This article is written by Ananya Choudhary
Recently on 24th May 2021, the honourable Supreme Court of India showing concern over the plight of unorganized workers directed the central and state government to complete the registration process of unorganized workers. And also asked the Centre for filing a counter-affidavit on the current position of the National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW). The National Database for Unorganised Workers was proposed to complete the database by June 2021. But just like all the policies being implemented in India, it seems impossible for the database to be completed by the said deadline.
What is the National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW)?
The Indian government to control the spread of Coronavirus declared the greatest nationwide lockdown in March with just a one-day notice. It brought untold miseries to almost every sector of the Indian economy. And one of the worst-hit classes due to this lockdown was migrant and unorganized workers.
These unorganized workers being fired by the employers and state, these workers walking hundreds of kilometres with a hope to get back to their home, and hundreds of them even dying due to lack of essentials became the defining image of the lockdown. Being abandoned by the employers, unorganized workers were left with no source of income and were left with just some bare supplies.
But the government lacked on its part. And the support the government should have provided failed to do so just because of the absence of any database of unorganized workers
As per the government of India’s report, suffering from the hardships more than 900 migrants lost their lives. And these were the reported cases only, an actual figure must have been many times of the figures. And this raised the need for a comprehensive database of unorganized workers to provide relief and support to the workers in these hard times.
But the fact was that such a large detailed database takes time to be prepared and the government didn’t make any efforts for this cause in the past. And thus, failing on other aspects too, the government failed to help these workers and provide them relief. In past, some attempts were made under different statutory acts. But all the efforts were in vain as no state government succeeded in presenting complete data.
Soon this issue over the plight of the unorganized workers was brought upfront and led to huge public debates. After facing a lot of criticism and pressure, the government has finally taken steps towards this cause.
So, in November 2020, the Finance ministry finally approved for creation of the National Database for Unorganized Workers (NDUW). This database aims to provide a proper platform to the workers belonging to the unorganized sector. And the database would allow for easier and better implementation of policies for the unorganized sector. This database would help in better monitoring and supervision of the policies of the government and would ensure at the grassroots level that the benefits reach the targeted group of unorganized workers.
The whole process for the formation of this database is entrusted to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, which will work in collaboration with the state governments. A new database will be created where the workers would be linked by their 12-digit Aadhar number. As per the ministry, a site will be created and more and more workers will be encouraged to connect to the portal.
Apart from all the reliefs provided by the government, such a database would help in implementing social security initiatives and will also provide better employment opportunities. The database will include all the workers of the unorganized sector including the migrant workers. And such a database would ensure better implementation of government policies and ensure that no unorganized workers are left behind.
Some concerns were raised over the fact that most of the unorganised works are uneducated and do not have and any internet service, so it would be difficult to get the complete data. But the ministry ensured that the worker who doesn’t know how to get registered or don’t have any internet service, could approach the nearest service centre and get themselves registered through their Aadhar card.
The database as proposed would also help in tracking the worker’s movement and would provide them with more and more job opportunities. And the total cost of the project is estimated to be approximately Rs. 650 crores.
Supreme court intervention
Being an important pillar of democracy, the judiciary plays an important role in ensuring that there’s no injustice in society. And the same happened in the current case. The honourable supreme court bench comprising Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah in the Suo moto case “In Re Problems and Miseries of Migrants” presented their concern over the plight of the migrant and unorganised worker in this har times of pandemic.
The court has directed the central and state government to fasten the registration process of unorganized workers. And also asked the Centre for filing a counter-affidavit on the current position of the National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW). The court also asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to expedite the process of registration of the unorganised workers by the Labour Ministry in accordance with the direction passed in a separate matter in 2018.
The court observed and presented its concern over the matter that whether the crores of the amount spent by the government actually reaches the needy. Therefore, there arises the need for a suitable mechanism that would allow for proper implementation, monitoring and supervision of the welfare schemes and funds allotted by the government for the needy and ensure that the benefits reach the targeted group.
The court observed the plight of the workers in these hard times and also observed a need for the urgency of such a database for the workers of the unorganized sector.
