International Labour Standards and Decent Work!

International Labour Standards deal with the rights of human beings at work. There are certain basic rights that workers all over the world are entitled to. These rights are an outcome of the workers’ struggles over the ages. In the earlier chapters, we have discussed these initiatives in more detail. The ILO, which is a United Nations (UN) agency and has a membership of 174 countries, has been the upholder of labour standards. It is found that there are certain common labour standards that apply to workers all over the world.

These basic rights are applicable to all the member countries of the ILO, irrespective of their levels of economic development. The general assembly of the ILO, which comprises representatives of all the member countries, the trade unions and the employers’ organisations, has vowed to protect, promote and realise the fundamental rights of labour. These are known as the International Labour Standards (ILS).

The need for ILS springs from the fact that there are divergent conditions of employment in different parts of the world. The ILS attempt to improve conditions of workers with reference to their health, well-being and advancement at work. In many countries, workers have to fight for having the right to health care.


In most of the developing countries, this right is denied to a large section of workers in the informal sector. International labour standards tend to convey the fact that, irrespective of the status, all workers deserve proper health care so that they can work better. This would help employers too, as labour productivity would increase.

Political motives played a part in the development of the ILO. This is the reason why issues such as ILS became crucial. Let us explain what this means. It was widely believed by most international agencies including the ILO that as the developing countries industrialised, most of the problems of the working class would be solved.

We have seen earlier that till 1986, the ILO strongly believed that as development takes place, the informal sector would be absorbed into the formal sector. These hopes were belied because despite industrialisation there was an absence of similar improvement in the working conditions and rights of workers. In many countries, India included, certain rights were bestowed on the workers for their protection.

Later, as these countries liberalised their economy, the authorities gradually usurped these rights. In other words, industrialisation had progressed, but the plight of the workers did not improve; in some cases, it showed signs of deterioration. Such a situation created a firm ground for social unrest. This had to be thwarted and the ILS became an important tool for doing so.


We can group labour standards into five categories. These are (i) freedom of association, (ii) effective recognition of the right to organise and participate in collective bargaining, (iii) elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour, (iv) effective elimination of child labour, and (v) elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. Let us examine each of these.

The bill granting this right was passed by the British Parliament in 1824. Earlier, any association formed by workers was deemed as illegal. The workers could be punished and even imprisoned for forming such associations, which was regarded as a conspiracy against the state.

Engels had noted that after this right was granted, the trade union movement spread rapidly among workers across the country. The right to association is also a fundamental right granted by the Constitution of India. This implies that trade unions need to be recognised as the rightful representation of the working class. This is an important right for workers.

In India, better-paid skilled workers in some large companies have protested and even gone on strike because they were denied the right to form their trade union. For instance, in July 2011, a well-known automobile company based in North India had to face labour unrest because of a strike by its workers. This company was known for its non-hierarchical methods in the interactions between management and labour.


The general manager would perform physical exercises with the workers before starting work; moreover, unlike most other large organisations, the company had a common dining hall for workers and managers. This company was praised for its unorthodox methods of interaction between labour and management.

It would thus be expected that the company would be trouble-free and workers and managers would both be working towards the well-being of this company. In other words, this would be an ideal example for the Systems approach to industrial relations. Despite all these positive factors, the company had to face a strike which was later turned into a lockout by the management.

The main bone of contention was the right of the workers to choose their own union. It was believed by a large section of the workers that the management was trying to influence them in selecting their representative union. The union which the workers had voted for did not find favour with the management; hence it did not get recognition as the official representative of the workers.

The management tried to substitute the workers, which resulted in labour unrest. This occurrence came as a surprise to many analysts for it was believed that issues relating to wages and remuneration are the main causes for industrial unrest. The case of this automobile industry proved that this is not true.


The workers did not put forth any demand concerning monetary gains and all they wanted was that the union that they had selected should be given the status of the representative union. This case is not an isolated one. During 2009-11, there were at least two cases involving better-paid, educated workers in technologically advanced industries who had struck work for similar reasons.

In a multinational company manufacturing automobile parts for the international market, the workers went on strike for eighteen days as a protest against the sacking of sixteen employees who were trade union office bearers. The management finally had to relent and accede to the workers’ demands. After the strike was called off, twelve of those workers were reinstated and assurance given that the remaining would be reinstated in a phased manner.

We can see that the right to form trade unions, also known as the right to freedom of association, is vital for the working class. However forming unions alone is not enough for workers, if it is not recognised by the management. This would distinguish an official trade union from any other form of association by the workers such as a football dub or a recreational club.

The important aspect of a trade un on is that it should be recognised as the representative of the workers Hence, the second international labour standard becomes important, namely, effective recognition of the right to organise and participate in collective bargaining.


The recognition of a trade union would imply that it becomes the representative of the employees m collective bargaining with the employers. We need to again clarify the collective bargaining is not restricted to only wage issues. It could include every aspect of the working life.

