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Where are Our Jobs? Where are our Wages?

On 29 March, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order that directed all employers to pay wages of their workers on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are under closure during the lockdown. This came as a relief to a large section of the wage earning working class. But the government was clear about their intent from the very beginning – they did not, in the first place, put in place any mechanism for the implementation of the order or any punitive action for its violation. Then 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 to the court a bilateral negotiation between employees and employers on payment of wages and retention of jobs which the supine court translated into its ruling and thereby rendering the government order useless. To make matters worse, in this interim order the Supreme Court also directed that no coercive action can be taken against the employers for violation of the 29 March order. How can we trust a government that cannot defend itself?

Capitalism has failed – Living Workers need Secure Jobs and Living Wage

Today, 3 months into the lockdown, more than 1 in every 4 workers has lost their job. More than 12.2 crore workers are unemployed. This is four times more unemployed workers than before the lockdown. Assuming a family size of just 4 implies that over 44 crore people or more than 1 out of every 3 people in the total population of 139 crores in the country are directly affected by this job loss and hence wage loss. This does not even include those who do not have full time employment. The largest numbers to lose their jobs are at the lowest end of the wage ladder. Tens of lakhs of self-employed workers were literally pushed off the roads and hence out of livelihood.

Apart from those who lost their jobs, no one really knows how many workers did not get paid their wages. Nor do we know how many workers were paid partially, small amounts and nowhere near their full wages. Even in many large establishments – both in industry and in services – contract and other irregular workers have not been paid their wages, including ASHA, Anganwadi and Mid-Day Meal workers, who have been at the forefront of the struggle against the virus, have not been paid by the government. In early April the ILO indicated that 40 crore workers in India ran the risk of being pushed into poverty. Situation has been only deteriorating since then. The government has responded to this by increasing the allocation of MNREGA by 400 crores and increasing the daily wage under it to Rs. 202 from Rs. 182 – this it is still less than half the lowest minimum wage in the country. Hence the MNREGA will at best keep families in poverty.

This has pushed workers to dip into their meagre savings, if at all. They have been forced to borrow and abandon their dignity and rely on dole on the streets to fight hunger. Their families have gone hungry, without medicines and have had to withdraw their children from schools. 4 out of every 10 workers could not find the money to stay on in the city or town they worked, to pay their rent or buy food and hence took to the road to return to their villages. With no transport available, they have walked hundreds of kilometers with their families –in the first month of lockdown, more people had died on their way home than from the virus.

Labour Codes – not to Regulate Employers, but to Control Workers

Prime Minister Modi in his speech on 12 May said India changed a Calamity into an Opportunity. Taking cue from him the government in the BJP ruled states moved in like predators, using the pandemic as an excuse, to dismantle the last vestiges of hope for the workers – the laws that in theory protect their rights to a minimum wage, to 8 hours of work, to employment contracts, to security of employment, to equal pay, to maternity benefit, to safety at work. The government at the centre has maintained determined silence over the decision of the Uttar Pradesh government to suspend all labour laws including the Wage Code 2019. The 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 proposed Industrial Relations Code that will most importantly replace the Industrial Disputes Act and the Trade Union Act is a masterstroke in attacking workers’ rights. It brings in a clause that allows for deregistration of trade unions for industrial action thereby violating the fundamental right of Freedom of Association as guranteed by the constitution. Further the Code makes hire and fire easier for employers. This does not just make the lives of workers more precarious but can be used as a very powerful weapon to break unions.

This is what employers have been pushing government for decades. Employers who have refused to pay wages during the lockdown period have simultaneously contributed generously to PMCARES, which the government claims is not a public fund and hence cannot be queried under the Right to Information Act. With small contributions to PMCARES, employers have been bestowed a respite from not just the order to pay wages but as a super bonus – freedom from labour laws.

What this implies is that the burden of the economic crisis that predates the pandemic has been conveniently passed on to the back of the working class in a collaborative effort of the employers and government. The BJP government believes that workers, howsoever poorly paid, even those on the minimum wage must bear the burden of the crisis and face a wage cut as this is a time of crisis. Every worker must make a sacrifice to save businesses and their right to profit and this country’s shambling economy.

Let us never forget that for the right wing an attack on the economy and on democracy is always preceded by an attack on the working class. And now the BJP believes it is free to deregulate the economy, privatise the public sector, open new avenues for the private sector all of which will make up the lost profits of the private sector as it continues to attack democracy and democratic rights.

Buying Indian goods was ‘illegal’ when the Non-cooperation movement started in 1920. It was also against the Rowlatt Act that allowed the British government to indefinitely detain or imprison any Indian. The BJP government amended the UAPA to bring in the provision of the Rowlatt Act denying people the right to natural justice. This is a similar time. This is the time to resist. This is the time to Fight back and Win back our Rights and more.

BJP Government:

  • Withdraw the 18 May 2020 Order on wages
  • Initiate Prosecution against all employers violating the 29 March 2020 Order on wages and jobs
  • Ensure 100 days of work under MNREGA for every adult worker
  • Implement an Urban Employment Guarantee Programme Immediately
  • No to 12 hour workday
  • No to a Floor Wage – Minimum wage no less than Rs 600 per day

Take Responsibility – Be Accountable