Unions flay new labour laws as folly

Unions flay new labour laws as folly

Trade unionists, activists and former officials discus the centre's new draft code on Social Security Welfare (2018) at the Legislator's Home (Council) in Bengaluru on July 17, 2019.From left: Mahantesh (secretary, CITU), Kathyayini Chamaraj (social acti

The government has collected crores of rupees on behalf of construction workers. Labour unionists say a major chunk of it is languishing in the state coffers or being channelled to unsanctioned "pork-barrel" enterprises.

These charges were made during a panel discussion in Bengaluru on Wednesday, examining the Centre’s new draft code on Social Security Welfare (2018), which will do away with 44 existing labour laws and affect the benefits of nearly 40 million unorganised workers in the country.

According to Mahantesh, secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the government has collected Rs 44,000 crores in construction cess over the last 10 years, a sum which has accumulated Rs 25,000 crore in interest because it has not been properly disbursed to those it was intended to benefit -- the construction labourers.

Large-scale construction projects, including homes worth over Rs 10 lakh are charged a 2% cess which the state is mandated to use to provide critical services such as education, healthcare, food, housing and the like to construction labourers.

In Karnataka, the cess collected over the last decade amounts to Rs 8,000 crore (according to the CITU), although official figures released to DH in June showed the Construction Worker’s Welfare Board had a sum of Rs 5,700 crores.

“Only Rs 300 crore of the cess collected so far has been spent, over 10 years,” Mahantesh said, adding that the rest was simply accumulating interest or being used for unauthorised, pork-barrel projects.

Kathyayini Chamaraj, executive trustee of the NGO CIVIC, said among such projects considered was the construction of wedding halls for labourers and an academy to research unorganised workers. A trade unionist also alleged that attempts had been made to use the money for unconnected expenses, such as international air travel.

Although the Modi administration has declared that it will address these shortcomings with its new Social Security draft code, trade unionists pointed to several passages within  the 179-page text of the proposed law, which they said is a cause for concern.

“The new bill is folly. It is unrealistic,” said Vasantakumar Hittanagi, the former joint labour commissioner for Karnataka.

According to Hittamani, the framers of the new bill believe it will ease several processes, including the registration of construction laborers. “However, it will also increase bureaucracy because it calls for the creation of more committees,” he said.

He added that he was concerned by the inclusion of “intermediate agencies” in the bill. “By this, the government is planning to hand over data collection and management, record-keeping, fund management and distribution of benefits to private agencies, which could result in embezzlement,” he said.