NCEUS Report:

The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector brought out a 394 page Report inspired by the CMP (Common Minimum Programme) of the UPA government which said that is was “firmly committed to ensure the welfare and well-being of all workers, particularly those in the unorganised sector who constitute 93% of our workforce”. This report, titled “Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector”, and submitted in September 2007, reveals some facts about the condition of both agricultural and non-agricultural workers of unorganized sectors in rural and urban areas.

The CMP also says that “the UPA administration will ensure the fullest implementation of minimum wage laws for farm labour” and goes on to promise that “Comprehensive protective legislation will be enacted for all agricultural workers”. Since then much water has flowed under the bridge, legislations have been passed, budgets have been made but, yet again, nothing has been done to keep these promises to unorganised labour or for farm labour.

The job the Report set itself was to give an analysis of working conditions and earnings in the unorganised sector with a view to identifying what kind of measures would help in improving their lot. Its chapters put on detailed record what has long been observed and protested: the bad working conditions, the long hours, the hazardous and toxic conditions created by chemicals and machines, the lack of any reasonable protection against these, the extreme heat or cold temperatures or the lack of ventilation found at work sites.

According to the Report the unorganized workers are primarily categorized into agricultural and non-agricultural workers. The non-agricultural workers exist in both rural and urban areas as wage earners, self employed, domestic worker etc, with minimum social security. The employment-unemployment survey made by NSS shows that 7.5 percent and 15.4 percent of the agricultural and non-agricultural workers are totally landless. Landless and sub marginal farmers (having up to 0.4 hectare or less) together comprise as high as three fourths of the non-agricultural workers. Based on the survey data, the Report notes that the high incidence of landlessness or near landlessness forces people to find jobs in non agricultural sectors. This accounts, for instance, for the increase in number of construction workers (a substantial section of them comes from rural areas either from amongst small peasants or agricultural labourers).

The non-agricultural workers comprise of wage workers in the unorganized sectors and enterprises, domestic workers, unprotected wage workers in organized sectors and unorganized sectors. The above comprise of all sorts of casual and contract labourers. The Report says that of the 395 million unorganized sector workers, agriculture accounted for 253 million (agricultural labourers, small farmers) and the rest 142 million are employed in the non-agriculture sector. The Report reveals an interesting fact that although the total employment (organized+unorganized sectors) increases from 397 million (according to NSS survey 1999-2000) to 457 million (according to the NSS survey 2004-2005), the change in the organized or formal employment has been nil. Therefore the increase in total employment has been of the informal kind, which means employment increase consists of some regular workers without social security benefits like provident fund etc and the rest is all casual or contract workers. The Commission, based on the NSS survey data 2004-2005, categorizes the total population of the country into six groups based on their consumption of expenditure.

According to the Report, the extremely poor, poor, marginally poor and the vulnerable sections in total constitute 77 percent of the population. Based on the data the Report says “While the percentage of population below the poverty line has come down, albeit at a slower rate during the nineties and until recently compared to in the eighties, the movement is within the group of broadly poor (41 per cent) or the poor and vulnerable (77 per cent) of the population.” In other words, even those not officially categorised as ‘BPL’ are actually poor as well; or to put it differently, the poor are being left out of the official calculations of poverty!

The Report finds that 0.4 percent of the workers in the unorganized sector enjoy facilities like PF etc. The Report performs an analysis of the positions of various socio-economic groups in agriculture and other unorganized sectors, stating that 88 percent of the Scheduled Caste, 80 percent of the OBC population and 84 percent of the Muslims belong to the poor and vulnerable group. Muslims have least access to land and jobs and are overwhelmingly concentrated in self-employed activities. Poverty ratios in the urban unorganised sector are highest among casual workers, mainly SC, ST and Muslims. Along with dealing with the analysis of agriculture, child labourers and women workers the Report specifically mentions the low pay and the hazardous conditions of the migrant workers (construction workers etc).