The data on labour disputes in India indicate that only 40 per cent of the cases relate to wage issues, the remaining having to deal with working conditions and related issues. The worker would want their union to be involved in collective they can effectively intervene in managerial decisions. This aspect is important not only for getting them their rights but, more importantly, for their dignity.

Concept of Decent Work

The 1990s ushered in the phase of globalisation and economic liberalisation. The socialist bloc, comprising USSR and Eastern Europe, had collapsed and with redrawn borders these countries Ser restructured their economies by opening up and decreasing protectionism. Other countries like India too went in for restructuring and liberalization.

These policies may have helped in improving growth as far as India is concerned, but simultaneously they increased inequalities. One of the visible changes was in the nature of employment. It could be seen that formal-sector jobs had decreased and work in the informal sector had increased.


This was due to a variety of reasons including outsourcing of production to less developed countries, such as ours, by he developed ones. Jobs in developed countries were shrinking being replaced by low-income ones with minimal or no social security. International agencies such as World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) strongly backed such reforms.

The World Development Report for 1995 (the annual report of the World Bank) titled ‘Workers in a Globalizing World’ noted that flexibility in the labour market and non-intervention of the state were absolutely necessary for achieving greater employment. The report stressed that countries like India and those in Latin America had put many restrictions regarding employment.

What it meant was that the laws which granted protection to workers and permanence of tenure were inimical to growth of employment. The argument was that if there were too many laws protecting the workers’ rights, employers would be wary of setting up industries and hiring workers.

The reality is that in most countries, a permanent job means a host of other facilities that include regulation of work and rest, leave, medical facilities and retirement benefits. These may be good for the workers but agencies like the World Bank pointed out that they were too costly.

Cost of production increases because of the high cost of labour and, secondly, it is difficult, due to legal protection, to fire labour if found unsuitable. The World Bank argued that this prevents growth of employment. As a result, more and more countries have gone in for modifying their protective labour laws, thereby increasing reliance on insecure, unprotected labour.

What we see at present is that liberalisation may have increased employment in aggregate terms but the quality of jobs has declined. As mentioned earlier, the idea of a job for the worker implies a host of other facilities. However, the types of jobs that are generated now are often low-paid and insecure.

If a job does not provide the basic requirements for the worker’s family, it will be necessary for the other members of the family to look for employment in order to meet the deficit. For instance, in a city like Mumbai, the minimum income which would cover the basic family needs of food, clothing and shelter would be around Rs 5000 per month, even for a person living in a slum.

If the main earning member in the family has a job which pays him Rs 3000 per month, there is a deficit of Rs 2000. His wife would perhaps work as a domestic worker or even a waste-picker in order to earn the extra income. If this is not possible, then even the children in the family would be made to work to make ends meet.

This would mean that there is full employment in the family. On the other hand, a single member of the middle class may earn Rs 30,000 per month, and his wife and child do not work for wages. Hence, there is two-thirds unemployment in the family. Would this imply that the slum dweller whose entire family works is better off than this middle-class man?

This is where the situation becomes irrational if we restrict our arguments to merely increase in employment. The type of employment which is being generated after liberalisation would include courier services, cable TV, security services, etc. All these jobs involve long working hours (ten to twelve hours per day), and the remuneration is not at all commensurate to the work.

Moreover, those workers can be hired and fired at will. But the pay offered would at most barely cover the minimum needs of a family. Hence, mere increase in employment without taking into account a living wage is of no consequence. One does not know whether this situation really helps the working poor in uplifting their economically weak position.

One is not questioning whether such jobs are necessary and should be abolished. On the contrary, for an impoverished worker even having a poorly-paid job with stiff working conditions is better than having no job at all. The issue is whether every worker has the right to live their life with dignity. This unfortunately is not often the case.

It has been argued that insecure workers make better workers because they work under pressure and they need to perform or else they will lose their jobs. Is this argument accurate? It can also be argued that improvement in the quality of work is good not just for the workers for employers to gain because healthy, secure workers would be more productive than half-starved workers. One can recall the situation in England in the 1840s.

At that time, the industrial revolution was at its oppressive worst. Machine-made goods had replaced the products of crafts persons in the villages. These included ironsmiths, potters, weavers, etc., who had left their villages and flocked to the industrial areas in search of employment. Jobs were available but for too few compared to the number of job-seekers.

At that time, if a factory owner needed 500 workers, he would select them and inform them about the working conditions and the pay. If, for example, 100 of them said that the pay was too low or the working conditions were bad, the employer would not bargain with them. He knew that if these 100 refused to work, there would be at least three times the number of job-seekers who would be willing to work for even less.

This type of competition among the workers for getting a job started depressing the wages. For the individual employer/capitalists, this was encouraging because they were able to get cheaper labour. However in the long run, this would prove to be detrimental, because if wages kept falling to very low levels it would affect the health of the workers. They would eat less and work more and ultimately they would either fall ill or die.

