The Union Cabinet approved the Wage Code Bill on 3rd July, paving the way for its introduction in the on-going Parliament session. One of the aspects of the Bill is the declaration of a national minimum floor wage to be set by the Central government. States cannot pay below this mandatory minimum floor wage. The Bill raises the national minimum wage to Rs.178 per day, just Rs.2 more than what it was in 2017. Many states of the country already have statutory minimum wages higher than this. Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Tripura and Himachal Pradesh are the only states to pay lower wages than the proposed amount. It shows that the Wage Code Bill is not aimed at improving the living conditions of the broad masses of workers, as is being falsely trumpeted by the government. It reveals the thoroughly anti worker class character of the government.
The abysmal level at which the national minimum wage has been fixed exposes the utter disregard of the government for the worker as a human being. It exposes the hollowness of the government’s slogan of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas”, where the government is only concerned with keeping the wages of workers at the lowest possible level, in order to enable the capitalist class to maximize its profits through their super exploitation.
In January 2019, the Ministry of Labour had constituted a committee to review and recommend a methodology for fixation of the National Minimum Wage. This Expert Committee had recommended Rs.375 per day as the National Minimum Wage, and an additional house rent allowance (HRA) of Rs.55 per day. The recommendations of this Expert Committee had been made public on the Ministry’s website since February 2019. Across the country trade unions rejected this recommendation as being far short of the minimum wage of Rs.18,000 per month, that they have been demanding for several years now. Rubbing salt on the workers wounds, the Union Cabinet has proposed an even more pathetic minimum wage amount of Rs.178 per day.
There are other serious issues as well.
One of the biggest problems with the present situation is that the Payment of Minimum Wages act is not implemented for a large majority of workers. A large majority of workers across the country do not have any fixed employer. They work on contract, often on daily wages. In Delhi where the minimum wages are supposed to be over Rs.14,000 a month, lakhs of workers work as security guards in housing colonies, banks, shopping malls, offices as well as in factories, in 12-hour shifts for Rs 7000- 9000 a month. Women and youth work as shop assistants, call centre operators, in cleaning operations and various front-desk duties, for Rs 5,000 – 6,000 a month. The Bill proclaims that it will cover 50 crore workers. However, the Bill does not address this serious problem.
Far from establishing a mechanism for implementation of the minimum wages, the government is trying to do away with the existing system of inspection by labour courts, and substitute it with “self-certification”. Capitalists can simply declare that they are implementing the law, even as they are blatantly violating it, and the workers will have no recourse to challenge the claim of the capitalist. Even employers employing large number of workers on a regular basis can easily get away paying less than minimum wages!
Another issue is that at present, the minimum wages are revised by state governments at different times, but with a maximum gap of 5 years. The Wage Code bill calls for a revision only once every 5 years, which means that workers will have no adjustment for the continuously increasing cost of living. For the vast majority of workers whom this bill claims to cover, who are not organized in unions or whose work is of contractual nature, the floor wage will become the maximum wage for the next 5 years. This further reveals the utter lack of concern of the government for workers.
As far back as 1957, the Indian Labour Conference passed a Resolution which laid down that the minimum wage should be need-based wage and that it should ensure the minimum human needs of the industrial worker. However, it is a matter of great shame that 62 years after this Resolution, our rulers cannot yet ensure a minimum wage that will guarantee for majority of workers the most basic requirements for a dignified human existence in this day and age.
Productive forces have developed to such an extent in our country that it is possible to ensure that every person gets nutritious food, including milk, meat, eggs, cooking oil, sugar, pulses and vegetables; that every family lives in comfortable well-ventilated homes with toilets, drinking water and electric power; that every family has access to quality education for its children and to quality health care, social security and old-age pension. It is necessary and possible for workers to be paid such a living wage that will guarantee them a dignified human life.
What is blocking the realization of this is the capitalist relations of production, wherein the ownership of the means of production are in the hands of the capitalist class, and the vast majority of people have no means of production of their own, and are forced to sell their labour power to the capitalists. The orientation of the economy is not to fulfill human needs, but to fulfill the insatiable greed of the capitalist class. The Indian state is a state of the bourgeoisie, which defends the interests of this class. Every government that has come to power has defended the interests of the capitalist class, while shedding false tears about their concern for workers. The Modi government is no different.
The ruling class keeps talking of a minimum wage and not a living wage. The minimum wage defined by the central and state governments has been totally inadequate to meet even the most basic needs of a human being. The food needs of a workers’ family are estimated in calories without taking into account real nutritional requirements. The attitude of the ruling class is that "workers don’t eat meat or eggs, and workers live in jhuggis, so they cannot demand housing costs calculated as per the governments' low cost housing schemes"! (This was the response of the Chief Minister of Delhi in 2013 when a delegation of trade unions met her with the demand of Rs.15000 a month as minimum wage). In reality, this is what the bourgeoisie and its governments believe, notwithstanding that various governments and the Supreme Court have declared laudable goals and definitions of minimum wages.
The 2019 Economic Survey is an example of this. It talked of “a well-designed and streamlined minimum wage system that would reduce wage inequality in the country.” The budget speech of the Finance Minister in Parliament talked of the need for an “effective minimum wage policy that targets the vulnerable bottom rung of wage earners”. This came within two days of the cabinet approval of the Wage Code Bill proposing a national minimum wage that will not even feed one individual for a month, not to speak of a worker’s family and provision of other basic necessities of life.
The proposed Wage Code Bill has been met with strong opposition from workers’ unions across the country. The unions are demanding a floor level minimum wage of Rs.18000 adjusted for cost of living periodically and a pension of Rs.6000 per month. They are demanding that all workers should be registered by the government as workers, and it should be the responsibility of the government to ensure that the worker gets a living wage that can ensure him and his family a dignified human existence.
This is an extremely important political struggle of the working class. The working class, together with the toiling peasantry, is the producer of the wealth of this country. The working class cannot accept that it must continue to slave for the capitalists in inhuman conditions, while the biggest Indian and foreign monopoly capitalist houses lay claim to all our resources and step up our exploitation for reaping maximum private profits. The capitalist conception of minimum wages considers human beings as machines to be provided just enough for their own reproduction. The working class aspires and fights for a new society whose duty is to provide for the well-being of all its members and ensure the fulfillment of their ever increasing material and cultural needs.