A life below the bottom line

The Delhi government’s decision to hike minimum wages by almost 40% gave hope to thousands struggling to make ends meet. But two months later, little has changed on the ground — be it for the saleswoman supporting her family, or the factory worker doing overtime. Sarah Hafeez investigates.

Written by Sarah Hafeez | New Delhi | Updated: June 5, 2017 11:06 am
Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

Vinay, a 32-year-old bus driver, was both surprised and thrilled to hear that his colleague, a conductor hired by a private contractor on the Lajpat Nagar-bound orange bus, was paid Rs 14,700 in April — Rs 4,000 more than the previous month.

But his happiness was short-lived. None of the drivers employed by the eight private concessionaires operating under the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DIMTS) — a public-private partnership under the Delhi government’s transport department — were paid the new minimum wages mandated by a legislation that came into effect in March.

As per the legislation, the minimum wage was revised to Rs 9,724-13,350 per month for unskilled workers, Rs 10,764-14,698 for semi-skilled workers, and Rs 11,830-16,182 for skilled workers — a 37 per cent increase. However, The Indian Express found that its benefits are yet to reach those it is meant for.

This prompted Vinay and his colleagues to go on a strike last month, keeping 1,700 orange, low-floor buses under the DIMTS off the roads. The Delhi government ultimately stepped in, promising to cover the increase in wages by paying Rs 1.5 crore a month on behalf of the eight private concessionaires who refused to pay increased salaries. But since no deadline has been specified, drivers said they plan to move court.

“Our salaries go up every year but by Rs 500 or less. Expenses keep increasing. How do I make ends meet?” said Vinay, who works overtime so he can make Rs 20,000 a month.

“We were thrilled when the Chief Minister announced the increase in wages. This is the first time the government has done something for us. Now we have to fight to claim the money that is legally ours,” he said. While the fight prompted the government to act, it also cost three of Vinay’s colleagues, who led the strike, their jobs.

While minimum wages are increased by four-five per cent every financial year by state governments, the Delhi government had approved a massive hike in August, 2016. At the time, CM Arvind Kejriwal had said, “Some traders and industrialists told me their profits will decrease once the government increases minimum wages. I want to say that more money to the poor will boost economy because they will have more buying power.”

A little more buying power could certainly help Vinay, whose ageing parents live in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Mewat. The only earning member in the family, Vinay sends money home to pay for his parents’ medical expenses and siblings’ education. He pays Rs 5,000 as rent for a one-room tenement in southwest Delhi’s Jaitpur, where he lives with his wife.

The wage hike could help his family build a pakka home in their village and get his sister married. “We have been trying to build that home for years,” he said.

Workers in Wazirpur, a hub of steel-manufacturing factories in north Delhi. There are several occupational hazards, yet they remain among the worst paid in the capital. Praveen Khanna

A larger malaise

The Delhi government has been intervening in several instances, like the DIMTS, and gradually getting its departments to pay increased wages. The Indian Express, however, found several cases of workers employed through contractors under the Public Works Department, the Delhi Jal Board and government hospitals not getting their dues. Cushioned by contractualisation of labour, the government has been keeping its hands off enforcement of minimum wages for years. Workers said this year will be no different.

A Delhi government spokesperson said, “Most work is outsourced to private contractors. We give them the entire amount and they distribute salaries to employees, keeping a portion for themselves. But contractors often pay employees less than their due. Complaints keep coming but we can only pull up violators, we can’t keep a constant vigil,” a government official said.

A bill passed by the Delhi government that sought to penalise violators with three years in prison and a Rs 50,000 fine was struck down by the President. Economist Prabhat Patnaik said the government has to set an example by enforcing its laws. “What is the point of a wage increase through a legislation if the government cannot enforce it?” he said.

Labour Minister Gopal Rai conceded that the new minimum wages were not being paid and said his department has been trying to come up with ways to ensure workers across sectors, especially under the government, are paid the new minimum wages.

“We have held two rounds of meetings with government departments and strictly asked them to conduct a close monitoring of wage payments. Late payments will come with payments of arrears,” Rai said.

A bigger worry

The tussle over increased wages is being felt most in government institutions, where workers are unionised and have more bargaining powers. But for those in the private sector, who are largely unorganised, a 40 per cent salary hike seems like a distant dream.

The Apex Chamber of Commerce, a conglomeration of small and medium industries in Delhi, alongside traders, hoteliers and dealers, had moved the High Court last year against the government’s move to increase wages, arguing that last year’s minimum wages could buy a much higher calorific value of 3,447 calories than the minimum requirement of 2,700 calories per adult per day.

