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Wage non-payment may 'institutionalise' bonded labour: Appeal to monitor industries

By Our Representative
The Working Peoples’ Charter (WPC), a civil society network claiming to represent more than 150 provincial and local organizations of informal workers, has asked workers’ organizations across the country to identify industries, establishments and enterprises, as also their geographical location, where wage workers “are not paid wages" or where wages have been "withheld.”
In an open appeal, WPC, which “envisions” that every worker has a right to work and quality employment, also seeks information from all concerned in order to compile data of whether there are any layoffs, retrenchments and closure of industry due to wage related demands, and also how many self-employed, including daily wage workers, home-based workers, domestic workers, street vendors need guaranteed income support.
The appeal, sent as an email alert to Counterview, says WPC, follows “collective efforts” on legal intervention in the Supreme Court and high courts to implement their recent orders. Initially, if those who had approached High Courts did receive some level of relief, the efforts made at the apex court-level did not yield “any concrete result”. In fact, “Most petitions either got adjourned or disposed of.”
However, says WPC, the crisis that arose due to the Covid lockdown forced the government and the judiciary to take cognizance. It was clear that the Central government itself had failed to defend its own directions to protect wage theft, though subsequently, the employer-backed Ficus Pax Private Limited challenged the government order, expressing inability to pay wages.
The result, says WPC, was “a half-hearted order”, in which the court was seen “washing off” its hands, refusing to take any position. “The court just asked employees and employers to sit together and find a solution”, WPC notes, adding, as for the Central government it “could not even defend their own position/directive.”
Calling the “entire process a gross violation of multiple Supreme Court jurisprudence and labour laws”, WPC warns, “It might lead to institutionalising a bonded labour system.” It adds, “It is important that the working class movement must come together and help the apex court to implement its own order. The court must direct those establishments which have sufficient capital/reserve to pay wages to all the workers for the period of lockdown.” 
According to WPC, “Those industries (MSMEs) who claim to not have sufficient capital must produce their balance sheet to support their claim. And for such industries the government of India must come out with a policy prescribing financial subsidy for them. This will definitely help the workers, industry and bring the economy back on track.”
It is important that working class movement comes together and helps the apex court to implement its orders to support workers
Pointing out that “similar efforts are being taken around the world, including lower income countries”, WPC asserts, “In the case of self-employed/daily wagers, the government must play the role of principal employer and pay floor level minimum wages as prescribed in the newly legislated ' Wage Code Act 2019'. The benchmark should be at par with the ministry of labour expert committee recommendation Rs 375. This should be treated as guaranteed income.”
Just like the apex court taking up the issue of workers’ wages, following a number of deaths across the country not due to Covid, but state negligence, when 20 senior lawyers of the Supreme Court and high courts wrote to the Chief Justice of India and sought immediate intervention, the outcome was, “The apex court took up the matter of migrant workers as suo moto on May 27.”
Even as qualifying the apex court’s second intervention asking the Centre and state governments to ensure that the migrant workers reach their destination within 15 days “too little, too late”, WPC recognises, it directed “steps for identification of stranded migrant workers who are willing to return back to their native place, and take all steps for their return journey.”
Yet, says WPC, the fact is, the apex court took for granted the Centre’s submissions that Shramik trains provided food and water. “Numerous reports have shown that the trains are grossly lacking in basic hygiene, and had absolutely no food available. There are reports suggesting several deaths on board the trains, including nine workers dying in a single day.”
Similarly, the apex court also “took for granted” the Bihar, UP and other state governments’ claims of paying each migrant worker journeying to their native place an amount of Rs 1,000. Yet, “there is no proof to suggest the Shramik trains have been free of cost. Multiple reports have shown that workers are charged for the train ticket prices.”
Continues WPC, at the same time, the apex court “failed to ask for data or probe further into the states’ submissions that many workers had rejoined their prior places of employment." While providing statistics for the number of workers allegedly sent back home, "the states provided no genuine assessment of the workers who stayed or rejoined.”
Taking the two court orders into account, several lawyers and organisations working with informal labourers* formed a group to “help” implement the orders by seeking and updating necessary information from whatever sources possible, including by filing Right to Information (RTI) pleas seeking the status of implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act during and before the lockdown.
Simultaneously, the group decided to seeking action taken on withdrawal of cases against workers, as directed by the Supreme Court, even as making representation to local district magistrates/ collector for withdrawal of the cases against workers.
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*Senior advocates Gayatri Singh, Indira Jaisingh, Anand Grover, Colin Gonsalves, Prashant Bhushan, Dinesh Dwivedi, Sanjay Parikh; unions/groups/researcher including Sarvahara Jan Andolan, Angmehnati Kashtakari Sangharsh Samiti, Aajeevika Bureau, MKSS, NCCEBL, NAPM, SWAN, NHF, HRLN, YUVA, NLU Bangalore, Ravi Srivastava, Harsh Mander, Gautam Bhan, Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan, Rahul Sapkaal

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