The Honourable court emphasised the need for such a fast completion of the registration process so that the workers belonging to the unorganised sector are able to access the benefits of the schemes by the government, and that by avoiding long and difficult registration process which usually stand as a barrier in the path of the workers belonging to this sector.
Unorganized workers have been defined under the Unorganized Worker’s Social Security Act, 2008. And as per the definition, unorganized workers are those who are home-based worker, self-employed worker or a wage worker in the unorganised sector and includes a worker in the organised sector who is not covered by any of the acts mentioned in Schedule II to this Act.
These workers are generally engaged in agriculture, home-based work, self-employment, work in small-scale industries, etc. Workers in the unorganized sector do not enjoy any benefits like social security benefits, job security, a fair salary and many other benefits enjoyed by those working in the organised sector, even for the same job.
Significant Economic contribution of Unorganized Sector
One of the surprising facts of the Indian Economy is that the majority of labour employed belongs to the unorganized sector. Figures as released by the National Sample Survey Organization through their surveys conducted shows that with a total contribution of 50% to GDP, the unorganized sector accounts for 93% of the country’s workforce.
And nearly 52% of this workforce is engaged in agricultural activities. And rest earns their livelihood through working as construction workers, working in small enterprises, on a contract basis, working as arts man, craftsmen, or self-employed workers like cobbler, coolie, auto drivers, etc.
With a large contribution to GDP and total workforce, the unorganized sector of Indian holds a strong power. Some of the great economists believe that the unorganized sector of India can prove to be very beneficial for the economy. With the capacity of growing steadily, the sector can help the Indian economy solving a major problem of Jobless growth. They have led to significant growth of employment in the informal sector of the country. Even though they lead a very significant contribution to the economy, but still their lives are very miserable and vulnerable. And the plight of this unorganized sector is ignored or left unheard.
The plight of the Unorganized workers
Even with a significant contribution to the growth of the nation, still, the unorganized sector is the most vulnerable and poor sector. These unorganized workers are very vulnerable people and neglected segments of the workforce. The majority of the works of this sector are very poor and illiterate. They live a very undignified life.
They lack resources and assets. And as a result of their lower bargaining power, they are most subjected to exploitation by those in power who have more resources. Many times, they are subjected to highly dangerous and hazardous jobs. They are forced to work under poor conditions and the pay they receive is very low as compared to the same jobs in the organized sector.
In addition to these poor conditions, the unorganized workers are prone to seasonal employment. They have jobs only for few months of a year only. And as a result, of the same, they migrate from one place to another in search of work. And this results in instability and also forces the children to leave their education. And due to this mobility and seasonal nature, the unorganized workers lack stability in their income.
They have to suffer high insecurities of job. Being the majority of them belonging to the agriculture sector, their job is irregular and unassured. They are able to work only 3 months a year and rest they wander searching for employment, suffering from starvation or being employed in very ill-paid jobs.
Being poor, they are forced to live in poor conditions. They are born in slums and they die in slums. They lack all the proper facilities, health and sanitation facilities, which they are entitled to as basic human necessities. Even if there are laws for their protection, but being illiterate, they lack awareness about laws.
And even if they have the knowledge, they fear to take any legal action believing that who will hear their cause and will those corrupt in power will allow them to do so and further they don’t want to add any other burden on their shoulders in form of judicial costs.
But with the efforts of activists and multiple organizations, the plight of the unorganized workers was brought out at the front. It further leads to a lot of debate in the public. Therefore, multiple steps were taken in this direction, by the government in order to improve the conditions of the unorganized workers. One of the greatest initiatives of the government in this direction was the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act,2005.
Further acts like the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 were brought by the government which ensured minimum wages for the unorganized workers. And many policies like Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment), Conditions of Service Act, 1979, Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation act, 2014, Building and Construction workers act, 1996, Dockworkers (regulation of employment) Act, 1948, etc. were implemented by the central and state governments.
With the motive of ensuring the welfare of the workers in the Organized sector, the government of India enacted the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act,2008. It was umbrella legislation for providing social security benefits to the unorganized workers.
The main objective of the act was to work towards the welfare of the unorganized sector. Under this umbrella legislation, central and state governments work hand in hand to implement various schemes about life, education, health, employment, etc for the unorganized workers. Further, the government set up a National Social Security Board and the State Social Security Board for better implementation.