At that time, the trade associations of the factory owners realised that such a situation may be good for the individual owner but it was suicidal for the industry as a whole if productivity started falling due to low wages. It was then that the associations approached the government to enforce a floor wage. This was obviously not done because of concern for the impoverished worker but mainly because the worker must be paid enough so that he could work even harder. Unfortunately, even this modicum of sense does not seem to dawn on those engaging cheap labour in our society now.

In the midst of such a situation, the ILO thought of the idea of restoring dignity to workers by proposing the concept of Decent Work. In 1999, the Secretary General of the ILO, Juan Somavia, elaborated on this concept. In his address, in the background of decreasing quality of work worldwide, to the International Labour Conference, he spelt out the details.

He presented an alternative to the prevailing situation. The basic concept of Decent Work presumed productive work under conditions of freedom, equity and dignity, where freedom would mean that the rights of the workers were protected, equity implied adequate remuneration for work, and dignity would include social coverage or protection. It also implied that all would have full access to income-earning opportunities.

Decent Work according to Somavia marks the high road to economic and social development where employment, income and social protection can be achieved without comprising workers’ rights and social standards. Another aspect is the stress on tripartism and social dialogue.

This would imply that all issues relating to work, employment and industrial relations should be sorted out through democratic processes that involved all three partners—the state, the workers and their union, and the employers and their associations. In brief, Decent Work is built on four pillars—rights at work, right to employment and work, social protection, and social dialogue. Let us elaborate on each of these essential aspects.

Rights At Work

This includes the ethical and legal framework for all elements of Decent Work. We could begin with the natural rights, more commonly known as human rights that are enshrined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, 1948. The concept of rights at work is not merely having the right to permanent employment but it has a host of other implications.

First of all, there should be no discrimination in employment. Quite often we find that discriminations are based on gender, race, religion and, in India, caste and language. The rights of women at the workplace are frequently absent or violated. For example, it took several years to establish separate toilets for women in factories.

Though the Equal Remuneration Act, 1975, was enacted to ensure that there was no discrimination between the sexes in certain work areas such as construction, plantation, mining and agriculture, we still find that women are paid lower wages than men.

The Equal Remuneration Act was earlier misinterpreted on the logic that since the workload of women was lower than that of men, this Act could not be implemented unless the workload was equalised. The government later, in December 1995, clarified that it was not equal volume of work but the nature of work which would determine equal wages. However, the differences in wages in all these industries, except plantations, continue unabated.

Violation of Other Rights:

Hence, it is an integral part of Decent Work. What we find in many cases is that forced labour is used for production. Forced labour can be seen in cases of bonded labour which exists in India and Pakistan.

Here, the worker and his family are bound to serve under the landlord as payment for some help he had extended to them either in their lifetime or in the past generations. These are extreme forms of forced labour. However, we find that forced labour can also exist in other ways.

When there is shortage of employment opportunities, workers may work at wages much below the sustenance level. This is a form of forced labour because the worker works at depressed wages due to economic hardship. One way of overcoming this type of forced labour is through provision of jobs by the state.

The MGNREGS (now MGNREGA) ensures that one member of every rural household below the poverty line will get 100 days of employment in a year. The idea of such a programme is to ensure that rural workers have an alternative occupation which would boost the existing wages. If rural workers find that wages offered by land owners are low, they have the option to work under that scheme. The landlords then will be forced to increase the wage rate to draw the workers out of the public works scheme.

Implementation of Rights at Work:

Having laws protecting workers at work is important, but more important is that these laws are implemented. Many countries including India have fairly extensive laws for protecting workers, but these are hardly ever implemented or implemented properly. A lot depends on the political environment and the attitude of the state.

If the state believes in upholding human rights and rights at work, it will be proactive in implementing these rights. Normally, democratic countries show greater inclination in defending the rights of workers. However, there could be international pressures, as happened when the economy started liberalising and international agencies such as the World Bank, etc., insisted that our policies for protecting labour should be replaced by free market policies; having greater labour protection, they argued, would discourage international capital from investing in the country.

The government did not amend the existing laws, but introduced riders which in effect weakened the laws. For instance, there has been considerable pressure for having an exit policy for industry. This means that the employer can close down a factory or a workplace if he finds that it is not profitable.

The existing laws did not allow this to happen. The state then devised a plan for circumventing these laws and they allowed a policy of voluntary retirement from service, or VRS. This helped many companies to downsize and shed their permanent workers.

We find similar cases in countries ruled by dictators where labour may lose the rights they had secured through struggle in the past when there was democracy. Another example is provided by politically powerful countries such as the USA. Though it has been the strongest supporter of democratic rights, it has allowed the use of forced labour in manufacturing, as in the case of the popular brand of jeans called ‘Prison Blues’ which is also exported.

USA would rather not disclose the fact that these jeans are made by prisoners in Pendleton (in the state of Oregon). Using prison labour for producing goods that are marketed is regarded as a form of forced labour. Besides, over 50 per cent of prisoners in the USA belong to the African-American community, which appears excessive, considering that black people constitute less than 13 per cent of the total US population.

