Labour Standards and Globalisation: A Case Study of Implementing Minimum Wages

July 30, 2009

By Manali Chakrabarti (IDS Kolkata) and Rahul Varman (IIT Kanpur). This article appeared in Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 50,1. It reviews civil society action for implementation of minimum wages for contingent workers at an IIT, and analyses the underlying political economy.

Abstract: Minimum wage policy has remained in contention with economists and policy makers aligned on both sides of the debate. Increasingly the state has been forced to formally retract these laws under the onslaught of the globalisation of capital. This has resulted in a precipitous drop of wages for workers, especially in the so-called ‘unorganised sector’. The present note is an attempt to capture the process and consequences of institutionalisation of payment of minimum wages in a public sector academic institution.

Introduction

In the present order that is supposedly governed by the twin gods of profits and market forces, the issue of minimum wages has been the text book case of the consequences of going against the orthodoxy (Champlin & Noedler, 2002). In standard theory there is no level below which the wages cannot fall; and the ‘neoclassicalists’ as well as the World Bank have for decades now been making a ‘convincing’ case of how having minimum wages is not good for the welfare of the workers themselves!

Protective labour regimes, of which the minimum wage laws have invariably been a basic constituent, are said to be the relics of the primitive past. And yet, minimum wage policy has remained in contention, with economists and policy makers aligned on both the sides of the debate (Card and Krueger, 1994; Levin-Waldman, 2004; Neumark & Wascher, 2000; Waltman, 2000). In most countries several progressive labour related legislations are already in place in most countries because of the legacy of the global labour movement, but at present, these laws are largely ignored or blatantly flouted. Further, increasingly the state has also been forced to formally retract several of these laws under the onslaught of the globalisation of capital. This has resulted in a precipitous drop of wages for workers, especially in the so-called ‘unorganised sector’- the section of the workforce in the lowest rung of skill and economic hierarchy in the present world order. As a response, several movements for ‘living wages’, ‘fair wages’, ‘minimum wages’ have emerged in the last couple of decades, in both the developing as well as the developed regions of the world (ACORN 2001).

The present note is an attempt to capture the process and consequences of institutionalisation of payment of minimum wages in a public sector academic institute situated in an industrial city in North India . In keeping with the ground reality of the whole country including that of the city, almost no contractor in the Institute campus pays the stipulated Minimum Wages, at least for unskilled and semi-skilled work. In fact market conditions in and around the campus are such that men and women are ready to work at even half the existing rates of the minimum wages. The note describes and analyses the role of a concerned group of middle-class individuals within the campus community, who with the support of the existing labour laws, have tried to use official means to make a dent in the contractor-administration nexus and work towards ensuring ‘fair’ wages within the campus. The writing starts with a historical backdrop and then describes the chronological unfolding of events over a span of five years from December 2000 to December 2005. And finally the whole process has been summarised and then analysed to bring out its implications for any initiative on issues similar to the one dealt in this writing (the implementation of minimum wages).

The Context

The city is an old industrial centre in North Central India which flourished in cotton textiles, leather and leather products, woollen textiles, engineering products, etc. In the recent times though, the city has been in the news only for its rapid industrial decline, fast deteriorating socio-economic order and very high unemployment and crime rate. It had a militant working class movement, but as the capital has moved out of the city and the mills have closed down, the trade unions are in shambles and the working class movement has virtually collapsed.

The present case is situated in a premiere technological institute of the country: the Institute was set up in one of the most important industrial centres of the country in the late 1950s with US collaboration as part of the Nehruvian post-colonial nation building project. The Institute functions on the principles of parliamentary democracy and accords fair amount of autonomy to the faculty. In the early years, probably because of being part of the first generation in the phase of post-colonial nation building, some of the members of the faculty brought in notions of social concerns to this fully residential campus (mainly for teaching staff and students and partly for non-teaching staff as well). Some of them were able to find academic as well as practical expressions for their social concerns within the campus, given the liberal environment and a degree of academic freedom. The liberal culture of the campus was further enhanced by a vibrant employees’ union which came up in the early 1970s.

Employees at the lower levels were mostly from nearby places, while faculty and students had fair representation from different parts of the country. Efforts at unionisation of the temporary workforce in the Institute began in the late 1960s with participation of the academic community. The general socio-political environment of the region, country, and probably the whole world in the 1960s and 1970s, affected and furthered the movement in the Institute too. This resulted in a strong trade union, and eventually, a permanent work force within a few years. But by the 1990s, with the onset of the economic reforms, the industrial relations in the Institute too, as across the whole country, entered a new phase. In the last decade and a half many of the labour and union rights have receded, as permanent work and workers are being rapidly replaced by contingent workforce.

In the past decade, sub-contracting of work by the Institute has multiplied manifold, and therefore, the contingent workforce has also commensurately increased. Many kinds of jobs have been completely taken over by the contingent workers – construction and civil maintenance, security, sanitation, horticulture, and even research assistance and office help; though the last category is not dealt with in the present work. There has also been a phenomenal rise in the infrastructural facilities within the Institute, primarily because of monetary contributions from the alumni (mostly from those who have been ‘successful’ abroad) which have been pouring in, in the wake of liberalisation. Though we do not have the formal figures, yet by an informed estimate, at present the strength of the permanent work force is probably matched by the contract and temporary workers and would be around a couple of thousand each. The discussion here is limited to the so-called ‘unskilled’/ ‘semi-skilled’ manual work, where minimum wage is an issue.

