Self-employed sidelined in Unorganised Workers Bill

Self-employed sidelined in Unorganised Workers Bill

Renu Vinod
The Hindu , September 18, 2005


THE UNORGANISED Sector Workers Bill 2004 is broad legislation that covers workers scattered throughout the length and breadth of this country. The Bill focuses more on workers who work for an employer. Sadly, millions of self-employed workers get sidelined in a Bill that is specifically meant for workers belonging to the unorganised sector and to which a majority of self-employed professionals relate.

The Bill provides no social security measures for the self-employed as it does for those employed under someone. The following provision in the Bill exemplifies this clearly: "No worker shall be required to work for more than eight hours in a day with half an hour break" and "every worker shall be paid such wages within such time as may be prescribed but such wages shall in no case be less than the wages fixed under the Minimum Wages Act 1948."

These provisions do not in any way fill the gap as far as ensuring livable incomes and suitable work conditions for self-employed workers (such as hawkers and rickshaw pullers, for example) are concerned. Street vendors work more than eight hours a day, and in very difficult and many a time unfavourable conditions. Similarly, who will ensure that these workers get even a minimum wage? This is a serious loophole.

For the urban poor, street vendors provide goods, including food, at low prices and rickshaws provide a cheap and accessible mode of transportation. Studies conducted by the National Alliance for Street Vendors of India (NASVI) show that women vendors form the lowest rungs among street vendors. Poverty and lack of jobs among male members of the family force these women to take up street hawking and vending in most cases.

Moreover, unlicensed street entrepreneurs do not have any right over the means of their livelihood. Hawkers, for example, are routinely evicted from their spaces, and their wares confiscated. It is not true that hawkers free ride on public spaces. They pay substantially to the authorities involved and suffer losses due to frequent evictions. Once caught, they have their property seized and returned to them only after the payment of a penalty. Similarly, in the case of rickshaw pullers, if caught plying without a licence, the rickshaw is confiscated, broken into pieces and auctioned.

Registration system
If the government desires to know how many people are employed in a profession, it can put in place a registration system. Everyone practising a trade in the city will fill up a registration form. The registration system is very different from the licensing system - the former does not require any prior permission, it simply provides information to the government. Also, if a person is not registered, that does not make him illegal and outside the purview of the law!

The Bill's proposal to create Workers Facilitation Centres is a positive step but for the fact that it would have a predominantly bureaucratic set-up. The Bill provides that the Workers' Facilitation Centre will consist of an officer not below the rank of section officer in the government of India and such other employees as to be appointed by the appropriate government.

However, this set-up does not guarantee any internal democracy. There needs to be representation of unorganised sector workers - NGOs, hawkers' union representatives and other groups concerned need to have a voice here. Such groups not only have the trust of these workers, but they would also be more interested in ensuring that benefits and schemes reach the intended parties.

Moreover, in order to ensure that no category of worker or employer gets excluded from registration, the Workers' Facilitation Centres can take the help of ward committees/gram sabhas. Ward Committee members, for example, would have a better idea of the number of hawkers/vendors and rickshaw pullers in their ward. There is thus a greater probability of these street entrepreneurs not getting excluded.

As of now, it is not clear how many Workers' Facilitation Centres there will be at the State level and what procedure would be followed in registering workers, both self-employed and those employed under someone else, in both urban and rural areas.

As it stands today, the Bill's national coverage of workers in the informal sector (without being sensitive to self-employed professionals) gives every reason to fear that categories of self-employed and other workers of the vast informal economy, both in big and small cities and towns, would get excluded. The Bill, in its entirety, does not even ensure the basic right to livelihood of unorganised sector workers. Similarly, in no part of the Bill does one see much hope for the vast majority of India's self-employed.
The writer is research associate, Centre for Civil Society.