Srinagar May 28: The month of May opens with a history of struggle going back several generations, with workers across the globe coming together to celebrate May 01 as an expression of their international camaraderie and shared political aspirations for freedom.
In a country like India, where the workforce constitutes one third of its population, labour struggle is yet to be recognized in the eyes of the government, especially in such Indian states, which are dominated by the colors of conflict.
In the northernmost Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, despite the official celebration of May 01 as ‘Labour Day’, the reality is that Kashmiri labourers are not only neglected and ruthlessly exploited .
Long working hours, poor working conditions, meager wages, and no health care facility are the basic issues the hard working labour force is demanding from the State. According to state secretary of CPI (M), Mohammed Yusuf Tarigami, “Woes of labourers are on an upsurge. Labour laws across the state are being brazenly flouted. Besides factory-owners, the norms are being violated by the government itself.
The destitute lot engaged in the government sector as ad-hoc or contract employees are earning monthly wages equivalent to Rs 1,500 or so. Does the amount qualify under the Minimum Wage Act?” He firmly believes that as far as the neglect of labour class is concerned, Jammu and Kashmir is the worst example.
Of all the rights, the right to get the minimum wages as directed by the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 is perhaps the most important. The dismal pay scale offers little for families dependent on the workers for their survival. ASHA and Anganwadi workers; daily-rated, casual, need based and contractual labourers- all fall in the same unfortunate category.
The construction workers in Jammu and Kashmir are still not under the umbrella of laws safeguarding their rights and security. In 1996, United Front Government introduced a law to protect the right of labourers working in construction jobs – the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 which the state adopted in 2006. However, implementation of the Act on the ground was delayed as the Statutory Construction Workers Welfare Board was constituted in 2007 but remained non functional till 2010.
The 1996 law specifically directs the government to identify labourers from various communities and provide them benefits of the relevant schemes and insurance benefits. “The labour ministry claims that the contractor must ensure these benefits, but the question is why will they?” asks Tarigami, suggesting that under the three-tier democracy setup of the State, the job of identification should be given to Sarpanches who have a public mandate.
As the tussle goes on, many in the unorganized sector continue to spend their days and nights at the work place. Basit Reyaz, 12, (evidently a child labour), assists a local trader for twelve hours. “I usually reach my workplace at seven in the morning and return home at around 7:30 in the evening. We have no fixed working hours,” said Reyaz hopelessly.
According to Fayyaz, 19, who works for more than nine hours a day at a tea stall and earn Rs 1,500 for a month’s hard work, the work gets really hectic sometimes. Fayyaz and Basit both hail from Kashmir and are considerably better off than the migrant labourers. Interestingly, according to Social Activist and Lawyer, Abdul Rashid Hanjura, the labourers coming from outside the state are more in number than local ones.
The Jammu and Kashmir government has adopted several well-intentioned measures to benefit the labourers but implementation is another matter altogether. For example, when a local worker is injured at work, he has to fight with the administration for his ex-gratia relief which ought to be his legal right. Life insurance benefits too are denied to the workers.
The State Labour Commissioner, Mr. Sahid Inayat-ul-lah, of course, has a different take. He shared that there are twenty-one central labour laws and three state labour laws under which they have been covering labour demands. Soon after its formation, four meetings of the Construction Workers Welfare Board were held and a number of welfare Schemes were approved, including relief for temporary disability of Rs.10000, relief for permanent disability of Rs.75000, and immediate assistance in case of accident of Rs.5000, etc.
He further added that the registration of workers has been started recently and over 40,200 workers have been registered so far.
The Government of India has sanctioned schools under National Child Labour Project Scheme in the districts of Srinagar and Udhampur so far. “The survey report in respect of Jammu District has already been furnished to Deputy Commissioner, Jammu who, as Chairman of National Child Labour Project Society, is expected to send it to the Government of India for starting such school in Jammu District as well. At present six Schools under the Project are functional in District Srinagar of Kashmir Division,” added Mr. Sahid Inayat-ul-lah.
This difference of opinion is a part of that struggle, that history of the labourers in this country and in the world at large. Every member of this unorganized community spends all his life working in the toughest of the condition but never gets his due.
The Charkha Development Communication network feels that the government and the labourers have never been on the same wavelength and perhaps that gave rise to the “differences”. The best way of sorting them out perhaps lies in an accepting and honest relationship between the government and the work force! By Zeenat Zeeshan Fazil(ANI)