Demand for Minimum Wages (MWs)

The MWs emerged as an issue in the campus in the early 1990s. An informal group called the Vivekanand Samiti (VS) began a literacy drive amongst the migrant Chattisgarhi workers employed on some of the construction sites in the campus. Initially the effort concentrated in getting the children of the workers to attend a temporary school . Through interactions with these children the volunteers of VS gradually came to know about the miserable wages being paid to the workers in the campus (which was even less than half of the stipulated minimum wages). They decided to take up the issue with the Institute authorities. Legally the primary responsibility for ensuring the payment of minimum wages lies with the ‘principal employer’, the Institute in this case. In actual practice the contract workers have little job security and no employment rights. No formal rolls are maintained by the contractors, and since these workers have no organisation to mediate with the employers, they literally work at the mercy of the employers’ will and live with the constant fear of losing their employment. Hence all these organising efforts by the VS had to be done surreptitiously. Though, in the process a few workers did loose their jobs and were blacklisted by the whole set of contractors working for the Institute. Some of these workers formed the core of the later efforts at organising, which led to the formation of a workers’ cooperative in the campus.

The simplicity of the issue, the absolutely unambiguous position of the law of the land on the minimum wages, and the overall irony of the context of an elite institution with no apparent dearth of funds and resources not paying the MWs to the lowest rung of workers, caught the imagination of many amongst the academic community, at least for a while in the beginning. Several faculty members and students supported the cause and the Institute found itself in an indefensible position as to the reasons for non-payment of minimum wages, but for some practical difficulties in implementing the same given the market forces, etc. Though the administration could not wish away the issue of MWs it could not implement it either as the body of contractors unitedly opposed it by adopting several deterring tactics like firing the protesting workers, threatening to stop work, etc. Under these circumstances the Institute formed a committee of a few concerned faculty members to deal with the issue. But given the political economy of MWs, the committee could not make much headway and failed to ensure the payment of minimum wages as a norm within the campus .

The core group of agitating workers and the initiated middle class supporters came up with an ingenuous solution to the problem. They decided to form a workers’ cooperative that would bid on behalf of the workers and take up contracts so that the workers would have the freedom to pay themselves the MWs without the interference of the contractors. Thus a workers cooperative, Samiti, was formed in 1992, though in its early phase it faced significant resistance from the administration. The Institute administration even refused to give tender forms to Samiti, and when the fledgeling cooperative did manage to bid, they would reject it on some ground or another. But Samiti survived and over the years, has grown to a size of around 200 members at present, and is widely acknowledged as the only contracting organisation on the campus which pays the MWs. Samiti, including its members and sympathisers, have been taking up several cases of gross violation of MWs and bringing them to the attention of the larger community and the authorities. But for all practical purposes except for Samiti market forces largely decided the norm . for the wages in the campus, irrespective of the stipulated MWs. But this is not the place to relate Samiti’s tale. We have attempted to capture some of the organisational features of Samiti in another work (Varman & Chakrabarti, 2004). We will touch upon Samiti in the final section to make certain observations regarding the labour markets.

As has been mentioned earlier, besides the global phenomena of recession of worker rights the situation in the campus was aggravated over the 1990s, probably because of a spurt in construction activity aided by huge sums of alumni money, where large numbers of workers (many of them migrants from distant places) were employed at wages which were only 50-60% of the statutory minimum wages. Concerned members of the Institute community have been regularly voicing their concerns at several formal and informal forums on the issue; some of the instances are as follows.

§ At least two reports on non-payment of minimum wages in the campus were prepared by students as part of their course work – one comparing the state of construction workers vis-à-vis the Minimum Wages Act, which made a grim reading on the conditions of the workers in the campus. The second report compared the state of other contract workers on cleaning work with those of Samiti and brought out how the latter was an exception in paying MWs. The faculty forum convener forwarded both the reports along with a letter signed by a set of faculty members expressing their concern ‘about the blatant flouting of minimum wage laws for contract jobs’, to the higher authorities seeking their response.

§ Several individual workers risked their jobs to register grievances about non-payment of minimum-wages. Many of these grievances were channelled either through the concerned members of the academic community, Samiti or Valmiki Samaj, a local chapter of an all India organisation of the Valmiki caste, who are involved in most of the cleaning work in the campus.

Probably because of all these sustained efforts, in November 2000 the administration decided to constitute another committee for monitoring minimum wages in the campus – Monitoring Committee – Wages (MCW). The appointment letter of the Committee was all of one line which indicated that probably no serious thought had been given to the functioning and role of the committee and it could at best be considered an official acknowledgement of all the criticism levelled on the issue of MWs. All that the office-order said was:

The committee shall oversee the disbursement of wages to Daily Wage Workers engaged in various units of the Institute and deal with the related disputes.

The following is the account of the journey of MCW from its inception in December 2000 to December 2005. An important aspect of the Committee and its functioning which should be mentioned at the outset, has been the sustained support it received from a large informal group consisting of members of the faculty, students, staff and other members/ residents of the campus community. The MCW had to tread uncertain and often extremely contestable territories, with almost no previous experience or precedence to go by. Under these circumstances the informal group acted as a sounding board both for new ideas as well as for delicate decisions. On situations of impasse with the authorities as well as with the contractors and the administration, the informal group has also formally supported the MCW, including by being part of official delegation on behalf of the Committee. Though it is difficult to adequately capture the significance of this informal group within the scope of the present note, one can only assert that such a group has been continually an integral part of the Committee’s efforts in various ways. In the following section we will attempt to capture various phases of the Committee and volunteers’ work in brief.

Dynamics of Wage Monitoring Committee

The first concern of the Committee was to try to understand and appreciate the views of all the concerned parties on the issue and work in a ‘non-confrontationist’ style. It began by meeting the Superintending Engineer (SE), the head of the Works Department (WD). The Institute has an exclusive WD to oversee the construction and the civil maintenance work; of late, even sanitation, horticulture and estate offices have also begun to report to the SE. By all accounts, and by the very nature of the activities of the WD, the lines of nexus between the contractors and administration are likely to pass through the WD. Therefore the SE, as the all-powerful boss of the WD, was one authority whom the MCW had to regularly contend with. Through the SE, the Committee met a set of contractors as well. In a written note circulated prior to the meeting to all the contractors, the MCW clarified that it had nothing against them as a group, and were concerned for their profits too, but the payment of MWs was non-negotiable.

