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Tales Of Toil: An Analysis Of The Indian Labour Sector

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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a five-article series named ‘The Tales of Toil’ that discusses and highlights the realities, needs and interests of the working class in India.

Voltaire once said, “labour preserves us from three great evils — weariness, vice, and want“. Labour has been the bulwark over which civilisations were built and global dynamics changed. Even today, migration of labour and market forces form one of the key pillars, if not the key pillar, of international political economy. It is estimated that over 600 million new jobs have to be created by 2030 to keep pace with the growth of the working age population in the world. We also need to do more for those who already are a part of the work-force with some 780 million men and women not earning enough to lift themselves and their families out of the $2 a day poverty thresh-hold. This is in line with the objective set by Goal 8 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the United Nations, which states, “Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.”

In many places, having a job does not ensure an individual’s ability to escape poverty. Lack of opportunities for decent work, insufficient investments and under-consumption erode the basic social contract that is an integral part of any democratic society. As per the International Labour Organization’s World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends 2018 document,  the global unemployment rate was at 5.6% in 2017, which corresponded to 192.7 million unemployed individuals.  This was expected to fall by 0.1% in 2018, thereby keeping the number of unemployed essentially unchanged despite the presence of a labour force that is growing. What is more important and interesting is to look at the contribution of various countries to these trends and realities. While developed countries gave a strong performance with the unemployment rate projected to fall by an additional 0.2%, the picture is not as good in emerging and developing countries: employment growth is slated to fall short of the growth in the labour force, raising the headcount  of unemployed persons by 0.9 million in 2018. In India, the unemployment rate is projected to remain at 3.5% over the period 2017-2019, which, due to rising population, will be equivalent to 18.3 million, 18.6 million and 18.9 million unemployed people in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Realities Of The Labour Market In India

India has always had a large labour market due to the human resource it has.  While the primary sector faces its own fair share of issues and problems in India, the share of informal employment has risen within most of the manufacturing industries. This is partially due to labour market rigidities that prevent creation of employment opportunities. Lately, while there has been significant job creation in some services that are Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-intensive over the past two decades, a significant number of these jobs have been in traditional low value added services, where there is a certain element of informality and where vulnerable forms of employment are usually dominant. The spurt in these specific kind of jobs has not been successful in meeting the employment demands of India’s population.

If we look at the Annual Report 2017-2018 of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India, the numbers therein show the problems in great detail. In the 5th Employment Unemployment Survey (2015-2016), the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR), which is is the sum of all employed workers divided by the working age population, was 75%, 23.7% and 50.4% for men, women and in total respectively. For the same period, Worker Population Ratio (WPR), which is the the proportion of an economy’s working-age population that is employed, was 72.1%, 21.7% and 47.8% for men, women and in total respectively, and the unemployment rate was 4%, 8.7% and 4.3% for men, women and in total respectively. The unemployment rate has plateaued at around 3.5% this year.

ThWhile the former ensures the timely payment of wages and that no unauthorised deductions are made from the wages of the workers, the latter was enacted to safeguard the interests of the workers mostly in the unorganised sector.  Under the provision of the Minimum Wages Act, “both the Central Government and State Governments are the appropriate authorities to fix, revise, review and enforce the payment of minimum wages to workers in respect of scheduled employments under their respective jurisdictions.”

There are 45 scheduled employments in the Central Sphere and more than 1,700 in the State Sphere. The enforcement of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 is ensured at two levels. While in the Central Sphere, the enforcement is done through the Central Industrial Relations Machinery (CIRM), the compliance in the State Sphere is ensured through the State Enforcement Machinery. It is, however, not only the minimum wages but also the wage ceiling that matters. In exercise of the powers conferred by sub-section (6) of Section 1 of the Payment of Wages 1936 Act, the Central Government, on the basis of figures of the Consumer Expenditure Survey published by National Sample Survey Office, has recently enhanced the wage ceiling to Rs. 24,000/- per month with effect from August 2017, for the benefit of the workers. Due to the influence of the state government in setting the wages in a state, there are large differences in the wages across the country today. In urban areas, regular wages are highest in Haryana, with Assam, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and Karnataka not far behind, while the lowest regular wages prevail in Gujarat. In rural India, the states that had the highest wages for regular workers were Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh, while those with the lowest wages were Karnataka, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.

India has been making steady growth in its economy with a regular rise in its GDP. However, this rise is not necessarily translated into money for the workers. While GDP per worker, including the self-employed, in 2011–12 was estimated at Rs. 1,75,539 per annum, the average income of wage workers was Rs. 81,819 per annum, or approximately 46.6% of the GDP per worker. This showed the discrepancy between the GDP growth and the income-patterns of workers. In India, the labour income share of the total national income declined from 38.5% in 1981 to 35.4% in 2013. This suggests that the profits, investments and other income from capital were increasing much faster than the compensation towards labour. It also implies that income is concentrated in the richer sections of society, which increases the inequality. This decline in labour income share has been found to be a global trend. On top of this, one needs to look at the subtle nuances of wage inequalities as well. As per the International Labour Organization’s recent reports published in 2018, for regular workers in rural India, wage inequality increased sharply in 2004–05 and declined slightly in 2011–12, but to a level higher than in 1993-94.  For all casual workers, particularly rural women workers, the levels of inequality reduced over the period of the study, mainly because of public policy through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). An adequate enforcement of minimum wages could close the gap between the lowest and the middle wage groups.

The wages earned by workers in India are closely found to be tied to social identities. Discrimination along social lines is still as prevalent as it was when India got independence. One of the major forms of wage-related discrimination is along the gender divide. As per the International Labour Organization’s India Wage Report 2018, regular rural female workers who are not highly educated received roughly 53% of men’s wages, while women with ‘high educational attainment’ are found to earn around 73% of men’s wages. Regular female workers in urban areas with a primary education or less earn around 60% of what their male counterparts earn, while women with a secondary or higher education earn about 77% of their male counterparts’ incomes. The wage differential also exists along the lines of caste and social groups, with the schedules castes and tribes seen to be well behind people from the General category in urban as well as rural areas.

In the second article in this series, we will look at some of the initiatives taken by the Indian government recently, on this front.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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