As economies around the world struggle to recover from the double whammy of a pandemic and a lockdown, unemployment is soaring.
In India, the land of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the promise of jobs and the politics of unemployment have a long history.
Can a citizen demand work as a right, and is it the state’s responsibility to provide employment?
What is the legal status of the right to work internationally and in India?
The Right to work was a big topic of discussion after World War II, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to work in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In India, we don’t have a constitutional right to work. But what we do have is MGNREGA.
This is a step in the direction of a right to work, but it is a statutory right. Under MGNREGA, a person can hold the state accountable for not fulfilling the right by demanding an unemployment allowance.
But if the law is amended or withdrawn, the right vanishes.
Implementation of Right to Work in India:
India has been seeing a declining jobs-to-GDP ratio, and mostly jobless growth, with labour also subject to the laws of the market.
It is precisely under these circumstances that this right becomes important. The term ‘Right to work’ is often used in the context of unemployment or lack of availability of work.
But there is also another sense of it, which is the right to earn my livelihood without any obstruction.
In both these senses, what we have seen in the past few decades is that the path of development not only does not create adequate employment opportunities, it also actively dispossesses or displaces people from their means of livelihood.
So, on the one hand, displacement and dispossession, and on the other, failure to create new jobs make it all the more important to imagine the right to work in a creative way and make it legally enforceable.
Present Worker Rights in India:
- Protective labour laws existed in India, they apply to a minuscule sliver of the labour force, say, people in permanent government jobs.
- For the rest, there is very little legal protection, very poor awareness of the protections that exist, and weak implementation.
- So, given the constraints in state capacity when it comes to enforcing labour laws, tightening the labour market is a great way to ensure that workers are treated well.
- A good employment guarantee programme would function as far as the rights ‘in work’ are concerned.
- If the state steps in and significantly reduces the surplus labour, particularly in the casual market, it automatically creates the conditions for better treatment of workers.
How exactly do we make the right to work, work?
- One approach is Decentralised Urban Employment and Training, or DUET, which has been around for some time.
- The idea here, like with MGNREGA, is to create new employment opportunities so that those who are unemployed may be gainfully employed and earn a dignified living.
- This dignity is supposed to come from work conditions, such as being paid a fair wage and having regulated work hours, and also from the social value of the work that people do useful things such as repairing school buildings, cleaning parks, and so on.
- For DUET, urban local bodies can issue job vouchers to certified public institutions such as schools and universities for pre-approved tasks.
- These institutions can only use the vouchers to hire labour for pre-defined tasks — e.g. painting school buildings, repairing broken furniture, and so on.
- A whole range of skills can be accommodated. So, this is a workable agenda, but to make it workable, we need not only politically will, but also fiscal resources.
- The right to work is not only about lack of adequate work but also the profound lack of public goods and assets, in urban India generally.
- It is the state’s responsibility to provide these public goods, and this imperative can be combined with an employment creation programme just like MGNREGA does in rural areas.
- In MGNREGA too, the asset creation part is often under-emphasised, and it would be good to bring both these things together through an urban employment guarantee.
- Interestingly, three States- Odisha, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh have launched something along these lines in the wake of COVID-19.
- There are bits of these policies that could be used if we wanted to try it out on a national scale.
- Together with MGNREGA, an Urban Employment Guarantee can be a very important piece of the puzzle, on the way to ensuring the right to work.
In this context, people often cite the example of Thailand, which has a universal basic healthcare system that is Labour-Intensive.
It solves two problems at the same time: it builds social infrastructure, and creates jobs.
Is this something India can adopt?
Absolutely. It is incumbent on the state to provide basic services such as health, education and housing, and in providing them, employment is generated.
There may be some disagreement on whether it is the state itself that should provide, or if there should be room for private provisioning.
We are nowhere near countries that are comparable in GDP per capita, such as Vietnam, and countries that spend much more on public goods as a percentage of their GDP. We should do that. That will create jobs.
The government has whittled down 44 labour laws into four labour codes that labour organisations have criticised as a dilution of workers’ rights.
Just to connect this to what we were saying about employment guarantee earlier, an effective employment guarantee programme can be an excellent solution to the structural weakness of labour.
So, given the constraints in state capacity when it comes to enforcing labour laws, tightening the labour market is a great way to ensure that workers are treated well.
If the state steps in and significantly reduces the surplus labour, particularly in the casual market, it automatically creates the conditions for better treatment of workers.
The right to work essentially plays into capitalism and the work ethic, the right to work is the right to be exploited by capital. And that is a perfectly fair point of view.
If you are really looking at the future of humanity, then one cannot take a narrow perspective.
Work should be fulfilling, work should be creative, and work has to be put in its place, which is hopefully a very small place.