In the meeting all the contractors accepted that none of them (but for Samiti) paid MWs, but they also voiced certain difficulties from their side in paying the MWs. The Committee received its first formal complaint by a set of workers (cleaners) for non-payment of MWs in July 2001. Around this time the MCW began to monitor some of the contractors’ actual wage payments. Members of the Committee soon realised that the system for payment of wages was not amenable to external monitoring as there were no proper record of workers on rolls, attendance records, advance payments, wage payment, etc. The first task of the committee therefore became to design a system amenable to monitoring and subsequently implementing them across the several contracting organisations. On the basis of their initial understandings of the wage disbursement processes the MCW sent its first set of recommendations to the Director, the head of the Institute.

This set the stage for the actual monitoring of wage payments by the MCW. Probably the first confrontation that the Committee faced was triggered by a complaint filed by 9 workers employed by a contractor handling horticulture work in the Institute. The workers complained that they were getting only about 2/3rd of the MWs as they were not aware of the stipulated MWs. Interestingly the administrative head of this unit was part of the MCW! There was pressure on him from the Committee members to initiate monitoring in his unit. While this process was going on, the contractor dismissed two workers immediately after he saw them talking to the Chairperson of the MCW. In spite of the persistent efforts of the Committee they could not get those workers back in the job. Actually when the contractor was pressurised, he did take them back, but gave them impossible targets and then dismissed them on the pretext of poor quality work – it was the same old story of identified ‘trouble makers’ turning overnight into ‘bad workers’! Finally, three months after the complaint was lodged with the MCW, three of the nine workers including the two who were seen talking, were laid off. While monitoring, the volunteers found that all the workers were being paid the minimum wages; but the sums when added up often left no profit margin for the contractor. See Appendix for a variety of contracts and issues around contract workers and minimum wages.

In September 2001 the Committee submitted an interim report to the Director. The report began by emphasising the significance of MWs followed by a background of the work done till then. The report asserted: ‘It is apparent from conversations with all the three groups (administrators, contractors, workers) that minimum wages are not paid as a rule but there is no formal procedure to ascertain it’. The Committee also emphasised on the significance of its consultative approach and attempts to build ‘consensus’. The MCW had the following recommendations to make:

1. To make it mandatory for all wage and attendance records to be kept in prescribed format issued by the Institute. (As a follow up, the SE issued a circular to all executive officers to ensure that the contractors under them start maintaining attendance on the format provided by the Committee.)

2. The Committee sought more time to resolve the issue of contradiction between the practice of awarding the contracts to the lowest bid, which often did not even add up to the minimum wages of the labour employed, making it practically impossible to pay MWs.

3. Since the Committee’s term was about to end, it also made suggestions regarding constitution of future committees and recommended a two year term for it, given the complexities of issues involved. (The Director in principle appeared to be in agreement and he extended the term of the then Committee to two years).

II. Monitoring Wages

In October 2001, the first of the two incidents involving Earthline occurred, where a set of 53 workers from Central Bihar lodged a complaint with the MCW to settle their claim of Rs. 2,28,170/, which according to them was due as outstanding wages for the months of July to October 2001 for the work done on the construction site of a new hostel. All these workers belonged to one subcontractor of Earthline, the main contractor for the project.

The workers lodged the complaint to the MCW through a labour lawyer, who was earlier associated with Samiti. But, once the complaint was made by the workers, the contractor dismissed all of them from work summarily. Since these workers lived in temporary shelters on space provided by the contractor at the construction site, the contractor also threatened them of eviction. Faced with the prospect of losing everything including their due outstanding wages, jobs, as well as the shelter, the workers would come daily to the WD office, and petition to the officials, but to no avail. They were repeatedly told that he company’s sahib would come from Delhi and do their hisaab (clear their dues). Finally the chairperson of the MCW had to seek intervention of the newly appointed Director and some settlement was arrived at. But again the main difficulty was that there were practically no verifiable and credible records, and what workers finally got was through lengthy negotiations including acrimonious claims and counter claims. Typically in any such situation, migrant workers, with no local social moorings to sustain a prolonged stay without work, settle for any compensation, usually much less than their dues.

As the monitoring picked up momentum in the early months of 2002, an interesting development was observed during disbursement of the wages. The Committee and the volunteers noticed that though the correct wages seem to be given on paper, the actual money disbursed was significantly lower as there were large amounts of advance payments registered against every worker. The consistency of this practice across several contractors it was surmised that this was most likely a tactic devised for not paying the minimum wages and yet maintaining proper records. There were no proper records maintained for the advance payments claimed to be made; but, in spite of the observers’ repeated reassurances, none of the workers were willing to testify that advances were actually not paid to him/her. The committee at a later point tried to get around this tactics of the contractors by pressurising them to pay wages at a greater frequency, may be fortnightly or even weekly so that the workers would not need advances. But, this measure could not be enforced because of the opposition of the contractors and the indifference of the authorities. Unofficially observers were told that generally the contractors organised a meeting with the workers before every payment and threatened them of dire consequences if they spoke up against the contractors. In September, the Committee in a curt letter communicated its frustration regarding lack of proper records by contractors of their workers and the indifference of the administration on the issue, to the concerned authorities.

