The struggle must be waged with the perspective of ending the exploitative capitalist system
Workers of our country have been repeatedly raising their voice demanding that the Indian state guarantee a living wage for all workers. Workers have been fighting for a wage that would ensure a dignified life for themselves and their families. They have been fighting for social security, including health care and pension, to protect them when they lose their jobs, fall sick, get disabled and during old age.
The Constitution of India declares in its Chapter on Directive Principles —
“Article 43: The State shall endeavor to secure, by suitable legislation or economic organisation or in any other way, to all workers agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities….”
This Directive Principle, like many others, remains a dead letter. For the past 68 years, the State has done nothing, either by suitable legislation, or economic organization, or in any other way to ensure to all workers -- work, a living wage, and what can be called a decent standard of life in today’s conditions.
Take the case of work: The Indian state has refused to guarantee the right to work. Crores of workers are unemployed, or under employed. They have no source of livelihood. At the present time, the state has passed a law that allows the capitalists in all sectors to employ workers on a hire and fire basis, in the name of ‘fixed term contract’. It is trying to pass laws that will allow capitalists to hire a majority of workers on contract, or as apprentices or trainees, with no legal rights.
Take the case of living wages: The Central/ state government set what is called the Minimum Wage, which every employer is obligated to pay, in the enterprises and shops covered by the Act. For several years now, the working class movement has been demanding that the Central government should set the National Floor Level minimum wage at Rs 18,000 per month, to which the Variable Dearness Allowance (VDA) must be added to take into account constant increase in cost of living. The working class has been demanding that no worker anywhere in the country should be paid less than this amount.
In opposition to this demand, the Central Government has put the National Floor Level minimum wage as Rs 176 per day, as of July 1, 2017. This comes to Rs 4,576 per month. This extremely low figure too is merely ‘recommended’; it is not mandatory on the state governments to follow it!
The table below indicates the abysmally low minimum wages set by different state governments. They are for workers categorized as unskilled working in industry/services. When different minimum wages are prescribed for different sectors, the lowest has been taken. The minimum wages for agricultural workers in every state is less. (figures relate to 2018)
In April 2017, the Delhi government raised the minimum wages from Rs 9,724 per month to Rs 13,350. The Delhi High Court, in a ruling in August 2018, has annulled the above saying the employers had not been consulted in this decision. Karnataka raised the Minimum wages only this April, after a period of five years of wage stagnation.
According to a research paper published By Prof Bino Paul et al in Economic and Political Weekly (July 26, 2014 issue), the average factory worker's real wage remained constant or was reduced, during the 12 year period between 1999 and 2012. Nominal wage rate reports a steady growth. But the real wages remained stagnant at Rs. 45,000 per annum over a 12 year period. (See Graph below)
While the capitalist class headed by the biggest capitalist monopolies has been amassing incredible amount of wealth, at the other pole, the masses of workers have been forced to live in the most miserable conditions. The above table reflects the average. A huge mass of workers are forced to work at wages below this average, well below even the officially declared minimum wage.
What does the state mean by Minimum Wages?
In 1948, the state passed the Minimum Wages Act. A Committee on Fair Wages was set up. This was a time when the Second World War had ended, a socialist camp headed by the Soviet Union had been created, and the tide of revolution was in full flow. India had just become independent and the Indian bourgeoisie was afraid at the prospect of a thoroughgoing social revolution.
The Committee on Fair Wages defined three different levels of wages (i) Living wage (ii) Fair wage (iii) Minimum Wage.
The living wage, according to the Committee, should enable the worker to provide for himself and his family not merely the basic essentials of food, clothing and shelter but a measure of frugal comfort including education for children, protection against ill health, requirements of essential social needs and a measure of insurance against more important misfortunes including old age. The Committee declared that living wage had to be the ultimate goal, because the national income was low and industry did not have the capacity to pay. The Indian state declared ensuring living wage to all workers as a distant Policy objective. It has remained a distant policy objective till this day, despite the fact that the national income has grown many times over in the past 70 years.
The minimum wage was defined by the committee as a wage that must provide not merely for the bare sustenance of life, but for the preservation of the efficiency of the worker. For this purpose the minimum wage must also provide for some measure of education, medical requirements and amenities.
The Committee defined Fair wage as a wage in between the Living Wage and the Minimum wage. The Fair wage was to be determined by wage boards consisting of representatives of the capitalists, workers, and the government.
In practice, the minimum wage set by the government at any particular time sets the average wage of the entire working class.
In July 1957, the 15th Session of the Indian Labour Conference held at New Delhi laid down that the minimum wage should be need-based and should ensure the minimum human needs of the industrial worker. It set norms for all wage- fixing authorities including Minimum Wage Committees and Wage Boards. Minimum wages must be calculated on the basis of 2700 calorie intake, 18 yards of clothing per year, rent calculated according to what government charges for low income groups, and an additional 20% for fuel, lighting etc.
In 1991, the Supreme Court ruled that children’s education, medical requirement, minimum recreation, provision for old age and marriage should be an additional 25% that should be taken into account in fixing minimum wages.
The Central and State governments have never implemented even these recommendations of the 15th ILC or the 1991 Supreme Court ruling. The struggle of the working class over defining what should be the “Minimum Wage” and for their implementation, has continued over all these years. Yet, sixty years after the 1957 ILC recommendations, majority of workers are forced to live in unhygienic slums, without drinking water or sanitation, with no provisions for health care, children’s education, old age or marriage. They are unable to ensure nutritious food for their families.
The reason lies in the capitalist system and the fact that the orientation of the economy is to ensure maximum profits for the capitalist class, headed by the capitalist monopolies, through the intensified exploitation of workers.
Capitalism has developed by systematically ruining peasants and other small producers, and driving them into the ranks of the working class. Workers have to sell their labour to the capitalists in order to survive. The development of capitalist relations has been accompanied by a growing reserve army of the unemployed. The competition amongst workers for jobs and for survival is used by the ruling class to intensify the exploitation of the entire class and drive wages to a minimum.
The Indian state legalizes this by setting the minimum wages at abysmally low levels. It is an instrument of the capitalist class to defend its rule. It defends this system of capitalist exploitation, even while lying propaganda is constantly carried out that it can be used to advance workers’ interests.
The reality is that the capitalist class uses the state machinery under its control, to systematically attack the rights of workers and intensify the exploitation of the working class. Under the banner of globalization through liberalization and privatisation, the exploitation of the working class has been intensified many times over. The rights of workers, won through years of struggle are being brutally trampled underfoot.
The ruling capitalist class and its state have no intention of setting an All India Floor Level Wage that would be a living wage applicable to all workers without exception, which would ensure that workers and their families can live in dignity. It has deliberately ensured that state governments are free to set minimum wages as low as possible. Each state government uses the argument that capital will flee to some other state, if minimum wages are raised, to keep the minimum wage at the lowest possible level. The Central government uses the argument that in order to attract foreign capital to India, our workers must accept super exploitation and work for a pittance.
The struggle of workers for a guaranteed living wage is a just struggle. It is a struggle to ensure that the working class, the producer of wealth, gets a greater share of what it has produced and is capable of living a life of dignity, in modern conditions. It is a struggle that benefits the entire working class, as it leads to the raising of wages of the entire class.
The working class must wage the struggle for living wages, with the aim of ending the capitalist system, in which workers are wage slaves. The rule of the capitalist class has to be replaced with worker-peasant rule. The principal means of production and exchange have to be taken over from the capitalist class and placed under social control. The state of workers and peasants will then reorient the economy to fulfil the growing material and cultural needs of all members of society