Livemint – Risk death for Rs250 a day? Modi needs to do more for labour revival

(Written by Anurag Kotoky)

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13 May 2015 - India’s labour laws cover only a small percentage of the workforce, and its social safety net is far behind China’s

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new deal to boost the economy has a simple logic: Cheap labour lures companies from high cost nations, and new jobs will improve the lives of millions of poor villagers. The ground reality shows how difficult the task will be.

At Alang, the world’s biggest shipbreaking yard in Gujarat, workers earn about Rs.250 daily standing in 100 degrees Fahrenheit heat for 12 hours to cut vessels. Migrants from the heartland’s poorest states, the labourers are often unaware of their rights, but very aware of their risks—death, which often eliminates a family’s sole bread winner.

India’s labour laws cover only a small percentage of the workforce, and its social safety net is far behind China’s, where migrant workers’ lives have gotten better by making Nike Inc. shoes and Apple Inc. iPads. Policies of Modi—completing his first year in power—risk enriching tycoons while failing to improve the lives of the one in four Indians who live on less than Rs.75 per day, labour activists say.

“If you want to make India a powerful manufacturing base, you must simultaneously improve the conditions of labour,” said Colin Gonsalves, founder of Human Rights Law Network, who has argued labour cases frequently before India’s Supreme Court. “Chinese conditions of labour are far, far better than India. China doesn’t allow people to treat Chinese labourers like slaves, like bonded labourers.”

“Make in India”

After coming to power last May armed with the biggest election mandate in three decades, Modi unveiled his ‘‘Make in India’’ campaign, which aims to boost manufacturing to 25% of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2022 from 18% now. The cornerstone of that policy is to attract companies to set up factories within India for manufacturing.

Modi so far has sought to have the best of both worlds: Make it easier for companies to navigate India’s complex labour laws without sacrificing protections for workers. He’s moved to allow more overtime and reduce factory inspections while also giving the poor life insurance and pension plans.

‘‘You can make international products only if your labour is protected according to international standards,” Gonsalves said. “It’s a myth that when you have low labour cost, there’s greater productivity and profits.”

Indian states with business-friendly policies will attract the largest portions of the $100 billion of international investment promised for the country, Modi said in October. India fell to 134 of 189 economies in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, from 131 in 2013.

India vs China

Training is being given so that they can be more skilled and earn more, said Alkesh Tyagi, a New Delhi-based spokeswoman for India’s labour ministry, declining to comment on a comparison with China.

“We are not here to compare, we are here to improve conditions,” she said. “It’s going to improve. It takes time. When a country is as huge as India, things tend to take time to be visible.”

China has had a headstart over India in workers’ reforms with strict laws and protection for workers, helping labour become the backbone of the economy. That in turn has also lifted their livelihoods.

The economic boom over the past decade has made China’s migrant workers better educated, more expensive and also older. A migrant worker’s average monthly income rose 9.8% from a year earlier to 2,864 yuan ($461) in 2014.

Foxconn suicides

Even so, China and companies operating there have had to deal with labour issues. In a country without formal labour unions, 8,000 Chinese teachers went on a strike demanding higher pay last year. In 2010, Apple’s contract manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group was rocked by a series of suicides at its facilities.

There are few sympathizers for labourers in India. Policeman P.K. Garchar in Gujarat is one example.

Among Garchar’s jobs is to investigate any labour disputes at Alang, which employs a total of 30,000 workers engaged in jobs ranging from cutting the hull of a ship to selling porcelain plates taken from disused vessels’ pantry.

The working environment at Alang’s yards are harsh. Workers toil in beaches filled with dirty oil, burnt cushions and wooden debris bobbing in the blackened sea waters of the coast.

The $2 billion industry suffered after the European Union (EU) in 2012 banned ships registered in its 28 member nations from using dangerous tidal beaches like Alang for demolition work. Shortly after taking office last year, Modi halved the import duty on ships brought in to be demolished to spur the business.

Deadly beaches

The job is among India’s deadliest: 460 workers have been killed in the past two decades, Gujarat government data obtained by Shipbreaking Platform showed. The Brussels-based advocacy group estimates that actual numbers are much higher.

That evokes little sympathy from Garchar. Yard owners can’t be held accountable for deaths and accidents, he said.

“If I own a car and give it to my driver, and he gets in an accident, who’s fault is it?” Garchar said. “Irresponsible driving is the driver’s fault, not the owner’s.”

Employees at the yards are rarely aware of their rights and embark on tasks often considered too risky in the West. One such worker is Dinesh, who earns about Rs.10,000 a month driving an open truck full of gas cylinders needed to break ships.

“I do this every day,” he said. “Nobody told me that I need to follow any safety norm, neither do I see any need for it. Ultimately, I am in the front of the truck driving, and the cylinders are in the back,” Dinesh said as he sipped a cup of tea during a break at the yards that demolish old ships.

“You are dead”

That mentality permeates across India. More than 90% of India’s workforce is unorganized and are without social security and welfare, according to a 2014 report by the government’s Labour Bureau. A 2008 law didn’t ensure security and physical safety of migrant labourers, neither did it explain what the government means by social security, the report said.

‘‘What is needed are humane laws and mechanism for their enforcement,” said Sharit Bhowmik, a national fellow at Indian Council of Social Science Research, “These workers are vulnerable as they are migrants who are driven to these areas due to poverty and lack on gainful employment at their places of origin. They occupy an underdog position.”

About 80% of the country’s 1.2 billion people have no health coverage, according to the International labour Organization. India provides some of the fewest unemployment benefits of any country and workers are mostly unaware of the risks they take while earning their low wages.

Nand Kishore in another example. As a welder who cuts plates out of used ships, he spends almost 12 hours daily standing in hot conditions to tear heavy-duty steel.

“One moment of a lapse in concentration, and you are dead,” he says.