By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, April 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A "historic" move to raise the minimum wage of millions of Delhi's poorest workers by almost 40 percent should be extended to other parts of the country to fight exploitation, trade unions and rights groups said on Tuesday.
The ruling Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi hiked the minimum wage rate for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers by 37 percent last month - making the capital the highest minimum wage provider to India's working class population.
Activists said of India's 36 states and union territories, Delhi was the only one to follow through on recommendations made by the labour ministry in 1957 and the Supreme Court in 1991 that states review minimum wage rates at least every five years.
"The Delhi government has shown the will to bring about a positive change in the lives of our workforce," said Anurag Saxena from the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, a national movement with a membership of over three million workers.
"We hope that other states will follow too," he added.
Activists called on the Delhi government to now focus on introducing legislation to punish employers found to be paying less than the minimum wage, saying this amounted to forced labour and required strict penalties.
Minimum wage rates in India are determined by both federal and state authorities and apply to 45 professions - including agricultural workers, miners, construction workers, government cleaners and security guards.
The rates - which are based on the cost of housing, clothes, food, education and electricity - vary across states, but have remained grossly inadequate for decades, say trade unionists.
The wage hike in Delhi applies to the National Capital Territory, which includes the capital and its environs - and covers a population of more than 16 million people, many of whom work in low wage jobs.
Under the new rules which came into effect on March 3, an unskilled worker will be entitled to a monthly salary of 13,350 rupees ($205), a semi-skilled worker 14,698 rupees ($225) and a skilled labourer 16,183 rupees ($250).
"That it took us nearly 60 years to implement those recommendations is quite telling on the treatment meted out to our country's workforce," said Ramendra Kumar from the Trade Union Coordination Centre.
($1 = 65.1000 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)