without any plan or preparation.
Empathy (Samvedna) for whom?
On 29 March, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued the order that directed ‘All the employers…shall make payment of their wages of their workers…on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are under closure during the lockdown.’ The government of course did not in the first place put in place any mechanism for the implementation of the order or any punitive action for its violation. When employers went to the Supreme Court against the order, the Government did not even make an effort to defend it. Rather than defending its own order the government advocated some form of collective bargaining between employees and employers which the supine court translated into its ruling thereby rendering the government order useless. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court further directed in its interim order that no coercive action can be taken against the employers. Prime Minister Modi in his address on 24 March 2020 wanted all employers to show empathy (samvedna, he said) towards their employees. In reality the BJP government supported by the Supreme Court has displayed who it has empathy for.
Had the 29 March 2020 order of the government been followed the wage earners at least in the country would have received their wages and been able to meet their immediate livelihood needs.
What really happened?
- About 11 crore workers at various levels of skill lost their jobs and did not receive their wages.
- Assuming a family size of just 4 implies that 44 crore people or 1 out of every 3 people in the total population of 139 crores in the country were directly affected by this job loss and hence wage loss.
- No one really knows that apart from those who did not lose their jobs how many did not get paid their wages. Only a very few domestic workers across the country have got paid their wage in this period.
- Nor do we know how many workers were paid partially, small amounts and nowhere near their full wages. Many establishments paid 50% of the wage to their workers who were allowed to join work after the lockdown.
- What we do know is that even in some large establishments – both in industry and in services – contract workers have not been paid their wages and even government employees including ASHA, Anganwadi and Mid-Day Meal workers have not been paid their wages.
What this indicates is that an extremely large section of the working population has been denied wages.
At the start of the lockdown the International Labour Organisation indicated that 40 crore people in India ran the risk of being pushed into poverty. This number may well be an underestimate. There is evidence that at least half of the waged working population had difficulty in paying for their daily needs by the second week of the lockdown. If we include the very large number of self-employed who were hurt from the very start of the lockdown then we are looking at well above than half the population of the country who have found it difficult to meet even their families’ daily needs of food.
What was there in the Government Package for Workers?
- The government offered ration of 5kg of grain and 1kg of dal per person. Apart from being insufficient, the issuance of ration has been beset with more than its share of usual problems. Large number of workers have not been able to access ration because of their inadequate address and identity proof.
- The MNREGA daily wage rate was raised from Rs. 182 to Rs. 202, the highest ever increase in the six years under the BJP, it is still less than half the lowest minimum wage in the country. Hence the MNREGA will at best keep families in poverty.
- The best paid workers in the country, government employees, have had their future wages cut by the freeze in their dearness allowance. The cut has been implemented across the board, the highest paid and lowest paid all face the same, relative reduction in their wages.
With this the government at the centre has maintained silence over the decision of the Uttar Pradesh government to suspend all labour laws including the Wage Code 2019. Modi government has also remained silent over the various other suspensions of labour law proposed by the governments of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh as also the increase of working hours from 8 hours to 12 hours by various states, which had to be later withdrawn as they were bad in procedural law.
The Wage Code, in this context, proposes two wage rates – one the statutory Minimum Wage that will be set by states as is the present practice and the second is a Floor Wage that will be announced by the Central government, which will be lower than the minimum wage. The suspension of the statutory minimum wage would give legitimacy and justification for this lower wage rate the – Floor Wage. Taken with longer working hours the effort is to create a legal mechanism for a lower overall wage by creating a parallel statutory Floor Wage.
The BJP government believes that all workers, howsoever poorly paid, even those on the minimum wage must face a wage cut. Every worker must make a sacrifice to save businesses and their right to profit. THIS IS THE BJP’S UNDERSTANDING OF EQUALITY.
The government should be held to account –
Where are our jobs? Where are our wages?