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Has International Labour Organization(ILO) lost its relevance?

India is a founder member of the International Labour Organization. So far India has ratified 47 Conventions of the ILO, and influence of ILO Conventions as a standard of reference for labour legislation and practices in India, and not as a legally binding norm, has been significant. Even where India may not be in a position to ratify a Convention, it has generally voted in favour of the Conventions reserving its position as far as its future ratification is concerned.

Importantly, in February 2010 the Government of India effectively signed up to the decent work programme by agreeing a five-year Decent Work Country Programme with the ILO. Currently, India is implementing third DWCP(2018-22) in collaboration with ILO.

However, with the recent dilution or suspension of Labour Laws in several Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra, Goa, Odisha and Rajasthan, in the backdrop of COVID-19 found to be the blatant violation of International Labour Standards codified by ILO. The specific International Labour Standards that are violated in the process of dilution or suspension of Labour Laws by different states are Core Convention of ILO (Eight hour working day), Right to Freedom of Association (ILO Convention 87), Right to collective bargaining(ILO Convention 98) and Tripartite Consultation Convention 1976(ILO Convention 144). India have not ratified ILO Convention 87 and 98 till date.
From its founding in 1919 the ILO worked mainly through establishing international labour conventions which member countries faced pressure to sign up to. Once signed up, member countries were legally required to implement the conventions, whilst being monitored by the ILO. Neoliberalism stalled this process, with employers and leading neoliberal governments blocking new conventions and seeking to roll back existing labour standards.

The decent work programme broke this stalemate. Instead of seeking to establish new legally binding conventions this programme focused on eight core conventions within a broad, non-binding framework concerned with fairness, decency and other value-laden but imprecise descriptors. The four strategic objectives of the ILO decent work programme have remained constant since they were launched in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work:
  1. Rights at work, grounded in fundamental principles of work and international labour standards
  2. Employment and income opportunities
  3. Social protection and social security
  4. Social dialogue and tripartism (ILO 1998).

The eight core labour conventions that member countries were compelled to sign up to as part of the declaration were conventions against child labour and forced labour, and conventions for free collective bargaining and non-discrimination against groups of labour on the grounds of gender, race, religion etc. Subsequently, most member countries have signed the eight core conventions and decent work has become part and parcel of the development policy discourse of both international organizations (UN, World Bank, IMF) and member countries.

However, the influence of the decent work programme on conditions of work on the ground has remained very much limited. The ILO has no powers of enforcement at its disposal, apart from naming and shaming those in breach of conventions. Compared to the economic and political power of capital and of neoliberal governments, and even compared to the sanctions available to the WTO (the international agency charged with policing trade liberalization), the solely discursive powers of the ILO are extremely weak. At the international level no enforceable agreements have been reached concerning fair globalization policies.

The existing long-term decline in the proportion of poor Employees and of vulnerable workers appears to mainly relate to economic growth and tightening of labour markets as well as to policies reflecting such labour market changes in countries such as China and Brazil. Only in Brazil some of the improvements for workers be linked directly to the implementation of comprehensive decent work programmes.

Conditions at work for ordinary workers are barely mapped internationally, apart from quite general divisions between good jobs, poor jobs and no jobs, with national averages only drawn up in broad brushstrokes following per capita income levels. Regarding the actual implementation of the declaration of fundamental principles and rights at work, most ILO effort has gone into the eradication of child labour.

Eradication of forced labour is another ILO decent work priority area. While the ILO has succeeded in creating a fair amount of public awareness in this area, the actual impact is yet to be evaluated. The social security aspect of the decent work programme has received a good deal of attention in recent years. In 2008 the UN committed itself to country-specific social protection programme consisting of a basic set of rights and transfers enabling access to a minimum of goods and services for all (ILO and WHO 2009:

This was confirmed and specified further by the ILO yearly International Labour Conference in 2011, and the 2012 conference aims to set international standards for social security (ILO 2011b; 2011c). This goes hand in hand with national policy developments. Social security coverage tends to improve with rising per capita income but with some significant variations between countries (ILO 2010c: 32-33).

It also relates to global economic policies and realities: while neoliberal globalization and related policies initially led to a rolling back of (mainly employment-related) social security schemes (Gough 2003), Case studies show that a crucial factor has been the underlying balance of power between social forces in the concerned countries.

Also here, Brazil is one of the countries bearing the torch, with a comprehensive social security approach including cash transfers, which has contributed to successful poverty reduction in that country during the first part of the twenty-first century. Countries such as Chile and Mexico have registered progress in this area as well.
India probably has the most comprehensive legal structure for labour welfare and protection in the world. But the 92 percent of Indias workers who are in informal employment do not form part of this. As the Indian government's National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) concluded, informal workers do not enjoy comprehensive protection of minimum conditions of work (NCEUS 2009: 180).

