India's 'invisible' workers march for better pay, job security

by Annie Banerji | @anniebanerji | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 1 February 2019 15:03 GMT

Informal workers protest for social security benefits at a rally in New Delhi, India on February 1, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji

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Almost 90 percent of the labour force works in the informal sector with no security, low wages and little or no benefits

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI, Feb 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of workers rallied in the Indian capital to demand fair wages, job security and other benefits on Friday as the government presented its last budget before a general election.

Construction workers, farm labourers and sex workers came together to demand change in a country where almost 90 percent of the labour force works in the informal sector with no security, low wages and little or no benefits.

"I don't get any days off even if the children or I fall sick, otherwise my employers threaten to cut my salary for that month," Sunila, a domestic worker who goes by one name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"There is no respect, there is no security for us. We are almost invisible, but we have come here to change that," said the mother-of-four, who makes 5,000 rupees ($70) a month.

The protest came as an official survey withheld by the government reportedly showed India's unemployment rate rose to its highest level in at least 45 years in 2017/18.

The report in the Business Standard newspaper sparked criticism of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi months before a general election.

The Working People's Charter, a collective that works on informal labour, said at least 1,500 people turned out for the protest, where many also said they had lost homes in slum demolitions and land seizures in the name of development.

Others protested against long hours, poor and late pay and a lack of medical benefits or maternity provisions.

The government, which came to office in 2014 promising to provide jobs for a burgeoning youth population, announced extra money for farmers and a rural jobs programme in its last budget before a general election due by May.

It also announced a pension scheme for informal workers who earn below 15,000 rupees ($210) a month and said it would provide a monthly pension of 3,000 rupees, with a contribution of 100 rupees, for workers after age 60.

Chandan Kumar of the Working People's Charter said such contribution-based schemes should be treated as add-ons and "should not form the core of the social security programme".

Gokhal, a 70-year-old retired farm labourer, dismissed the pension programme.

"This government keeps promising things, but never delivers. If they did, I wouldn't be sitting here right now," he said.

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi's government has announced plans for social security programmes for workers. But labour rights experts said authorities needed first to improve implementation of existing laws for informal workers.

Ajay Tewari, a senior official in India's labour and employment ministry, said the first challenge was to identify all such workers, and a headcount was currently underway.

($1 = 71.0420 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Additional reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj in Chennai, Editing by Claire Cozens; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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