The Second Earthline Case

In November 2002 there was another showdown of the Committee with the Institute authorities on the issue of non-payment of due wages to a set of 36 construction workers working for a subcontractor of M/s Earthline, on one of the hostel construction sites in the campus (see endnote 14). These 36 workers and their subcontractor belonged to the same village in Chattisgarh. The workers complained that they had not been paid their dues for the previous four months. The usual practice followed by petty contractors is to give some advance to the workers every month and settle the dues of the workers only once they get the payment from the ‘company’, the original contractor (M/s Earthline in this case). The subcontractor bids for specific work for certain amount of money (and usually they operate on very low margins given the extremely competitive market for the supply of unskilled labour) but there is always a chance of such estimates going wrong because of miscalculations or mismanagement or a combination of both. Now in this case, the petty contractor claimed that ‘humko ghata hua hai’ (he had suffered losses) and hence he could not pay his workers. The issue went through several claims and counter claims amongst the three parties – M/s Earthline, sub-contractor and the workers. The ‘Company’ claimed that they had cleared all the dues, while the petty contractor claimed otherwise – and there probably was truth on both sides as the initial claims of the sub-contractor was so low that it was most likely impossible to do the work in that amount and either way the fact remained that the workers were not paid their due wages. The Institute felt the issue was beyond their purview since it had cleared the main contractor’s wages, Earthline after pocketing a huge profit was still ‘legally’ correct for having settled the petty contractor’s due, and the petty contractor would have also cleared himself of any liability towards the workers if the workers had let him go. But the workers held on to their claims and since the petty contractor belonged to the same locality and his economic means were only marginally above the workers themselves, he was stuck with them. To further complicate matters it was very difficult to determine how much was due to the workers, as there were no attendance records with anybody, so it was reduced to an issue of whose claims one was ready to trust and to what extent.

But the matters took a different turn from here. These workers did not get any dues for weeks and in the process other actors like Samiti got involved on behalf of the workers. Meanwhile in spite of repeated reminders to the Institute by the MCW to take some action when nothing happened, the Chairperson of the MCW decided to talk personally to the SE. The SE in response went on a personal diatribe against the chairperson on the phone itself. Though the general body of faculty had been generally uninvolved on the issue of minimum wages, this ‘misbehaviour’ of the SE with a colleague invoked a collective outrage. In a signed letter to the Faculty Forum 16 faculty members asked for a GBM to discuss the issues of relationship between the administration and a committee duly appointed by the Institute, participatory governance system and the role of the community. The house recommended that the MCW should be a standing committee with a two year term and that the administration should extend all help to the Committee.

III. Administering in the Wage Office

Right in the beginning of its second term the Committee decided to direct its energy first in implementing a ‘monitorable’ formal system across various sites of contract workers. In this regard, MCW designed and printed sheets for formal record keeping (attendance, etc.) and distributed it to a number of units with instructions to the officer in charge to oversee the implementation. Around this time the Committee also a report to the higher authorities on a contractor Krishna Housekeeping, (the Appendix carries a note on this contractor as an example for understanding the issues regarding MW in perennial contracts for cleaning), who had been a regular defaulter for payment of minimum wages, and recommended that punitive action be taken against him to deter such practices.

In the months of August, September and October 2003 the Committee attempted to do as many monitoring as possible and did more than 20 of them across various kinds of contracts – sanitation, horticulture, civil maintenance, electrical, etc. Based on the continuing monitoring the Committee decided to meet the Deputy Director to apprise him of its work and make specific recommendations. One of the important recommendations made was to seek a specific location to be assigned for the disbursement of wages and for the authorities to ensure that all the wage payments be conducted there. This was to tackle the high incidence of ‘advance’ payment in the civil maintenance contracts (mentioned earlier). The Committee had observed that the proportion of advance had a high correlation with the difference between the statutory minimum wages and the actual wages paid. The idea behind a specific location for wage payment was that this location would be open for a few pre-specified hours daily, and would have some volunteers representing the Committee present during that period, so that the contractors have the flexibility to make payments (of all kinds including advances) on any day of the month, but in the presence of a monitoring authority. After pursuing for months the proposal was formally approved by the higher authorities in February 2004. An office order was issued to the effect that the contractors would have to make all payments only in the wage office, and only after they had received a payment slip from the office certifying their payment, would they be eligible to receive their payment from the Institute. The Committee, with the help of the informal group, gradually started the implementation of the proposal by the end of March 2004.

Since monitoring began in the wage office in February 2004, volunteers have opened the wage office for two hours or more every single working day and all the Saturdays, sometimes even on a holiday. Approximately 15-20 faculty members, some of the senior institute functionaries, a few students and other residents of the campus have volunteered to take up various roles and though some older members have dropped out, new ones have also been added over the months. At the beginning of every month a duty schedule is prepared, though volunteers may adjust and replace each other sometimes depending upon the contingencies. There have been differences of opinion amongst the volunteers as well as differences in their commitment for the issue, yet the wage office has been opened every single working day for more than a year now. Volunteers meet every month to take up emerging issues. In the closing months of 2005 the volunteers have attempted to deepen their work by focusing on the following:

1. Target a few but persistently erring contractors against whom complaints have been registered regularly.

2. Insist on receiving a copy of all contracts that contain a labour component so that the wage record of every contractor can be cross checked.

3. Gradually pass on the responsibility of maintaining attendance records to the user sections/ departments, which would be then sent to the Committee, so that a more effective check can be kept on the contractor’s records.

4. Ensure that payments are made to the contractors by the Institute only when a receipt is produced from the wage office.

5. Insist that recommendations or complaints of the Committee regarding malpractices be taken into account when awarding/ renewing contract and in cases of repeated infringements the contractor(s) should be blacklisted.

6. Set up a tripartite standing committee to handle all disputes and grievances and also to ensure protection of workers from victimisation in cases of pending disputes.