Recently in 2020, after the great pandemic worst affecting the unorganized workers, the government of India passed three labour bills. And one of the most important bills out of these 3 for the unorganized workers was the Code on social security, 2020.
This code aims to improve the working condition of the unorganized and migrant workers and provide them with better job security. This has amalgamated multiple security laws into one. The government now intends to formulate multiple social security schemes for the benefit of the unorganized sector.
However, numerous policies and acts, have been implemented by the government. But just a few succeeded with almost other completing failing either due to poor structure, or poor implementation or lack of funds and many other reasons. And still today the position of unorganized workers is vulnerable and they are continued to be exploited.
Covid-19 Pandemic and unorganized workers
The Corona pandemic proved to be one of the worst recessions in India. It brought untold miseries to almost every sector of the Indian economy. And one of the worst-hit sectors witnessing a major fall was the unorganized sector. It led to a huge increase in unemployment in the country. The pandemic played the role of havoc in the life of the unorganized workers.
These unorganized workers being fired by the employers and state, workers walking 100 kilometres with a hope to get back to their home, and hundreds of them even dying due to lack of essentials became the defining image of the lockdown. With no supplies, and no employment lead they to death and starvation. Their already bad conditions turned into worst.
This was the time when they needed government support. But the government had already led them to a catastrophe with lockdown with just one day notice. The further government failed to provide sufficient relief and support to the unorganized and the migrant workers
Role of judiciary in protection of unorganized workers
One of the most important pillars of Indian democracy is Judiciary. And whenever there is any injustice or any legislation fails, Judiciary enters into the scene. The Constitution of India also plays a very important role and provides unorganized workers with fundamental rights. And one of the most important fundamental rights for unorganized workers is Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
And if any person is denied minimum wages for the work, he/she does, then it is violative of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. And as per article 21, the government should recognize bonded labour. And its duty of every state government to provide basic human dignity to bounded labour.
And further, the Supreme court’s concern for the protection of the unorganized workers has been reflected in some of the landmark judgments of the apex court. One such judgment was People’s Union for Democratic Rights and others v. Union of India. In this case, the supreme court held that all the magistrates have the duty to deal with strictness and case is in violation of labour laws or which tends to exploit the unorganized workers.
And those errant employers exploiting these people must be given a lesson and they should be strictly punished. Further in multiple cases like Tamil Nadu Construction and Unorganised Workers Federation (TCWF) v. Union of India, Rajan Kudumbathil v. Union of India, Tradeline Enterprises Pvt. Ltd. v State of Tamil Nadu and many more, the apex court has ruled in favour of the unorganized workers. And recently in this corona pandemic also, understanding the plight of the unorganized workers, the court took the responsibility and acted in favour of them.
In past from long-time multiple laws, schemes and policies have been enacted for the benefit of the unorganized workers. But still, today very minimal improvement is seen in the poor condition of the unorganized sector. Still today millions of people are suffering at the hands of those in power.
Many policies have been, hundreds of crores have been spent. But no efforts succeeded completely. And this is due to improper implementation, poor structure, lack of funds and other multiple reasons for these policies. Even though benefits are provided by the government, but it fails to reach the targeted people.
There is a need for a policy that would secure the lives of the unorganized workers against any adversities. The policies should work towards improving the living conditions of the workers. There should be direct intervention of the state, with redistributing all the benefits in favour of the unorganized sector.
And one best step to ensure that the benefits actually reach the unorganized sector could be a comprehensive national Database for the unorganized worker. It would help in ensuring and monitoring the implementation of the policies. Thus, the government should now move their focus towards this database and try to ensure the whole population belonging to this unorganized sector is connected and registered in the database.
Just like all other policies of the government, it should not be done at a slow speed or without any proper structure. It should be completed as soon as possible so the relief could be sought by the most vulnerable, the unorganized sector in these hard times of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- M.S. Ramanujam and K.L. Rawal, Unorganized Workers’ Welfare: Imperatives & Initiatives, Vol. 46, The Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, 2010
- Report on Conditions of work and promotion of Livelihoods in the unorganized sector by National Commission for enterprises in the unorganized sector, 2007
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