At the same time, USA has been highly vocal about the human rights of prisoners elsewhere in the world. It also initiated an economic boycott of Cuba (partial from 1960, and near-total from 1962 till date) because USA felt that Cuba had violated human rights, though there was little evidence to prove this. We can see this form of discriminatory action in the case of South Africa as well.

That country had violated human rights by carrying out its apartheid policy (1948-90) that segregated whites from blacks, the latter being highly oppressed. Most Western countries criticised South Africa but did not take any concrete action in forcing the government to abandon its policy. The country now has a democracy, but that was mainly through the concerted struggles of the oppressed people.

Child labour has caused concern to many developed countries, especially when children are used for producing goods for exports. In the late 1980s, certain countries expressed concern over the fact that children were being used as cheap labour in the carpet industry in South Asia.

The use of child labour was rampant because the value of a carpet depends on the number of knots that are tied; children have nimble fingers and can tie more knots than adults. Carpet weaving is hazardous to the health of the child as they inhale the lint or fluff resulting in respiratory diseases. Moreover, working in a constantly bent position can distort the shape of the spine. Germany led a movement of boycotting carpets that had used child labour in its manufacture. Strict checks were followed and child-labour-free carpets were given the label of ‘Rugmark’. This helped in reducing the use of child labour in the carpet industry.

In India, the use of child labour is not totally banned, as in many other developing countries. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 lays down the minimum age of employment as fourteen, and children are not permitted to work in hazardous industries. Initially, this was restricted to twelve hazardous industries or workplaces; at present, there are more than 86 of them.

Some of the gravest violations of child rights can be seen in the planation industry. The Plantation Labour Act, 1951, permits the use of children in working in the plantations. This law has been amended in as late as 2010 mainly due to protests of international buyers of tea. The minimum age of employment is now 15 years.

Table: Percentage of Child Workers (5-14 years) across Industry Groups by Gender, 2004-5:

Industry Group




































Real estate
























Though there are laws preventing child labour, they are rendered ineffective when children continue to work in a clandestine manner. One of the arguments is that poverty drives children to work. Their families are unable to earn enough to make ends meet, hence children are sent out to fill the income gap; this view may or may not be true. A stronger view is that if there are no educational facilities in the vicinity, poorer families would prefer to send their children to work rather than sit at home doing nothing.

In other words, providing accessible and free education facilities can be the most effective means of preventing child labour. Unfortunately in India, this does not usually happen, even after promulgation of the Right to Education Act in 2010, especially in the rural areas where children may have to walk for miles to reach the nearest school.

Employment and Work:

Employment is a vital component of Decent Work. It does not merely cover wage-based jobs but includes all kinds of work such as wage-based jobs, self-employment, home-based work, etc., as well as full-time, part-time and casual work by men, women and children.

Decent Work, according to the ILO, means that there should be adequate employment opportunities for all those who seek work. In addition, these types of employment should yield a remuneration (in cash or kind) that meets the essential needs of the worker and the members of their family.

This aspect is extremely important. Employment is usually not a problem in developing countries. In India, less than 5 per cent of the population is unemployed, whereas, in several developing countries, the unemployment rate could be as high as 20-30 per cent.

The basic difference is that in India the remuneration from employment is in most cases low, which means that if the main earning member does not earn enough to cover the basic needs of the family, the other members will have to work at odd jobs. In a poor family in a slum, besides the main earning member and his wife, the children may be pulled out of school and made to work at odd jobs.

In this way, we will find that the whole family is employed. However, does this form of full employment mean that their standard of living has improved? We cannot properly discuss employment without taking into account the important issue of a need-based minimum wage.

A crucial aspect is how a need-based minimum wage is to be determined. In India, there are some measures through which one can determine the need-based minimum wage. This issue was raised in the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) in 1957.

The ILC is a tripartite body which includes employers’ associations, trade unions and the state (labour department) and it meets every year to discuss labour policies. It is like a country-based ILO. There had been considerable debates in the past on the issue of wages. There were also laws that enforced payment of wages such as Payment of Wages Act, 1935, and Minimum Wages Act, 1948.

These acts laid down the guidelines for how wages should be paid, and if an organisation decides on a minimum wage, it has to pay it to all its employees. However, the basic issue of what constitutes the minimum wage was never resolved. The 15th ILC decided that a need-based minimum wage should consist of the daily minimum needs of three units of consumption.

In other words, whatever was fixed as a minimum wage, it implied that that was the minimum need for reproducing labour for the next day. A sub-committee was set up to determine the various components of this wage. If a minimum wage was to cover the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, it was necessary to decide what would be the inputs in terms of nutrition.

These could be seen in the amount of cereals, vegetables, milk, egg, meat or fish and oil that would be consumed by a family for the daily nutritional requirements (set at 3000 calories, 15 gms of protein and carbohydrates, etc.). This could be converted into cash terms.