Most labour market laws only relate to formal sector companies, as establishments employing below a certain number of workers are exempt from them. This includes main labour laws such as the Factories Act regarding health, safety and welfare of workers, the Industrial Employment Act which deals with conditions of employment, and the Industrial Disputes Act. The NCEUS (2007: 155-168) outlines the laws which apply to some sections of informalized labour.

This includes the Minimum Wages Act, but the guaranteeing of (very low) minimum wages is rendered farcical by the fact that even the governments own employment programs are openly entitled to pay workers less than this stipulated amount. Informalized workers in enterprises with more than five workers employed should also be covered by the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act which stipulates minimum conditions and pay for migrant workers and by the Contract Workers Act (when more than ten workers are employed) which regulate the market for cheap contract labour.

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act which outlaws forced labour and the Child Labour (prohibition and regulation) Act also cover informalized labour. Sector-specific legislation, not least for the construction and the beedi industries, as well as some state-specific laws, are also of relevance for informal labour. However, as stated by the NCEUS, non-observation of all the above laws is endemic.

For example: it has been calculated that 85 percent of all casual workers in rural areas and 57 percent of them in urban areas get wages below the minimum wages 23 (NCEUS 2007: 48). The labour law enforcement machinery is extremely thin on the ground and concentrates on formal sector inspections. Another limitation is the very small amount of fine or penalties for violation makes the law meaningless. For example, INR 500 for breaking the Minimum Wages Act.

Presently the trend is towards further deregulation and simplification of labour laws and inspections, not towards the implementation of the existing regulatory framework, let alone making it more comprehensive for informal sector workers. To add insult to injury, none of the above regulations cover the 57 percent of Indian workers who are self-employed (NCEUS 2007: 155-168). By now it should be clear that Government of India policies are far from aligned to the decent work programme advocated by ILO.

In fact, the Ministry of Labour and Employment states categorically that the first objective of the Ministry is to achieve employment for any potential worker and only afterwards is it appropriate to consider the quality of work - it is even stated that decent work will follow automatically after employment has been achieved. The ILO would agree that employment creation is an important part of the decent work programme but it is a core aspect of the programme that employment creation cannot be separated from the need to create decent work.

Opposed to this, it appears that for the foreseeable future GoI wants to keep conditions of work in the informal economy as unregulated as they are today.  This extreme rejection of the need to improve conditions of work, except at some point in the future, is opposed even by organizations such as the IMF (IMF 2010), and is also in direct contradiction to the objectives of the ILO-India Decent Work Country Programme. COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the scenario to some extent.
Another contradiction is that India has ratified six out of the eight core/fundamental International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions. These are the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105), Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182). India has not ratified the core/fundamental Conventions, namely Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) and Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98).

The main reason for non-ratification of ILO Conventions No.87 & 98 is due to certain restrictions imposed on the Government servants. As communicated by Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT), the ratification of these conventions would involve granting of certain rights that are prohibited under the statutory rules, for the Government employees, namely, to strike work, to openly criticize Government policies, to freely accept financial contribution, to freely join foreign organizations etc.

In addition, official statistics show successes in dealing with child labour but this is disputed by NGOs and even by NCEUS (ILO 2010c: 23, ITUC 2011, NCEUS 2007: 165). Regarding forced labour, there has been no measurable success even though the legislation actually bans forced labour.

The overall conclusion is that government does not seriously want to regulate labour markets in the informal economy with regard to conditions of recruitment, work and pay, not even regarding the worst forms of undecent work. It is in spite of this that the ILO has signed the decent work country programme with India, while quietly making an exception to the formal minimum requirements of the decent work programme in order to get India on board.
One area within the decent work agenda where India has taken significant initiatives is social protection, with three major initiatives. First and foremost, in 2005 the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act became law.

While NREGA suffers problems such as corruption and only partial implementation, in the two first years it did manage to deliver on average 42 to 43 days of work to each participant. The second main initiative is the social security bill which was passed in 2008. The third major initiative is the National Food Security Act 2013 which aims to provide subsidized food grains to approximately two thirds of India's 1.3 billion people.

Overall, Indian social policies take a non-universal approach. Of the programs, NREGA stands out as the one national social policy initiative which has importance in a pro-labour perspective, but it has not counteracted the increased inequality which has been documented, at least for the first decade of neo-liberalism in India.

The decent work-related policies in India are closely linked to the general relationship between workers, employers and the government in India. The Indian government is not the main driver of the decent work agenda. Today in India, organized labour is reduced to negotiating from a position of weakness, mainly seeking to avoid job losses and cutbacks while informal contract workers and self-employed workers are on the rise.

Global competitiveness is, of course, an argument often used in support of such policies and it is indeed the case that a major export sector, such as the garment industry, is heavily informal in nature; but so too are domestic sectors such as construction.

It is hardly surprising that workplace or wage-related actions by informal labour are very rare and that organizations working with labour in informal employment often channel their efforts towards workers access to government social schemes.

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