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A laborious decline

A few days back, I was talking with one of the senior-most bureaucrats of the Gujarat government. I wished to know the minimum wages in the state for such category of workers as peons and lift-men. I am not naming this bureaucrat as we were chatting informally, over a cup of tea, discussing out different things, including ongoing Gujarat state polls. The query took the bureaucrat by surprise, perhaps because he suspected what I was hinting at. “I don’t look after the matter directly, Rajiv. It’s the labour commissioner’s job. There are 450 different categories, and for each minimum wage is different. You can ask my junior (he named him); he has full list”, he told me, sounding evasive. The reason for being evasive was clear. In Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, which is the seat of power in Gujarat, there are in all 750 peons, half of whom are on fixed pay and “irregular”, while the rest are regular employees. If the irregular fixed pay peons get Rs 3,000 per month, which is far from the prescribed daily minimum wage, the regular employees earn between Rs 15,000 and Rs 17,000, apart from other benefits.
“Their earning comes to Rs 100 per day, which is nearly half of what they should get as unskilled workers in Gandhinagar, Rs 190, a violation of the minimum wage law”, a top state insider, who can claim to have complete command on personnel issues, revealed to me later, adding, “Every two months they are supposed to work in a different department after a deputy secretary holds fresh interviews, such is the rule.” The insider further revealed: “Though they may be theoretically working half time, actually they work for eight to 10 hours. Legally, what’s prevailing in Gandhinagar Sachivalaya is forced labour – unequal pay to for equal work.” A senior bureaucrat in the chief minister’s office (CMO) tried justifying it like this: “Blame it on top state babudom, which hasn’t taken care to look beyond its interests. Chief Minister Narendra Modi is seized of the matter, and something will be done soon after the state assembly elections to ensure that these irregular workers are not exploited.” When I asked a senior labour and employment department bureaucrat whether he had ever taken care to look into the issue, the reply was simply indifferent: “It’s not our job to examine minimum wages in Sachivalaya”! It’s not just peons who get less-than-minimum wages in Sachivalaya. Liftmen and cleaners too fall in the same category. Their jobs have been outsourced to private agencies, which pay them Rs 3,000 each.
Though theoretically they work for six hours (including recess), they begin their day before the Sachivalaya opens at 10.30 am. The cleaners must clean up offices before the babu turns up, while the liftman must be ready to salute as the IAS babu enters the lift. And, they must work till late hours, without overtime, till the babu vacates the office. I asked a CMO official why they don’t quit, as there is said to be so much labour shortage, and I got this reply: “They are mostly locals, relatives of retired class four employees, who want their children to work in government. They hope, one day they will be regularized.” A senior official revealed a different apprehension – that, “irregular” peons are asked to “handle” sensitive files. They carry them between departments. Cleaners clean offices before babus turn up. Many officials leave sensitive files behind. “In the last five years, there’s a sharp rise in the number of sensitive files missing. We fear, they are bribed, but one can’t fix irregular workers”, he lamented.
The question is relevant: If the situation with minimum wages in the seat of power is so bad and nobody deems it necessary to look into the matter, how does one expect the state officials to ensure enforcement of minimum wages law? While the Gujarat government has been claiming the state’s employment rate is the “highest in India”, latest National Sample Survey (NSS) data suggest that Gujarat may be having one of the highest economically active population, but it is also one of the most poorly paid. Labour rate participation in Gujarat is 87.5 per cent for males in the age-group 15-59, but it is much lower in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and Haryana. Prof Biswaroop Das of the Institute of Social Studies, Surat, tells me, “Higher labour rate participation suggests the ability of the Gujarat economy to attract higher number of workers, including migrants from other parts of India. But a higher supply of labour force also helps keep wage market low.” One can visit a construction site of the Narmada canal network, currently being built. A contractor at one such site in Surendrangar district told me he “imports” workers from Bihar and UP because Gujarat workers are “unable to work for longer hours.” Indeed, the competition that he is able to trigger helps him pay a lower wage.

The NSS data, based on survey in 2010, confirms what Prof Das said. Average salary per day in Gujarat for regular employees is Rs 276.48 for males and Rs 213.10 for females. The national average is higher – Rs 332.37 for males and Rs 253.02 for females (urban and rural areas combined). In fact, salaries to regular employees are higher even in Bihar, not to talk of Maharashtra or West Bengal. Things are no better for casual labour – in Gujarat their average wages (both male and female) are Rs 83.25 in rural and Rs 106.17 in urban area. States with higher average wages for casual labour in urban areas are Karnataka, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Kerala. As for rural areas, the states with higher wages are West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Kerala. Social scientist Prof Ghanshyam Shah tells me, “The trend suggests that while labour is available in Gujarat, there is no pressure on employers to pay a higher wages. There is indifference on the part of the state labour department to ensure higher wages. Over a period, labour office staff has dwindled. The state government neglects its labour department, even as promoting the industries department.”
I remember having come across an interesting report five years ago prepared for the Gujarat government by top consultants Ernst & Young in order to attract investors in the Vibrant Gujarat investment summit 2007. The report said that one reason why investors prefer Gujarat is because labour costs are cheaper compared to other states. Titled "Why Gujarat?" the report said, Ahmedabad has the lowest labour costs among major Indian cities. Ahmedabad’s labour costs are 50 per cent of those in Delhi and 40 per cent those in Pune. In fact, it showcases, though a diagram, how the wages in Ahmedabad are far lower than Chandigarh, Kolkata, Nagpur and even Indore. The report, which was in the form of a Vibrant Gujarat CD and was perhaps also put on the web, was later withdrawn, as many thought it showcased Gujarat in poor light. Yet, it reflects the mindset of those in power. Labour peace amidst low wages is, apparently, sought to be projected as the chief “advantage” of Gujarat for investors to invest in the state.


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