7. Make efforts for issuance of identity cards to the workers to facilitate the wage payment to the right person.

As the Committee’s and the voluntary group’s understanding of the complexity of minimum wages have deepened over these five years there has been a general consensus for focussing the limited energy of the group on contracts which are most amenable to monitoring. The idea was to set examples and send the correct signal to the all concerned. Therefore in the recent past, the Committee has attempted to focus more on the contracts pertaining to hostels where student volunteers can play an important role by exercising their rights as users to judge the performance of the contractors; helping to mobilise the workers as well as protecting them; and even monitoring the contractors by cross checking their attendance records, etc. This phase has just begun and hence, hence this story has to be told later.

Summarising the MCW Experience over Five Years

In summarising the experience of the struggle for minimum wages in the Institute over the last five years in which the MCW has been in existence, one may simply say that even today minimum wages are not paid as a norm in almost all the contract jobs in the campus. The workers usually work longer hours than the legal limit of eight hours, and are paid lower than their due wages. There have hardly been any official punitive measures taken against any of the erring contractors even in cases where there have been repeated written complaints. And yet the existence of the Committee has definitely pushed the cause for implementation of minimum wages some way:

1. The wages paid within the campus have been rising and are significantly higher than those paid outside the campus in several kinds of work where wages are being monitored regularly.

2. The Committee has gradually gained strength – some officially proffered and some just taken voluntarily by pushing the ambiguous boundaries of its role, and now has risen in significance vis-à-vis the Institute authorities.

3. A small but committed group of faculty members have veered around the issue which has made monitoring on a daily basis possible. The group has been able to successfully involve members of other sections of the campus community including student, staff, the larger community and even some officials of the administration.

4. There appears to be an increasing awareness amongst contract workers regarding their rights of minimum wages and working hours which also seems to be leading to situations of conflicts and disagreements between workers and contractors as well as complaints regarding wages.

5. The formation of the Committee for minimum wages and its efforts (with the help of the informal group) in the five years of its existence have elevated ‘minimum wages’ to the status of a ‘right’ for workers at least among the official circles. All the parties involved with the issue in the campus – the administration, the contractors, the authorities, the involved users (students, faculty and staff) as well as the workers have to formally acknowledge that minimum wages are not paid in the campus. At some places where the committee received the support of the administrative heads, it also met with partial success in protecting the dissenting workers. Further, even if for the sake of mere ‘lip service’, in all formal forums the involved parties have to admit that this situation ought to be corrected.

Implications

The understanding from the above micro but long drawn and evolving experience of institutionalising of minimum wages in the Institute over the years can be generalised at three levels.

1. Political Economy of Wages and Policy with Regard to Minimum Wages

The debate regarding minimum wages and contract labour has been rife in the policy circles. Neo-liberals have been insisting that market forces must reign and the Contract Labour Act has been a target of our chambers of commerce for some time now. Our experience from the case described above suggests that if the market forces were given a free hand, wages would go for a free fall. Without the accountability of the principal employer along with legal provisions for minimum wages, no check on the wages could have been enforced. In a recent survey by a group of student volunteers in one of the hostel messes, it was found that the contractor takes money back from all the mess employee after paying them full amount under intense scrutiny in the wage office, but the amount that is taken back differs depending upon where the concerned worker is situated in the political economy of the wage market. The deduction is close to 55 percent for women who come from villages around the city to cut vegetables, it is around 45 percent from the migrant workers who have come from Bihar and who stay in the space provided by the contractor, and it is 30-35 percent from those workers who belong to neighbourhood; though all of them are actually made to work anywhere from 12 – 14 hours a day. As the pressure from the wage volunteers increased over time, the mess contractor has tried to reduce the local workers and replace them with women and migrant workers. Whereas, the same contractor hires workers en-masse from the locality to run a mess all the way in Mumbai (discussed in the Appendix).

The existence of Samiti, the workers’ cooperative, provided the initial impetus in pulling the wages up in the campus and later the pressure from the wage monitoring committee appears to have bolstered the upward pull. The change from the status quo was brought about initially by Samiti and subsequently, the Committee’s efforts have forced the contractors to adhere to some minimum rules or at least to formally acknowledge them. It has made a difference to the distribution of the surplus by making some dent in the profits of the contractors and also probably stopped some of the impossible L1 biddings of the earlier years. But none of these actors, Samiti or the concerned group of individuals, would have been able to make any headway in the absence of the existing unequivocal laws on minimum wages and contract workers. Thus the point that comes out clearly from our experience is that, contrary to what the mainstream labour economists recommend, a legal framework is imperative for mediating worker – management relations, more so as we move to the lower end of the market, where workers are at a greater disadvantage due to lack of access to the establishment as well as absence of their own organisations. Even in the case of industrialised economies, some labour economists have argued against the market model and made a case for the regulatory institutions (Dickens et al., 1999; Pischke, 2005).

Another important understanding which emerges from the above experience is regarding the vital role which public sector can still play in institutionalising norms for minimum wage payment. The whole effort, especially the official sanction it has been able to garner, however reluctantly, would have been largely impossible in the private sector. And yet, an example set in the public sector is likely to influence the general practice on the issue including in the private sector. Thus in spite of their receding presence public sector organisations still act as a deterrence to the downward pull on wages as dictated by the free market. Perhaps the experiment, in hindsight, was possible also because of the specific situation of the Institute in the global economy as a supplier of work force to the silicon valleys of US and India. Due to the global linkages, the Institute is flush with resources and at least needs to uphold certain ‘standards’ on paper and the wage volunteers have regularly made use of such rhetoric and the contradictions inherent in it to push the cause.