 

But the bench, in a hearing last month, observed that the new minimum wages were in fact “too little” and “inadequate” and asked employers, “Is it possible for an individual to sustain on Rs 13,000?” The question was met with silence in the courtroom.

Sitting down for lunch in his single-room tenement in north Delhi’s Wazirpur, 38-year-old Raees said, “Rs 13,000? I get paid Rs 7,200 for eight hours of work a day and make Rs 11,000 when I work overtime. Nothing will change for us, it never does.”

Raees, a migrant from Faizabad, works at a steel rolling plant in Wazirpur. His job entails beating hot metal down to wafer-thin sheets of steel in a furnace-like setup preheated to 1,500 degrees Celsius. Cotton dastanas (gloves) are the thin membrane that keep his hands from burning when they accidentally brush against burning metal.

Short breaks from the furnace every half hour offer little respite. The factory where he works has no drinking water and no place to rest. Raees usually walks over to a tea stall, or rests under the shadows of looming factories to let his body cool. Demanding an increase in wages, he said, will cost him his job.

“Those who put up a fight are eventually taken down and everything goes back to normal. These employers are merciless and selfish; they exploit us to the last rupee. No law applies to Wazirpur; here the law is the factory owners’ decree. Even local politicians who own factories here pay less than the mandated minimum wage, flouting the very law they claim to uphold,” Raees said.

Rai conceded to the problem of ensuring compliance in the vast and unregulated private sector. “That is why we had come up with a Bill which made violations punishable with three years in prison and a big fine. But the bill was struck down. If we do not have strict rules, implementation is going to be difficult. We will have to make do with whatever is in our hands,” he said.

Large vacancies in the labour department, especially posts of inspectors who are supposed to inspect manufacturing units and penalise violators, have undermined the sanctity of labour laws, allowing employers to flout every rule — from workplace safety to minimum wages. “We have written to the state services for inspectors. We are waiting for them to fill up the vacancies,” Rai said.

Jai Kumar Bansal, president of the Stainless Steel Trade Federation (Wazirpur), however, claimed all factory owners pay the new minimum wages. In industrial pockets such as Mayapuri, where workers are unionised, demands for the hike in minimum wages have become so intense that factory owners have been laying off workers.

Bansal, also the chairman (north zone) of the Apex Chamber of Commerce & Industry, NCR, which moved court against the wage hike, said “business will be hit because of the wage increase”. “Businesses will shift out to areas such as Noida or Manesar or to Rajasthan where cost of production is less,” he said.

Economist N R Bhanumurthy, professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, said the Delhi government should have staggered the wage increase because “any shock to the system tends to have repercussions”.

Patnaik, however, said any large hike, like the ones implemented by the Pay Commission, are done once in 10 years, factoring in changes over a long period of time.

Out of reach

Thousands who are part of the unorganised sector or the highly fluid service sector continue to be entirely at the mercy of employers. A rise in the minimum wages, perhaps, will never touch those like Arti Singh, a 19-year-old saleswoman at a grocery-retail mart in an east Delhi mall.

“I have heard about the rise in wages but I don’t think it applies to us,” Arti said, throwing a glance around the floor at her colleagues. She mans a jewellery counter owned by a local dealer, who pays her

Rs 7,000 a month, while her colleagues employed by Indian and international brands get a base salary of Rs 10,000 or more.

“Tum abhi chhoti ho, experience ho jayega toh paisa bada denge,” Arti recalled her employer telling her when she asked for more money. “I feel exploited, but anywhere I go, I will be paid only this much.”

To ensure compliance in the private sector, the Delhi government said it was following a two-pronged approach. First is fighting the private sector in court on behalf of workers. “The second thing we are going to do is launch a massive awareness campaign and set up a monitoring system to keep a watch on the private sector. We are going to hold a review meeting next week,” Rai said.

Arti, who has been working for a year, juggles her long-distance BA course with her job by studying through the night. The sharply-lit mall hardly interests her. She perfunctorily discusses gold bangles with a customer and her teenage daughter who study the ornaments for a minute before turning away.

Arti’s job entails attending to customers and ensuring no items go missing. One of the things she most dislikes about the job is having to stand for nine straight hours.

“There is a one-hour lunch break. That is when we relax, sit and eat. There are no places to sit in the mart,” said Arti, who never thought of working as a saleswoman till her father fractured his leg in an accident last year.

Arti and her sister started working at call centres and then at malls to cover for their father, who earned Rs 10,000 a month.

Singh wants to be a clerk or an assistant “in an office, among books and paperwork”. A higher salary will mean she can take a rickshaw home from the bus stop in Shahdara at night, instead of the 20-minute walk.

 

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