The other essential items were clothing, fuel and rent. The minimum needs of cloth for a family were fixed at 72 yards per annum for each family. It was decided that in the minimum wage, food and clothing comprised 80 per cent, and the remaining 20 per cent was for fuel and rent.

In 1991, the Supreme Court ruled in a case (Unni vs Kerala Tiles) that schooling and sudden or unexpected expenditures due to death, marriage, or births should also be considered while determining the minimum wage and that 25 per cent of the minimum wage should be set aside for these items.

The minimum wage at present comprises food and clothing to cover 55 per cent of the total, fuel and rent to cover 20 per cent, and unexpected expenditures 25 per cent. A key aspect of the minimum wage is that it is non-negotiable. If an employer cannot pay the minimum wage, s/he should not employ labour. It was decided that the states would periodically notify the need-based minimum wage based on the above components and this would be mandatory for all employers within their jurisdiction.

If one takes each of these items at market value, the minimum wage would be fairly ‘decent’, enabling a family to live with dignity and possibly promoting the all-round welfare of the dependent members. In other words, children in the family would be able to have a decent schooling and women too would get some benefits.

However, the actual minimum wage has never been decided. Right from the beginning, the states tried to cut corners by lowering some requirements. For example, they claimed that 3000 calories was too high for India, where the climatic conditions did not demand it (in cold countries, the calorie intake is higher). Hence, this was reduced to 2700 and subsequently to 2200 calories; in other words, the amount of cereals was slashed. The rent and other expenses were also lowered considerably.

The resultant need-based minimum wage was not sufficient to fulfill the needs of the family. What was worse was that most employers, especially those in the informal sector, openly violated payment of even the revised and lowered stipulated minimum wages, and hardly any action was taken because in most cases the workers, to whom the minimum wages were paid were unorganised and helpless. Had they been unionised, they would have either collectively demanded proper wages or they could have complained of the violations to the authorities.

In addition to receiving a decent wage, employment would also include protection against accidents, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions and long hours of work. In other words, a minimum wage is given on the basis of the working day. In India, this is eight hours per day.

One can see that there is another form of violation of minimum wages by extending the working day. For example, if an owner of a small industrial unit decides to pay the notified minimum wage, but makes a man work more than eight hours, he is effectively depriving him of his minimum wage; if that worker works for ten hours in a day, he is working for two hours without remuneration.

Therefore, besides earning a wage that would take care of the minimum needs of the family, it is also essential to note that the working hours should be in congruence with the prescribed maximum hours of work, or else this would mean a cut in wages.

Along with the factors discussed above, namely, need-based minimum wage, protection against disease, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, and fixed working hours, a worker also requires a degree of social security. This includes a savings fund which could be used for unforeseen expenses or which could be given after retirement, known as the provident fund.

There could be other benefits such as health insurance and a pension after retirement. It is possible that all employers may not be in a position to bear the costs of all these facilities. Small industries operate on small profit margins, which do not leave much scope for pursuing welfare activities.

It is necessary for the state to step in and ensure some form of social security for all workers. If this is done, work will become a source of dignity and satisfaction for the worker. We shall discuss social security/ protection in more detail in the next section.

Just as we raised the issue of employers and their inability to bear the above costs, the state too, may face similar problems. Developing countries do have financial crunches. However, it is not so much the funding but the way the policies are formulated that is the main issue.

If policies are directed towards growth and employment rather than on growth alone, it would be possible to increase employment along with economic growth. In India, though we have achieved high growth rates of 8 to 10 per cent per annum, there is still a wide gap between the poor and the rich.

Hence, it is clear that growth itself cannot solve the problems of the working poor. Policies directed towards the uplift of the working classes are more important, because only then can we hope to bridge this huge gap.

Skill formation is another aspect of employment. Merely ensuring that work is available is not sufficient. It is necessary that the working class not only works efficiently but is in a position to upgrade its skills to meet the changing technological needs of the day. Skill training for workers also promotes flexible labour.

This means that workers develop multiple skills. Hence, if workers in a particular industry face imminent unemployment because the products manufactured in this industry have become outdated or the demand has fallen, they can be redeployed in other industries provided they have the minimum skills. It is seen that employment is better in countries where labour is flexible.

Another significant aspect involves gender and employment. The problems of women workers were overlooked in industrial employment. It was projected that industrial work was male-oriented and unsuitable for women. This has been proved to be a myth because women have worked in industries when the level of technology was low and there was greater emphasis on physical labour.

At that time, it was not deemed that factory work was a male bastion. Labour- intensive factories required the inputs of males, females and children. Later, as working conditions improved due to technological change and the need for labour decreased, women were excluded from the permanent labour force in factories.

Matters became worsened when many countries, under the guidelines of an ILO convention, banned women from working at night in factories. It was felt that this would be unsafe for women though they were never consulted about this.

