Opinion

The plight of Manual Laborers in India


I had registered for the blog action day and was wondering how I could show my solidarity to this noble initiative.
But then , an article in Hindu  grabbed my attention this morning and took me by surprise.

“The Global Slavery Index 2013 said India had 14 million people living in conditions of slavery, the highest number worldwide”

Slavery? In India?

My first reaction was to wonder how? A democratic country it is, one of the largest in the whole world!

But then as I continued reading the article said

“Victims are captured or kidnapped before being sold or kept for exploitation, whether through ‘marriage”, unpaid labour on fishing boats, or as domestic workers. Others are tricked and lured into situations they cannot escape, with false promises of a good job or an education”

Exploitation of manual workers in India , that is indeed a violation of human rights !!

Poverty is not anything unheard of in India or any other third world country.It is ugly, it is horrific and it is NOT just a STATE OF MIND!! The want of basics things like food,clothes,shelter prompts a person to do anything, anything!How cruel is it to exploit their helplessness and convert them into slaves, by denying their right for a decent payment ?

Few days back, I heard a news on Surya TV, one prominent Malayalam TV channel,which sited that migrant manual workers who were involved in a government funded Project in Kerala were denied proper wages for around two whole years. The news also highlighted how the higher officials who supervised the work spend around 1 crore on their luxurious stay and sumptuous meals in a 5 star hotel, even when a government guest house was available near by.

How unfair ! Can this be called Slavery?  May not be in the actual sense,the workers might be free to walk out of the job(if they were not forced in to any illegal bonds, which i suspect was not the case since it was a government contract) .But then I can guess the level of their necessity for a job that forced them to cling on to this under paid job for this long.

I just googled to see if I can  find a link for concerned piece of news and was surprised to stumble up on number of similar incidents that were reported within past 6-7 years.

“It is cruel and insulting to deny eligible wages to workers after making them work day and night. It was because of the starvation which they faced in their home state that they came to Kerala in search of work and livelihood.Making them work without wages amounted to exploiting their poverty and helplessness

Sites this this article, again on Hindu quoting Kerala State Human Rights Commission member Justice V.P. Mohan Kumar.

The government had introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on 25 August 2005 to ensure a steady source of income for manual unskilled laborers in rural India.
This is what the official site of NREGA states

“The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act aims at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas by guaranteeing hundred days of wage-employment in a financial year to a rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.”

A good initiative indeed. But then how effective is it?

Let us look at this article that was published in ET

“In spite of NREGA work being measured, most workers are underpaid, with people having been paid as little as 1 per day (in Tonk, Rajasthan). Average wages paid across the country are well below the statutory minimum wage. Getting acknowledgements for work applications is very difficult, and the unemployment allowance is a pipe dream.”

(Please read through the above article as it explores more details in it)

And to take this to one step ahead, I found yet another piece of news which claims about a corruption in the work of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREG)  that had led to the suicide of 4 workers.

All these makes us all wonder on how much help did these government policies actually managed to provide and how much improvement has been  actually bestowed on these unfortunate people!

We have a The Minimum Wages Act in our legislation.The range of minimum wages for different states can be viewed here

42% of all wage earners in India receive wages below the national minimum wage floor rate. The data used for these statistics includes half of casual laborers and 1/4th of those salaried. Female workers and those in rural areas are more likely to be paid below a minimum wage. Those who are illiterate or have no mid-level education are most likely to be paid below a minimum wage“, however, quotes the same article.

Well what could be the reason? Our large population and the large unemployment ratios sure accounts for this condition to a large extend.

But then lack of awareness among the workers on the minimum wage that they are entitled to and the delays and inaction of the government appointed regulatory committees also plays a  significant part.

Yet another reason , which in itself is more adverse, is Debt-Bondage-labor. Extreme poverty and the absence of any alternative credit source forces thousands to indulge in Debt -bondage-labor where in cheap labor is promised in exchange of monetary loans.

“Bonded labor was legally abolished in India in 1976 but it remains prevalent, with weak enforcement of the law by state governments. Estimates of the problem vary. Official figures include a 1993 estimate of 251,000 bonded laborers[1] while BMM says there are 65 million bonded child laborers, and a larger number of adults. A 2003 project by Human Rights Watch has reported a major problem with bonded child labor in the silk industry”
Says Wikipedia.

The bondage forces laborers to work for less wages and do not allow them to work elsewhere.The laborers are literally ‘snarled and threatened‘ by their employers and , due to the lack of knowledge about the legal sides of such contracts and the non existence of any approachable government institutions for help , are forced to endure the injustice in silence without any hope for an escape.

Manual labor perhaps is never treated with dignity in our country and manual laborers are often subjected to insults, under pay, dangerous work environments and grave exploitation.
Women laborers working in construction sites in India ‘may carry single loads of up to 51 kilos, far more than the weight limit recommended by occupational safety and health standards for women‘ says a study.

Such unsafe work patterns might cost them their heath and inability to work would doom them into graver conditions of poverty.

Yet another heart breaking ordeal of migrant manual laborers can be viewed here which accounts how a huge number of migrant workers in Kerala  ends up in jails or mental institutions because of the inability to argue their case.

“In the last six months alone, 125 migrant workers from the North and the Northeast have landed in various jails in Kerala. And since 2011, 65 workers of Bangladeshi origin have been in jail, mostly for illegal migration. Some of them face charges ranging from murder to theft, but most were arrested for allegedly causing a public nuisance. Besides, their unfamiliar mannerisms and inability to respond to queries have been known to raise suspicions that they are mentally unsound. Locals have complained and police have picked them up from public places and produced them in courts, which have sent them to mental hospitals.Many of those arrested are innocent, a fact conceded by additional-director general of police (prisons) Alexander Jacob, who adds the lack of familiarity with the local language means they often find no one to argue their case, while being picked up and in court.

Ah..a sad story it is, right?

As aptly put in this article

“Contemporary positive law should discard the ancient prejudice against physical labor and affirm the inherent 
dignity of labor. Furthermore, a manual labor ethic should be universalized and incorporated 
into primary and secondary education, so that children develop a respect for manual labor in 
their formative years”

We have to honor the fact that every form of job has its own importance and every human being has the right to get paid fairly for the job they do, the right to get at least the minimum wages as sited by the law and the right to opt out of a underpaid job and refuse to work under dangerous environments.

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2 thoughts on “The plight of Manual Laborers in India

  1. You have highlighted a very significant issue, which otherwise is not given much attention. Slavery of any form is a violation of human rights. It happens in almost all corners of the world. Poverty as you mentioned is the reason for their helplessness and there are so many who take advantage of their situation. I wonder what kind of a soul does these people have, who have the urge to eat up the deserved wages of the laborers. Where will they dump all these sins?

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