2. The Limited Role of the Middle Class Public Action

The case also brings out the significance as well as the limitations of the role of the middle classes. It is obvious that whatever has been achieved above has indeed been primarily because of the initiative of the middle classes, barring the role of Samiti, the workers’ cooperative. In spite of the fact that the laws regarding minimum wages have been in place for several decades, the actual wages paid even in this public Institute ranged from 1/3rd to half of the legally stipulated due. The attitude of the elite was (and to a large extent is) that the workers should neither be seen nor heard and should be used as an extremely dispensable and contingent resource. For instance, when the Institute run mess for the hostel is closed during the summer vacations, even those workers who have been working for the Institute for several years are not paid any wages. Similarly if a worker is injured during work, it is left to be dealt with by the contractor and his employee(s), with no intervention from the Institute. Even the health care facility of the Institute is largely inaccessible to the contingent workers. This general indifference of the Institute towards its contingent workforce indicates that only because of the persistent efforts of the pressure group could the minimum wages laws be upheld to some extent. Yet the case also starkly brings out the limitations of the middle class action. Three kinds of tendencies are observed here:

i. There has been a continuous attempt to bring in more procedures and standards through which the contractors can be monitored and held accountable. The MCW began with the attendance procedure, to procedures for advance payment, wage payment slip, the wage payment records in the wage office, to its present endeavour to have the identity cards, bank accounts and grievance redressal procedures.

ii. The modes of enforcing MWs have been confined to petitioning to the higher authorities and reasoning it out with them. The most intense debate within the group has been essentially limited to whether to involve students, the alumni, the judiciary, the press, etc., again very much within the middle class domain. Though it is acknowledged to some extent by the members of the group, that all their efforts are likely to be circumvented by the contractors, unless the workers themselves are able to hold them to adhere to minimum wages laws, middle-class participants find it very difficult to establish any kind of working relationship with the working classes.

iii. And lastly, but not surprisingly given the context, there have been enormous enthusiasm for using technological measures to check the contractors by deploying surveillance measures, like smart cards, devices for marking attendance, automating the records, etc.

Thus in the absence of a groundswell among the working class to ensure their rights, middle class participation has got confined to increasing methods of policing through rules, regulations and technology.

3. Need for Working Class Collective Action

The most conspicuous aspect in this whole account is the absence of the working class actors and their voices, especially collective voices, with the significant exception of Samiti. The whole initiative has not yet succeeded to catch the collective imagination of the contract workers in the campus in all these years. Many workers have voiced dissent under heroic circumstances, and yet no organising attempt has reached anywhere under the combined onslaught of market forces and the complete absence of any institutional support. Without a minimum assurance of job security, it is almost impossible for migrant and contract workers to organise over a sustained basis; and we think that probably it is more likely to happen only if a fresh institutional framework can be put in place, which would be one of the most optimistic of the possible fallouts of the present initiative.

But if one does not treat the working class (in the Institute) as an undifferentiated entity and analyses at some depth the peculiarities of the several sections which constitute it, one gets a better understanding of the situation. Workers with social moorings in the immediate vicinity of the Institute generally get higher wages than the migrant workers. Taking the case of cleaning workers as an example, most of whom belong to the Valmiki caste and stay in an adjoining area to the campus; they are paid higher wages than almost all other categories of workers. The fact that most of the workers of Samiti also belong to this category further substantiates the understanding, that any kind of organising initiative is more likely to be successful among workers with local linkages. In the case of Samiti, besides a strong organisational initiative (through the workers’ cooperative) the other important factor for its success has been the presence of a dynamic social organisation at their living place – the Valmiki Samaj. This caste based organisation helped in fostering a strong sense of identification among the members and also acted as a social arbitrator on several contentious issues. Thus a combination of factors like entry barriers in the labour market (due to caste biases), organisation at the work place as well as at the living place buttressed by a strong middle class support and a relatively liberal corporate environment of the public sector Institute have helped in pushing up the wages for these workers and have also facilitated in sustaining an effort like Samiti. Significantly the Institute authorities have recently been voicing their concern for what they claim to be “too much money being spent in sanitation work”, (it is actually a small fraction of massive expenditures of the institute), and are contemplating to “use technology” to curtail the costs. This development suggests that, wherever workers achieve even a semblance of associational power, in this case through Samiti and Valmiki Samaj, there is an endeavour to break it, as in this case through a ‘technological fix’ (Silver, 2003).

To conclude, the case signifies that progressive labour policies are imperative to ensure fair wages to the contingent work force. And yet only having a formal policy is not enough under the offensive of present neo-liberal order given the political reality at the ground level. The civil society must also intervene at the grassroots and be committed for a long haul. And even then, any tangible change will come only if middle class action is combined with a vibrant working class movement. Only if economic struggles are combined with political movements will they reach anywhere, where it can potentially give meaning to a progressive policy framework. The point that has to be noted here is that the policy framework (like the present Minimum Wages Act and Contract Labour Act) is a relic of another era and the challenge is to find innovative ways to make it practical for the present context instead of working only for progressive policies on paper. For instance, in the US, the relatively more unionised states have significantly higher minimum wages than the federal indicating that minimum wages and its implementation above all is a matter of politics (Johnson, 2002; Levin-Waldman, 1998). Discerning readers will realise that we have not even raised the most fundamental issue, that of cultural aspects, like democratic relations between the working and the middle classes and nature of collective consciousness, etc. But in spite of these shortcomings this present attempt based on a daily practice of concerned middle class individuals to make democracy ‘un-extraordinary’ (Lachelier, 2002) is probably worth the narrative. In the final analysis whether they would be able to achieve any success in institutionalising the issues or would end up being co-opted into the larger administrative framework still remains a question (Selznick, 1966).