In developing countries like India, we find that women are largely concentrated in informal sector employment. It is estimated that only one of out every four working males and one out of every seven females are engaged in the formal sector. Women comprise roughly one third of the total employment in the informal sector. If any country is truly concerned with Decent Work, its priority should be on ensuring gender-friendly employment as opposed to open or disguised discrimination against employment of women.

Social Protection:

Normally people, especially the vulnerable sections, have much insecurity in their daily lives. For the working class, the main insecurity results from work, and if one is not a permanent worker, it concerns whether work would be available the next day. In India, workers in the informal sector face this type of uncertainty and there is no security for them.

On the other hand, workers in the formal sector are covered by a range of legislation that protects their employment and provides them benefits for unforeseen events such as illness, accident, death, and so on. These workers also have some financial benefits after they retire from work. This could be in the form of a lumpsum payment as provident fund or pension. Their wages are also protected through dearness allowance in the event of rise in prices.

Workers in the informal sector, who as mentioned earlier form the overwhelming majority (93 per cent) of the working class, do not have most of these benefits. Hence, even if an informal sector worker is able to get a high wage because of his skills or any other reason, if he or a member of his family has a major illness or meets with an accident, the hospitalisation costs would push him below the poverty line. When this worker is old and unable to work, he gets-no benefits. Therefore, he has to depend solely on his savings or on the income of his children.

Social protection for workers in informal employment has to be provided by the state or through other forms of mutual aid societies. Of late, the state has tried to provide some social security benefits to these workers such as an insurance scheme for illness or death.

Before liberalisation, health facilities were available without cost to this section of the population from the government or municipal hospitals. However after liberalisation, government hospitals started charging fees, albeit moderate, for hospitalisation, operations and other major medical treatments.

Social protection is not restricted to health facilities. Its purpose is to provide security against a variety of contingencies and vulnerabilities, including ill health, maternity needs, accidents, unemployment, destitution, extreme economic fluctuations, natural disasters, and civil strife. In developed countries, the working population has some form of insurance against unemployment.

In many cases, when jobs are lost or when one’s business collapses because of extreme economic fluctuations, the state in the developed countries steps in to provide some relief. Most of the governments in Europe provide stipends to the newly unemployed for a specific period so that they are not left destitute; these stipends are expected to help provide a person with his basic needs till he finds a job. Most developing countries do not provide such benefits.

In the case of natural disasters, one finds that all governments provide some relief to their citizens after the event takes place. In most cases when these disasters take place in the developing countries, the international community too comes forward to help. We can see this in the case of major earthquakes which lead to mass destruction of life and property.

The devastating tsunami of 2004 badly affected a number of less developed countries such as India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. While India refused to take any aid from other countries, countries like Sri Lanka appealed to the international community for help.

In the case of civil conflicts like communal or caste riots in India, the government comes forward and tries to provide some relief to the affected people. In the case of civil war, the international community may step up to help one of the sides affected.

In most countries, orphaned and abandoned children are taken care of by the state in orphanages opened for the purpose. In some of the developed countries, single mothers are also provided support by the state. This could happen in the case of unmarried young women, especially teenagers.

There could be female-headed households where the husband has either died or has abandoned his wife. Women by and large tend to earn less than men and hence a single-earning mother finds it difficult to run the household and provide proper facilities for her children. In some countries, such women are provided monetary assistance by the state. In India, they, as also destitute widows, are provided some assistance through the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana.

In India, the government provides a meagre old-age pension for those in the rural areas so that they can tide over their financial disabilities. The disabled too, are given some form of protection though not as much as one sees in the developed countries. The government provides reservations for disabled people.

However, in our country, public transport such as buses and trains are not disabled-friendly, and a woman who has lost her legs will find it difficult to board them. Providing assistance to the disabled requires some sensitivity in the government as seen in the developed countries. Such facilities could also be a result of a social movement of the disabled.

This happened in some African countries that faced internal strife and as a result many people lost their limbs. In Uganda, for instance, there is a strong movement of the disabled which forced the state to provide facilities and also pecuniary benefits for the victims.

Social protection should not be restricted only to the employed but to all sections of the population. Only then can one talk about the feasibility of Decent Work. The ILO has laid stress on this. The ILO intends to focus on the issue of social protection in its policy debates in the near future, insisting on governments across the globe to design social protection systems to protect labour markets against external shocks.

It is important to uncover the impediments to the provision of and access to social security for a bulk of the population. More importantly, it is also crucial to identify the role of trade unions and membership-based organisations in extending the scope and coverage of social security programmes in India today.

Strategic Elements in Social Protection:

Traditionally, social protection was provided by the family, clan members, charitable institutions, employers and local authorities. In India, it has been common for the elders to expect that their children would look after them in old age. Even in the case of major illnesses, health, kinsfolk usually come forward to provide financial aid for treatment.

This means that when a person is rendered destitute due to financial problems, ill health or any other reason for no fault of her/his own, the responsibility to help lay with the family and the kinsfolk. This is in fact a pre-industrial form of reasoning and it arises because the state does not provide support in such cases. Provision of support to parents by their children is a noble act but it cannot be a basis for social protection.

