Labour: Just holding the line is not sufficient

ublished: Financial Express, February 8, 2002

By Pradeep S Mehta & Sandeep Singh

CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment

“WE have to attend to a huge domestic agenda before we can reap any perceived gains that future negotiations can throw up,” commerce minister Murasoli Maran said in his most statesmanlike statement after the fourth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Doha. We have been arguing this for long, and have also been advocating the same to the commerce ministry to take it up with the relevant ministries.

Our international agenda is determined by how we negotiate or interpret or fight with others on trade issues at the international forums for promoting the best interest of our country in the context of WTO. But equally important is the domestic agenda which requires our government to take note of, in implementing our commitments under WTO, as also to make the best out of it. In our last article (FE, 27th November) we argued that in the post- Doha scenario the issue of labour standards in international trade context is not ‘dead’ as understood by some. The protagonists of social clause, this time lead by the European Union, successfully managed to remove a significant line from the declaration recognising the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a more suitable place to discuss labour standards.

India has been maintaining that labour standards should be dealt with by the ILO and not at the WTO where they have the potential of being misused as a protectionist device. The social clauses are relevant only when there is equal distribution of wealth and resources. However, in reality there are pockets of such poverty in different parts of the world that inclusion of social clauses will only worsen the situation by denying the necessary avenues for jobs.

India’s stand is fair enough and this has been supported by most of the developing countries as well. However, this doesn’t seem to be sufficient. Instead of merely opposing the issue we need to make it clear to the world as to why we are holding this line. We have to chalk out an advocacy plan and convince those supporting the issue that a sanction-based approach never works. It only harms the most vulnerable members of society in the targeted country. Importantly, India has the advantage of having a common understanding on this issue among all sectors of the society. Our trade unions and non-governmental organisations among others are also opposing the trade-labour linkage. What has been lacking is that we have not been using this understanding quite effectively. We’ll have to cultivate, resource and use our domestic trade unions and non-governmental organisations to counter the campaign for linkages promoted by their western counterparts.

On the other hand, we’ll have to keep our house in order and take some tough actions as well as do long-term planning to deal with the problem of child labour and to ensure worker’s rights in the unorganised sectors. Contrary to common belief in western countries, our organised sector workers are in fact over-protected, and simpler hire and fire laws with safety nets (for the retrenched workers) are needed for efficient functioning of the economy. However, a large majority of our workers fall under the unorganised sector and it is this class which is being increasingly exploited.

Our policy-makers need to become a bit more proactive and address the issue of ensuring minimum labour standards for unorganised sector workers in the ongoing labour reforms. In India, as per the Supreme Court’s definition, a vast majority of the labour force is still languishing under conditions of bonded labour and bonded child labour. More than 30 million people are deprived of basic labour standards, besides 65 million children who are working in conditions of bonded child labour. Therefore, nearly every third Indian today is in a condition of one or the other form of forced labour and it is certainly a very tragic situation in world’s largest democracy.

Child labour is a huge and complex problem which is not being tackled adequately. Despite a 1996 judgement of the Supreme Court directing the government to identify and rehabilitate child labourers, very little has been done on the ground. Lack of co-ordination among the central and state governments is one of the prominent reasons for this, apart from lack of will and poor implementation of laws.

According to a study done by CUTS, India would need a whopping Rs 67,000 crore every year to eradicate actual and potential child labour in the age group of 6-11 years. However, it is disgusting to note that the prevailing red-tapism and lethargic bureaucratic system even doesn’t make adequate use of available resources. In Rajasthan, for instance, a large amount of money deposited in the child labour rehabilitation fund established in 32 districts is lying grossly unutilised. The officials concerned keep on passing the buck and even the 8,110 identified child workers have no choice but to hope for good time. The other states also suffer the same fate.

In addition, we also need to address the issue of lower workers’ rights standards in export promotion zones (EPZ) and special economic zones (SEZ), toward which fingers are often being pointed out by western trade unions and NGOs. There is no logic why these zones should have lax labour standards than those in other areas. Often China’s example is quoted by our industry to seek lower standards in these special zones. But with the China’s entry into the WTO, that situation may also change when pressured by the western groups. India is already in the process of reforms to strike a balance between legitimate rights of workers and the objective of providing a framework that could encourage efficiency in the system. The same should be applicable to these zones as well.

Importantly, as far as exploitation of workers or child labour is concerned, our own rules in this regard are world-class but are hardly implemented in a proper way. Poor implementation is our own problem and something which we’ll have to address urgently. India’s performance at the international fora on the labour front also depends on how serious it is about improving things at the domestic level. These actions are going to help our own people; in addition, they will also help in shutting the mouths of those advocating social clauses.

Therefore, along with these actions India will have to plan its strategies and alliances well in advance to keep this issue out in the next WTO Ministerial meeting as well. It needs to start acting now, otherwise two years will whiz by so fast that we will be caught napping again.

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