The recent suicide of Hridesh Kumar Sharma, an employee of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) who was in financial distress allegedly because of irregular and delayed payment of salaries in his organisation, points to the deteriorating work conditions in the government sector. From its erstwhile status as provider of stable and secured employment, government institutions and public sector firms have slipped to a situation where the terms of work are increasingly dismal and comparable to those prevailing in the “informal sector”.
Gone are the days when all permanent employees were entitled to pension benefits. Salaries are delayed due to the funds crunch in the public exchequer or due to untimely allocation of money to state/local governments. The condition of the thousands of “temporary employees” working in various government departments and in quasi-government institutions and PSUs is even worse.
A study conducted by the Indian Staffing Federation reports that about 12.3 million (43 per cent of the workforce) workers in the government sector are in temporary employment. While 10.5 million among them are in casual employment (without any formal job contract), about 1.4 million are with written, short-term contracts. Vacancies arising on retirement/superannuation (especially in the lower rungs of the organisation) are either frozen or perennially kept unfilled. Permanent staff are hired only for executive, managerial and professional positions. The logic of downsizing (or right-sizing!) the workforce runs deep in the government.
Many of the temporary employees in the government sector work in short-term or project-based positions, where they are given a short-term contract with consolidated paypacks. They are not entitled to social security benefits, leave and perks available to the permanent employees. In some cases, organisations extend the benefits of EPF and ESIC, especially when the tenure is relatively longer or if there is a likelihood of frequent renewal/extension of the contract. But, if the appointment is for a short duration, these benefits are not provided.
Of late, there has also been largescale outsourcing of government-sector work, either through transferring of non-core works to service providing agencies or by adapting flexi-staffing arrangements. In the case of flexi-staffing arrangement, the identified agency provides the required number of employees to the client organisation as leased employees or contract workers. Providing Annual Maintenance Contracts (AMC) to private agencies is another trend by which private employment is facilitated in the government. Many of the “temporary staff” work on a “permanent basis” but without any commensurate benefits and long-term commitment from the employer.
In this environment of government sector employment, intermediaries play a major role between the principal employer and the worker. In the absence of strict regulatory mechanisms, these workers are subjected to myriad forms of exploitation that include exorbitant charges for registration and periodic renewal, non-issuance of appointment orders, irregularity and delays in payment, payment of lower wages by way of imposing undue deductions, demanding work for long hours and denial of minimum wages. In most such cases, though the principal employer (government organisation) pays all the admissible payments and benefits to the temporary staff, the intermediaries pocket it as there is no efficient system in place to check malpractices. It is now common to see security guards working for 12 hours, menial staffs being paid below minimum wages, and salaries being delayed for several months.
Many Centre-sponsored development programmes (NACO, ICDS, NRHM, MGNREGA, UIDAI) are implemented by contract employees. For instance, over a lakh temporary workers are engaged with the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO). Some of these workers are inducted on a project mode, and their tenure renewed time and again. Many others are engaged as “voluntary workers”, who receive an honorarium, which often is less than the statutory minimum wage. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme has a 2.5-million dedicated workforce. Aanganwadi workers and helpers are paid a monthly salary of Rs 3,000 and Rs 1,500 respectively. The Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) under the NRHM receive monthly honorarium in the range of Rs 1,500-3,000, even after adding supplementary sums from the state governments. These employees are denied the status of workers and their contributions viewed as “voluntary, social service”!
These changes have brought in a clear-cut “dualism” in the government sector’s workforce, where, along with a gradually dwindling “protected permanent employees”, a segment of footloose labour, characterised by dismal working conditions and employment benefits, is growing. Unless measures are brought in to arrest the trend of temporalisation of employment and regulate service providers/placement and flexi-staffing agencies, the government sector could soon start to resemble private informal workplaces, in terms of intensive employment insecurity and inferior work conditions.