In modern times, this gesture would be seen as a mark of affection rather than an obligation. The obligation to protect the vulnerable lies with the state and it cannot shy away from its duties by encouraging kinsfolk to take up its tasks. A controversial issue is that of the legal obligation of children to take care of their parents.

In India, there is a law that allows destitute parents to appeal in the court of law in case their children do not take care of them; the law further states that if the earning sons refuse to allow their parents to live with them once they are old they have an obligation of providing them monetary help of at least Rs 5000 per month.

This could, on the one hand, be taken as a positive aspect of the state to force erring sons to take up their responsibility of caring for their aged parents but on the other hand, it can be viewed as a means through which the state tries to shirk its own responsibilities. In this case, it may have social support because in traditional societies such as India, the young are expected to take care of the old.

There are three interrelated issues concerning social protection. Firstly, what should be the coverage of a social protection scheme? In other words, how much social protection should be granted by the state? We have seen above that in India, the state tries its best to reduce social security to cover the least ground. In more developed countries, social security generally has greater coverage that affects almost all aspects of a person’s life.

The second issue involves providing the organisational and institutional means of social protection. In many developing countries, there may be laws or even schemes to cover a large section of the population but they may fail because of a lack of institutional arrangements. For example, there is a scheme in India for pension for old peasants. How far has this been availed of by these people? The answer is, maybe not much.

The failure lies in the fact that the institutions that are supposed to provide this support (offices of the district, sub-division and panchayat) have neither the requisite manpower nor the capacity to collect information on this section of the rural population. This is more acute in the case of the disabled in rural areas or in small towns.

There is a measure of support given to these people, but it requires a live register of the disabled, or else, the concerned authorities have no means of knowing the amount of expenditure under this head. Such a system of registration is yet to take place in India.

The third aspect is that of arrangements for financial support. We will discuss this in more detail in the following section.

The priorities for social protection may differ across countries. In the richer countries, social protection may centre on unemployment benefits, pension, compensation for accidents and problems caused by changes in work patterns. Some countries provide support to people who want to change their careers in the middle of their lives.

For example, a person who is an economist may want to become a social worker because in a period of economic fluctuation, there are better jobs in the latter. In such cases, the state provides help and financial assistance for taking up a new career.

However in these countries too, with the intensification of globalisation there is a tendency to cut down on social protection. The plea is that the state through public funding cannot provide for a wide range of social protection activities. There is also a tendency to encourage the private sector to start schemes for social protection, mainly in the insurance sector.

The issues before developing countries may be somewhat different. As mentioned earlier, many of these countries depend on family and kinship for the basic provisions of social protection. The state therefore tries to concentrate on how to provide some form of support to the poor and the destitute. The focus is on access to food and nutrition, drinking water, primary health, sanitation and shelter.

Another important aspect is that of livelihood. We have seen that in India after liberalisation, the state has withdrawn from offering many of these benefits. These mainly concern health and hygiene. The issue of access to potable drinking water is directly related to health because 80 per cent of the common illnesses are water-borne.

The state has taken some important strides on the issue of livelihood and nutrition. The MGNREGS (now MGNREGA) is an example of the way in which the state is trying to help in the livelihood issue. Another scheme, which is hotly debated, is on providing 35 kgs of food grains to every family that lives below the poverty line.

The debate mainly is on whether a poor country like India can afford to distribute food grains at subsidised rates to a large section of its population. The costs for this would be huge, some critics argue. This excess spending could lead to inflation and higher prices for other sections of the population.

We will not debate on the merits of these views, but the basic fact is that if the working poor get proper nutrition, they will be able to work better, and labour productivity will increase. This will in turn boost the economy and offset the deficits faced by the scheme. A hungry population cannot be a productive population. Hence we can see that social protection should not be seen as a mere mark of charity offered by the state. Rather, it is an absolute necessity to ensure a healthy population which in turn would ensure a prosperous country.

Social Dialogue:

An important component of Decent Work over and above productive work under conditions of freedom, equity and dignity is the right to negotiate. Hence, after workers’ rights, employment and social protection, the fourth component of Decent Work is social dialogue. This deals with the importance of negotiations. Social dialogue stresses the need for both sides, employee and employer, to discuss problems that arise from work. They can find solutions to these problems together. Social dialogue, therefore, helps in avoiding confrontation and builds up means for peaceful solutions.

From the workers’ point of view, social dialogue provides a voice and representation to the participants in the production process. It is the means to defend their interests and articulate their concerns and priorities and to engage in negotiations with other actors in the production/distribution system.

The work situation is not easy to understand as it is highly diverse. The most commonly understood situation is of wage work in formal employment. But this is not all, for there are several other situations. Moreover, in India only about 8 per cent of the workforce is in formal employment, the rest being in informal employment. It is not merely in countries like India, but even in developed countries that we observe this trend of rise in informal employment. There are large sections of self-employed low-income earners in these countries, most of whom are migrants.