Appendix: Nature of Contracts and Contractors and Variety of Issues Involved in Monitoring Minimum Wages

The Institute has several types of contract work in the campus and they can be broadly classified as: cleaning, messing, security, civil maintenance & painting, horticulture (gardening), and construction. Of these the first three are perennial contracts and the rest except for construction are partly perennial and partly need based and each of them present different sets of complications with respect to monitoring of wages. Wage monitoring is the most difficult in construction as these workers are confined to their site or their living quarters which are usually outside the campus (see the description below). The perennial contracts are relatively easier to keep track of, as the work is well defined and there is constant user interface and contacts are for at least one year. To start with the Committee has been concentrating on ensuring minimum wages in these contracts. A brief description of the complexities of some of the contracts is brought out through specific examples below.

Krishna Housekeeping

This contractor has many cleaning related contracts in the campus, like garbage disposal and hostel cleaning, etc. The first contract was for garbage disposal and in fact he bagged this contract from the Samiti in 1999, who were doing it since 1992. All the workers employed by him belong to the Valmiki caste, who live in the neighbouring locality. Also, many of them are related to the workers of Samiti. Because of this connections with the earlier agitating workers as well as a semblance of job security because of the caste dynamics (as no other caste will take up the ‘dirty’ work of cleaning!), the workers have been persistent with their complaints. He was the first contractor monitored by the MCW and, over the five years since the Committee was formed, several complaints have been filed against him. Initially he showed the ‘extra’ amount (the difference between actual wages and those disbursed) as advance paid. Later when he had to pay even advance in the wage office, he started taking money back by threatening the workers. But the workers also persisted with their complaints, including there have been incidents of dismissal when workers have refused to pay back. The Committee has accumulated a massive record of complaints against him and has been demanding strict action against the contractor. Though fresh contracts have been given to him, yet in some ways he symbolises the distance that the committee has travelled. When the monitoring began, informal reports suggested that he used to deduct Rs. 20-30/ from a wage rate of Rs. 70/ per day; today when the minimum wage for the cleaning work is Rs. 85/ he is able to take back only about Rs. 10-12/. From all accounts workers face less repression at work also, as they keep threatening him with complaints to the committee. But all this ‘progress’ remains tenuous given the deterioration in local labour markets – it is simple to find cleaning workers for Rs. 40/ to 50/ a day. The last we heard is that he is attempting to reduce the local workers and bring workers from ‘outside’.

Food Supply Co.

Several messes in the hostels have been privatised in the last five years and Food Supply Co. this contractor has bagged many contracts for messing.It has also been another persistent target of the Committee due to the never ending number of complaints against him. This contractor operates at multiple locations in the country and has got his workers from far off towns. Interestingly for a mess contract in Mumbai, he has booked virtually a whole compartment and taken around 50 young men from the neighbourhood, while consistently refusing to employ any local youth for the Institute messes! He has rented an accommodation and keeps all his migrant workers there. The workers report to work at 7.00 am and stay there practically for the whole day and are let off only after dinner around 11.00 pm (there are short breaks in between two meals). This is the routine for all the days of the week and they get unpaid leave to go home only during the lean period when the hostel strength is less due to the vacations, etc. The contract specifies number of workers for every kind of work – cooking, serving, cleaning, coupons, supervision, etc and the contractor is supposed to maintain the workforce irrespective of the volume of work all through the year. His payments, though, are made on the basis of number of students dining. The contractor provides the workers with food in the mess itself. In spite of having such tight control over his workers, there have been persistent complaints by them against the contractor. The first dispute happened over a procedural matter on the very first occasion he came to the wage office. The volunteer present objected to the policy of deducting almost 1/3rd of the wages for the food provided pointing out that it was against the law. Then there were complaints that though he showed full amount, actually he showed less attendance and/ or took money back later. But when he showed less attendance the volunteers cross-checked his claims by calculating the man days as specified in the contract and when they were found to be significantly lower (approx. 1000 against 1400 in the contract), his payments from the Institute were deducted proportionately for the month. In anther case reported against him it was alleged that when a worker refused to give the money back, he was beaten up badly and the committee asked the Institute to setup an inquiry committee. In spite of an unfavourable report, he got another mess contract, but the workers have kept complaining and the Committee has tried to find ways of checking the malpractices. In the latest move the wardens have agreed to a proposal of the MCW wherein the volunteers can talk to the workers on minimum wages, make surprise checks of attendance records and even keep parallel attendance records. Further the contractor has been asked to provide ID cards to all his workers, and make available a duty roster of his workers to the Committee.

Construction Work

As mentioned in the Earthline case above there are layers of contractors in such work for the workers and most of the time these are migrant workers. Here is a part description of workers of a subcontractor on a hostel construction site by a MW volunteer in 2004:

Most of the contractors belong to the same place from where they get the workers. For instance we were told about the petty contractor from Malda. He takes charge of his workers right from the moment they step out of their village – travelling, food, etc. He gets them for 50 days and pays them any amount ranging from Rs. 3000 to 4000. He even gets a maharaj for cooking meals. But the people apparently have to work for 14 hours everyday for 50 days to get their money. Even their food is served at the work site. The 50 days are nonnegotiable; even if somebody is unwell he is expected to go for work. It is reported that one old man died recently because he had to keep working in spite of being unwell.

References

Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now (ACORN) 2001, Living Wage Success: A compilation of living wage policies on the books.

Card, David & Krueger, Alan B. 1994, Minimum Wages and Employment: A case study of the fast-food industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The American Economic Review, 84, 4, 772 – 793.

Champlin, Dell P. & Knoedler, Janet T. 2002, Wages in Public Interest: Insights from Thorstein Veblen and J. M. Clark. Journal of Economic Issues, 36, 4, 877 – 891.

Dickens, Richard, Machin, Stephen & Manning, Alan 1999, The Effects of Minimum Wages on Employment: Theory and evidence. Journal of Labor Economics, 17, 1, 1 – 22.