The Report assesses various factors that help or hinder the unorganised sector workers such as access to capital, the skill or lack of skills, education, access to markets, mobility, size of land-holdings, religious groups, marginalised groups and also the differences between workers in the organised sector and the unorganised sector on many of these fronts.

The Report is frank enough to find the condition of wage workers in the unorganised sector absolutely deplorable in terms of their physical condition of work, occupation health, working hours and remuneration. Those getting less than the minimum wages are ‘significantly high’ while vulnerable groups like women, children and bonded labour are still extremely exploited.

The majority of self-employed workers operate their own enterprises but some hire a few workers. The self-employed workers got a very reduced wage but the homeworkers were the worst off getting a meagre average of 27 rupees per day. Their main problem was shortage of capital and many like in the handloom industry, street vendors and rickshaw pullers lead an extremely precarious existence. There are no policies to promote the livelihoods of the self-employed.

While women in the agricultural sector are covered in the chapter dealing with unorganised labour in the agricultural sector, a special chapter has been devoted to the status and problems of women in the non-agricultural sector. This chapter recognises the double burden of work on women due to their role in production and reproduction. It also notes that much of her labour is unpaid and unrecognised, that she works much longer hours than men and is paid much less even for the same work and that she is the first to be fired, gets the lowest paid and the most tedious work. Because the large percentage of unorganised women do not attend a designated office or work-place they tend to be ‘invisible’ in national statistics. Retrogressive sexual division of labour is still very prevalent and is reflected in their being at the bottom of the hierarchy in the labour market. With her lower educational levels and skills the woman labourer faces definite disadvantages. This chapter also recognises the harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse that female workers face.

The Report admits to the high insecurity and vulnerability of all workers in the agricultural sector made worse by appalling working conditions - no risk coverage, no basic living standards, no social security of any sort, no fixed hours of work, and denial of minimum wages. For migrant workers and bonded labour there is the further lack of safety, extreme exploitation and occupational hazards. Coupled to this is the lack of unionisation, illiteracy, no legal protection or law enforcement all of which goes to make them even more impoverished and vulnerable.

The chapter dealing with working condition of farmers/cultivators gives a lot of space to indebtedness, notes that loans, especially of the smaller and marginalised, is from moneylenders and not through official channels. However, it is totally silent on the need for land reforms or redistribution of land. The only unusual part is its survey that shows that over 40% poor farmers want to escape from agriculture but have no alternative. What it fails to say is that the reason is precisely because of the farce of land redistribution and lack of support/ inputs/capital. This is a very dangerous argument as it refuses to see the necessity of land redistribution while leaving its argument open to be deployed in defence of SEZs and similar policies as a means of ‘liberating’ the peasantry. However, its statistics do show that small holdings are more productive than large ones: “…small farmers are still faced with higher unit costs on indivisible fixed inputs. Their access to cheaper inputs is limited and they have to rent equipments at higher rates which add to the costs. In addition, they face several other constraints, which lower their productivity and income.”

It gives a long list of all legislation for unorganised workers from the ILO conventions that India has signed to all the central and state laws that have been enacted over the years with what they are supposed to achieve - making good ILO’s claim that India has the most number of unimplemented labour laws! There is a chapter covering all the projects and policies to help India’s millions of unorganised poor starting from the Constitution of India’s Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles to a mind-boggling array of projects for improving skills, technical training, fiscal incentives, micro credit, KVI, SSI, for accessing raw materials, marketing, cluster development, growth poles, PPP, State/Central Welfare Boards, Workers Facilitation Centres, Lok Adalats and for roping in NGOs, RBI, nationalised banks, NABARD, co-operatives – you name it. But the Report does admit that implementation of these laws and the implementation machinery leave a lot to be desired and the unorganised sector regularly falls out of their ambit.

The findings of the NCEUS Report serve to underline, through documented data, the fact that unorganised sector workers live lives of extreme poverty, exploitation and deprivation – and can therefore be used to strengthen the hands of movements which mobilise these sections as a significant force in the working class movement. 

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