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Jai Mazdoor: The Way Forward For India’s Working Class

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final 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.

India has moved forward in leaps and bounds on advancing principles of rights, inclusion and employment security for workers but there is still a lot to be done. Over the last quarter of a century, the so-called ‘trickledown economics’ has not been successful in empowering the poor. Wealth inequality persists due to the marginalised populations being vulnerable because of factors such as social exclusion, lack of basic amenities and market fluctuations. Social-protection programmes and policies are important to tackle these issues. They address multiple aspects of poverty by building resilience against shocks and socio-economic crises, besides enhancing labour-market efficiency and providing income security to the poor. Mechanisms such as direct cash-transfer schemes, social insurance, vocational training, skills development and public work programmes are some of the social protection measures that can potentially provide safety nets for the poor and helps them withstand the brunt of market fluctuations. As per the World Bank (2015), social safety nets reduce the poverty gap by 15% and the poverty headcount rate by 8%. As highlighted by the G20 Forum and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), social-protection systems act as self-regulating economic stabilisers, besides boosting employability and fortifying aggregate domestic demands, and thereby facilitating transition into a more formalised economy.

The economic structure in India is defined largely by the character of its labour force. This labour force is marked by self-employment, heterogeneity and a high level of informality (with over 90% of the total workforce composed of informal workers, who contribute to 50% of the national income!). High susceptibility and low levels of social protection plague these people, who face the problems arising due to the lack of institutional and statutory provisions on various levels for the protection of their interests and needs. More importantly, most preventive and protective legislation for social security are for the organised sector. The few legislative measures for the unorganised sector, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), are often confined to being ways of providing income and other basic amenities to workers but not preparing them for facing threats and problems with any contingencies. A pioneering policy initiative, on this front, was the introduction of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act (UWSSA) in 2008. However, ten years after the Act was passed, the social-security needs of informal workers and worker in the unorganised sector remain unfulfilled due to significant statutory and structural issues.

To tackle the problem, one must know the loopholes and drawbacks that the current structures have. Let us look at the problems in the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act (2008) more closely to see where it can be improved

  • The scope and target audience of the Act are very loosely defined, particularly terms such as ‘unorganised worker’ and ‘unorganised sector’, with extensive ambiguities in the way they may be interpreted. Moreover, in defining ‘unorganised workers’, the Act excludes contract-based and agricultural labourers, thereby excluding a large section of the unorganised sector from its coverage. Further, the Act restricts the definition of the ‘unorganised sector’ to enterprises that employ less than 10 workers, without stating any good reason for it and fundamentally violating the Right to Equality between workers in places that employ less than 10 people and those in places that employ more.
  • The terms of the Act need to be made more rights-based and obligatory instead of discretionary, in various places.
  • The Act only covers a small section of unorganised workers who fall below the poverty line. Most of the unorganised workers in urban areas are not below the national poverty line but are still facing a lot of problems with hardly any social or income security.
  • The Act does not address the concerns of women, migrants workers and workers from other vulnerable communities.
  • The Act does not allocate any significant institutional power to the social-security boards that it institutes. It restricts these boards to an advisory role. This is a part of the bigger problem of the lack of an efficient mechanism for administering or monitoring the schemes impedes the implementation of the Act.
  • The Act does not address the need for a proper funding mechanism, and there is a general lack of any financial plan within the Act itself.
  • The Act hardly assigns any responsibility or accountability to officeholders in District Administration, who are supposed to look after the registration of unorganised workers. Moreover, there is hardly any penalty or punitive action for defaulters.

Each of these points must be addressed and resolved by the government. To optimally impact the people who need the policies most, the government must introduce radical administrative, legislative and statutory changes. One of them has to be that of fundamental amendments in the UWSSA 2008, with changes made to address the point on ambiguity of scope and target audiences. Universal access to social-protection schemes for all unorganised workers is also important, though the way to fund this will have to be thought of properly, due to the significant financial burden this may entail on the exchequer. There has been insufficient budget allocation for social-security programmes over the last ten years, with only about 30% budget recommended by The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) actually allocated. Thus, a social-security fund or dedicated allocation from the main budget for this, with properly drafted financial plans and demarcated budgets, must be created in consultation with the various stakeholders, including the government(s), trade unions , international researcher (such as experts from the ILO) and civil society. The budgetary allocations and provisions must come with increased accountability and responsibility built into the system. Most importantly, there should be a way to have feedback and a dedicated complaint redressal system for this, so that dispute and policy revisions can be sorted out quickly and in an informed manner. Information dissemination of rights and entitlements is also very important and must be looked into.

For basic amenities, I personally feel the need for increasing the scope of policies for universal education and healthcare. Recently the Modi government rolled out the Ayushmaan Bharat scheme, which aims to cover over 10,00,00,000 poor and vulnerable families. This scheme can be extended to include primary healthcare. Provisions aligning with Right to Education (RTE) must be implemented, particularly with the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) for children in the unorganized sector. Recently, many social-security programmes were assimilated into a Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme (2013), allowing for funds to be credited directly into the beneficiaries’ bank accounts. However, what is the use of such a scheme if many informal workers do not even have a bank account, particularly women in low-income households? As per the Global Financial Inclusion Database (2018) by the World Bank, 11% of adults in India do not have their own bank accounts, and almost half of current bank accounts were inactive, as of 2017! Thus, if one wants the cash-transfer schemes to make a difference, making the people financially literate is very important through awareness-building and educational programmes. Further, instead of always providing cash, one can also provide for other forms of facilities, in kind and services. For instance, there could be concessions in healthcare and educational amenities.

Besides all these aforementioned points for the unorganized sector, the points that matter for the organized sector differ slightly in their nature and scope. Some of the major points that I feel are very important include

  • Universalisation of the Public Distribution System is of fundamental importance. Inefficiency and corruption in this system must be rooted with strong punitive and preventive measures.
  • Strict enforcement of labour laws is needed for the interests of the workers in the organised as well as the unorganised sectors. The Minimum Wages Act must be implemented properly, besides the various other Labour Laws and Codes. Complaint submission, review and redressal must be improved and accessible to the workers in both sectors.
  • Universal social security cover or insurance schemes that lessen the burden on the workers, along with mediclaim schemes such as Ayushmaan Bharat, must be put in place, with proper financial plans and consultations with all stakeholders.
  • Assured pensions that are enhanced and in tune with the demands of the times for the entire working population would go a long distance in incentivizing the labour force and possibly help us in transitioning towards a more formal economy with assured benefits for workers.
  • Compulsory registration of trade unions within a fixed period of time from the date of submitting application, besides the and immediate ratification of ILO Convention C 87 and  ILO Convention C 98 is important, as is the addition of teeth to the framework for the functioning and the powers of trade unions, particularly with respect to employers.

This comprehensive plan for the reform and virtual overhaul of provisions for workers could go a long way in representing the interests and needs of workers, both in the organised as well as the unorganised sectors.

In Conclusion

I would like to end this article with the sincere hope that the various stakeholders, including the government(s), bureaucrats, trade’ unions and employers, come together in creating an environment conducive for the welfare, good living and sustainable work for the workers; an environment that is built on the principles of inclusivity, empowerment and representation of workers; for, as Senator Bernie Sanders said, “if we are going to reverse the race to the bottom, workers must have the right to engage in collective bargaining.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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