Johnson, Colleen F. 2002, The Politics of Minimum Wage Legislation in the Western United States: Lessons in policy and power. Journal of Economic Issues, 36, 2, 331 – 337.

Lachelier, Paul 2002 Making History, Making Democracy Un-extraordinary: Harvard students make history. Center for Critical Education, Inc.

Levin-Waldman, Oren M. 2004, Policy Orthodoxies, the Minimum Wage, and the Challenge of Social Science. Journal of Economic Issues, 38, 1, 139 – 154.

Levin-Waldman, Oren M. 1998, Exploring the Politics of Minimum Wage. Journal of Economic Issues, 32, 3, 773 – 802.

Neumark, David & Wascher, William 2000, Minimum Wages and Employment: A case study of the fast-food industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: Comment. The American Economic Review, 90, 5, 1362 – 1396.

Pischke, Jorn-Steffen 2005, Laour Market Institutions, Wages, and Investment: Review and implications. CESifo Economic Studies, 51, 1, 47 – 75.

Selznick, Philip 1966, TVA and the Grassroots. New York: Harper & Row.
Silver, Beverly J. 2003, Forces of Labor: Workers’ movements and globalization since 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Varman, R. & Chakrabarti, M. 2004, Contradictions of Democracy in a Workers’ Cooperative. Organization Studies, 25, 2, 183-208.

Waltman, Jerold 2000, The Politics of the Minimum Wage. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.

Footnotes

[2] In a country like India where the majority of the population do not have access to even the basic requirements of health, nutrition and education and have no effective state sponsored social security system either, the effect of free market has been particularly devastating. The unorganised workforce, which constitutes over 90 percent of the total working population of the country, is very vulnerable in terms of security of their employment and working conditions. In a labour surplus economy the contract workers are largely non-unionised and do not have access to any of the benefits available to the organised sector. They often have to settle for meagre wages, long hours of work and harsh work conditions. At present there is a statutorily prescribed minimum wage (MW) for a variety of work in the unorganised sector as per the Minimum Wages Act 1948. The government regularly (every six months) revises it according to the fluctuations of the price index. MW in the government gazette is based upon the nature of job – skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled; the setting – rural, urban; or the type of job – agriculture, construction, factory, etc.

[3] The present note is based on our participant observation, as both of us stay in the campus and have been involved with the minimum wage issue almost since the beginning of the account narrated here. Though both of us have been part of the group of volunteers, and one of us teaches in the Institute, yet neither of us has been involved either with the Institute or the minimum wage issue in any official capacity.

[4] For the present study it will be referred to as the Institute

[5] Formed in the name of an important 19th century religious and social reformer by some of the campus residents – students, faculty members and their family members.

[6] The migrant workers of India are some of the most exploited sections of the population. Most of them come from rural areas and constitute the large proportions of landless workers of the economy. During the four months of the monsoon they find some employment in the local context but the rest of the year the workers, sometimes the whole family, go to far flung areas in search of subsistence. The most destitute of the lot are often kept as bonded labour by the contractor. Some slightly better off are able to scrape some savings which goes primarily to repay a debt back ‘home’, or under extremely fortuitous circumstances, maybe even to buy a piece of land.

[7] An even less economically developed area of the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, now a separate state of Chattisgarh.

[8] The children of construction workers often do not have access to any formal education partly because most sites do not offer any schooling facilities and also because of the temporary nature of their parents’ jobs wherein they have to keep moving from one construction site to another in quest of employment.

[9] The Contract Labour Act 1970 requires that the wages be paid in presence of a representative of the principal employer to ensure fair practices, but in reality this was not the case. Therefore though records showed that fair wages were being paid, it was only on paper, but it was very hard to find formal evidence for the malpractice. Contractors would pay the full wages in front of the committee representatives, but take the ‘surplus’ back from the workers later, or worse, threaten to strike work when pushed further. Of course the Institute’s priorities were quite clear – no ‘trouble’ was permitted which hampered ‘work’.

[10] Earlier the Institute used to issue the approximate number of man-days required for each job put out on a contract. This ensured some kind of a baseline approximation of the cost of the project. In several instances Samiti had been able to ward off unfair competition by campaigning for disqualification of all bids whose value amounted to less than the value arrived at by simply MWs multiplied by the specified number of man-days. Samiti with lesser overheads could often bag contracts by bidding the lowest of all valid bids and still be able to pay the MWs. But later the Institute refused to specify estimated number of man-days even in labour intensive jobs like sanitation and cleaning. An example of the kind of absurd situation it led to is what happened in 1999 when a contractor could outbid Samiti on the Institute Garbage Cleaning contract (the mainstay of Samiti at the time) by a bid which was practically half of the previous year’s (Samiti had the contract at that time) while the specified work had actually doubled. When asked how such a contractor could pay MWs, the concerned authority retorted “who knows, he may pay from his pocket, let’s give him a chance (!)”.

[11] An association of faculty members

[12] Names of the actors have been disguised to maintain anonymity and the cases are used merely as illustrations of general practice.

[13] Generally the practice for such large contract like this building is that the Institute awards the contract to one ‘big’ contractor. But what actually happens is that the main contractor in turn carves out ‘petty’ contracts for small-local contractors who bring their own set of labour; at times there may be multiple layers in the process. This process streamlines the dealings of the Institute but often at the cost of the worker. The Institute actually has to shell out a much larger sum of money for the same work as the charges of the big contractors like the Earthline are much higher than smaller operators, while often only fractions of the stipulated wages reach the workers. The blame of non-payment of minimum wages get pinned down to the last layer of sub-contractor above the workers who most of the times are very small operators with resources barely above the workers themselves.

[14] The policy of awarding the contract to the lowest quote irrespective of the feasibility of such a quote, if minimum wages and other labour laws were enforced.