Informal employment includes part-time employment, casual labour, day-labourers (such as street corner workers) and the self- employed. Industrial relations is only one of the means for engaging in social dialogue and in most cases, it applies to formal employment.

There are a large number of workers, who do not have institutional representation, i.e., they do not have organisations to represent their cases. These include home-based workers, street vendors, domestic workers, casual labourers, etc. Some of these trades, such as street vending, may be considered illegal and the state does not bother to even listen to their problems.

There are others such as domestic workers and home-based workers, who are large in number but are invisible and hence, the state may overlook their problems. It is in these cases that institutional representation is most needed.

The idea of social dialogue means that the state or the employers must enter into negotiations with these sections of the working class. They cannot be forced into doing so, but they can certainly be convinced that negotiations help in easing tensions in the earlier sections, we have mentioned that social dialogue will differ in terms of institutional representation. There are sectors that have institutional representation but there are others who do not have such representation. Let us deal with each separately so that we can understand the problems of each.

The dominant mode of representation can be found in the formal sector Trade unions are representative bodies of the workers and they can play a major role in social dialogue. At the same time, it is necessary to realise that negotiating through the union is not the only means of dialogue. A lot depends upon the framework of collective bargaining. There could be a works committee that decides on certain issues and it is a part of social dialogue. Similarly, joint management councils could be another version of social dialogue.

The most important mode of social dialogue is through the legal framework. This is where there could be some differences between countries. Their laws regarding industrial relations may differ.

In India, laws such as the ID Act of 1947, Factories Act of 1948, Shops and Establishments Act of various state governments, Provident Fund Act of 1952, Payment of Gratuity Act of 1972, Payment of Wages Act of 1936, Minimum Wages Act of 1948, and decisions of the Indian Labour Conference provide the framework for social dialogue.

There are different types of negotiations in the dominant model. These normally centre around how best the above-mentioned laws/ rights can be realised. For example, besides direct negotiations through representation or trade unions, there could be other bodies which help in this process.

For example, the ID Act, 1947, provides for works committees in every factory having 100 or more workers. This committee has equal representation of management and workers, and it decides on issues relating to working conditions in the factory (lighting, safety, cleanliness, hygiene, etc.), functioning of the canteens, and declaration of holidays, among other issues.

The Act also mentions that no issue relating to trade unions should be discussed by these committees. In other words, works committees cannot replace a trade union, though they can work alongside it. Other such models could be joint management councils which are a part of workers’ participation in management.

Most public sector factories have these bodies. Here again, there is equal representation from both sides. These bodies discuss issues relating to labour and management. It could deal with issues of productivity and how to raise it, and how to improve working conditions, among other issues.

Workers in the informal employment sector do not have the same type of legal protection as their formal sector counterparts. There are very few laws that protect these workers and there is no serious attempt by the state to promote institutional representation so that these workers can collectively articulate their problems.

Social dialogue must accommodate the different production systems and organisational arrangements. It cannot reflect the views of merely one section of the workforce. On looking at the diversities in the workforce, it is clear that it does not have a common objective. The priorities may differ for different sections.

For example, if we take a work situation such as a factory or an office, which employs a large number of men and women, we can notice these differences. For men, better pay, better working conditions and perhaps more overtime payment which increases their total pay may be the priorities. For women, however, flexible working hours which give them time for household and childcare responsibilities, maternity leave, and childcare facilities and separate toilets at the workplace could be more important.

For women in informal employment, the priority may be remuneration as this is crucial to run their households. A domestic worker may be keen to have a law which protects her wages and allows her some leave to attend to her responsibilities at home. For home- based workers, remuneration would certainly be important, as also access to institutional credit, raw materials, marketing, training, etc.

The self-employed, on the other hand, may have different problems which may be widely divergent. This section comprises a wide variety of trades/ professions. On the one hand, there are highly paid lawyers, doctors, consultants, etc., and on the other hand, there are small entrepreneurs owning small manufacturing units or street vendors. The needs may be different for these sections.

For the former, issues of tax concessions or simplification of tax payments may have priority, whereas for the latter, access to public space, security of tenure, institutional credit facilities, skill development and training, and freedom from bribe-seeking officials may be more important. Social dialogue has to take into account all these situations.

There could be a diversity of organisations that could provide platforms for social dialogue. These could be cooperatives that are formed to provide uplift for marginalised workers, self-help groups, trade unions and other forms of associations like those of micro- entrepreneurs and other associations that may engage in mobilising people so that they can collectively articulate their interests through these institutions. The key to successful social dialogue is the state’s encouragement to form associations of different types for negotiations.

This would empower the marginal sections so as to give them a voice. Freedom of association, which is a fundamental right, granted by the Constitution of India, does not merely mean allowing people to form associations. It also implies that the state must create conditions which would encourage their formation.