Training and legal protection to strengthen unorganized workers

Mukta Naik, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi,22 July 2016

Delhi has been at the epicentre of a number of local and national movements to protect the livelihoods of informal sector and unorganized workers like street vendors, domestic workers and waste workers. At the same time, the voices of unorganized workers in the formal sector are barely heard in the debate around informal work.

The National Capital Region (NCR) is an important hub for the textile industry in India, which employs 35 million people nationwide and accounts for 12% of India’s GDP. The textile and clothing cluster in and around Delhi, along with Bangalore, Tirupur, Chennai and Jaipur, contributes 70% of India’s exports in this sector. A key cost saving strategy for garment factories is the employment of large numbers of informal sector workers through a chain of contractors, to whom they provide no employment guarantees or social security benefits. The issues faced by these unorganized workers within the formal sector are distinct from problems that informal sector workers experience.

In the garment factories of Gurgaon and Noida informal workers, mostly poor rural migrants from the northern Indian States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, commonly face wage theft in various forms- under payment, delayed payments as well as non-payment of wages. Combined with malpractices like forced overtime, this means that workers barely earn a living wage. Further, multiple levels of subcontracting allow employers to be barely accountable in the eyes of the law. As Shikha Bhattacharjee from the Society of Labour and Development (SLD) puts it, “neoliberal deregulation is mapped on the bodies of workers”, for whom inadequate wages is not only an economic blow but also results in low calorific intake, exhaustion, sickness and poor medical care.

To make matters worse, in a clear violation of the Indian Constitution (which guarantees freedom of association), unorganized factory workers are not permitted to form collectives (see SLD report). Testimonies from NCR made at the National Peoples Tribunal on Living Wage for Garment Workers in Asia in 2012 reveal that a climate of fear is actively maintained in factories through frequent scolding and abusive language to prevent workers from raising their voices. Workers reported loss of work, death threats, violence and abuse to the Tribunal, of which SLD was a key organizer, as consequences of union involvement. Denying the ability to negotiate through formal channels leaves these informal workers vulnerable, legally and financially. One of the consequences, Shikha points out, is the fluid mobility of workers across workspaces, which further reduces the claims of migrant workers to the city space.

SLD works to intervene in two distinct ways. First, in collaboration with grassroots partners like the Mazdoor Ekta Manch, SLD focuses on raising the awareness of workers about their rights through trainings, workshops and public events. Workers are offered knowledge that saves them from exploitation, for example by understanding the consequence of signing on blank papers. They are also trained to construct evidence of employment by maintaining passbooks and saving documents like gate passes and pay slips. Second, SLD operates the Kanooni Salaha Kendra (KSK), a legal counselling cell that guides workers in cases related to wage disputes, violence, sexual harassment and civic rights. In many instances, detailed case files maintained by SLD lawyers have been useful in helping workers get legal resolution to labour disputes.

Through the Tribunal and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), SLD is using international forums to demand living wages for Asian garment workers. In India, it is advocating legislation to license and register labour brokers, increased funding to strengthen the labor ministry and departments, enforce ILO inspection conventions, recognise and empower trade unions, timely revision of minimum wages and a move towards a more consultative framework to address labour issues. However, specific elements of the recently proposed 2015 Draft Labour Code on Wages that seeks to simplify labour law and create a pro-active climate for investment and industrial growth—like dismantling labour inspections, diminishing oversight from trade unions and undermining legal remedies for workers—do not bode well for the future of unorganized workers. A balanced resolution is the need of the hour to ensure the competitiveness of Indian industry is not built on the exploitation of informal labor.

Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage

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