MINIMUM WAGE: A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT

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This article is written by Ritika Sharma from Ansal University and curated by Rajrishi Ramaswamy from Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.

Labourers and workers in India constitute a large portion of the population. Indian labour law refers to laws monitoring and regulating the condition of labour in India. Many debates and conferences take place to improve workers’ working conditions and create enough employment for them. Without any decent standards of work, Indian workers have to suffer a lot.

A recently released government report shows a very distressing picture of the plight of Indian workers and laborers with most of them earning either less or half of the minimum accepted norms. The report, called ‘Periodic Labour Force Survey’ (PLFS), is based on the survey of one lakh households carried out by National Statistical Office (NSO), under the Ministry of Statistics, Government of India.

According to the Seventh Pay Commission, the minimum wage or salary for four-member households was fixed at Rs.18000 in 2016. It included the Apex Court’s guidelines of 1992 for such fixation. But in rural areas, both casual workers and self- employed workers earn less than or half of this amount while regular employees earn two- third of this amount. Also, in urban areas, the earning level is still below the minimum wage fixed. This clearly depicts the poor condition of manual workers and labourers in India and the intense crisis they are facing. It also is necessary to note that the condition of female workers is worse than male workers.

Indian Constitution defines minimum wage as “the level of income for skilled and unskilled workers which ensures a sustainable standard of living and also some comfort. It aims to prevent the large-scale exploitation of laborers”.

Minimum Wages Act, 1948

In 1928, the International Labour Organization (ILO) introduced the concept of “minimum wages” to protect the workers from exploitation of employers.

Minimum Wages Act, 1948 came into force just after India gained its freedom.  It was introduced to bring equality and justice to labourers and workers and to ensure that there is a uniform wage for the same kind of work either done by male or female workers. Minimum wages are revised within every five years. Both the Central and State Government(s) have the power to revise minimum wages. 

Objectives of Minimum Wage Act, 1948

  • To safeguard that employee has proper health and comfort.
  • To make sure that labour gets fair income.
  • To make sure that labour lives a simple and respectful life in the society.

Violation of the Act results in offences and there are penalties of five year imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 10000/- (under section 22 of act).

Our Apex Court held that the non-payment of minimum wages will lead to “forced labour” and is prohibited under Article 23 of the Constitution. Forced labour can arise in several ways including appetite, poverty, need and necessity etc. The Minimum Wages Act, 1948 does not violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with “equality before the law”, as wages are not fixed across the entire country and vary from place to place and occupation to occupation. Constitutional validity of the act cannot be doubted.  Hence, there is no uniform wage across the nation and the system too, is complex.

The fact that sometimes it is difficult for the employer to carry out business on settled terms may not be the reason to strike down the law itself as unreasonable. Plight of workers should also be considered to determine whether the law adhered to public interest.

Dispute between MGNREGA and Minimum Wages Act, 1948

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is a scheme that guarantees 100 days employment at Rs. 120 per day. In January 2009, the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) delinked the MGNREGA wages from state specific minimum wage rates.  This undermined the sanctity of Minimum Wages Act, 1948. MGNREGA wage rates were lesser than minimum wage rates of respective states. Jean Dreze who chaired the National Advisory Council and Central Employment Guarantee Council, recommended that the wage rates of MGNREGA be synced with the Minimum Wages Act but the recommendations were rejected by the Central Government. The Central Government froze MGNREGA wages. In the end, the Prime Minister agreed to accept the recommendations and indexed MGNREGA wage rate to minimum wage rates until the Advisory Committee made a satisfactory index.

 Pandemic and Workers Condition

The pandemic has led to labourers and workers suffering. Nationwide lockdown seems like the only option to control the virus-spread, but it has resulted in shutdown of big businesses, industries, factories etc. Many workers have lost their jobs. Because of no jobs workers are returning back to their villages, along with their families and belongings. This again highlights their insecure working conditions.  Not only have they lost their daily earnings but also they are at great risk of contacting COVID- 19 or facing starvation.  During this lockdown, only the middle classes and well off sections are able to survive but workers have marginal income and savings and it is very difficult for poor working class to manage day-to-day activities unless the Government makes some efforts to improve their condition.

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