'Employment situation is showing improvement'

'Employment situation is showing improvement'

NON-STOP: Union Labour Minister M Mallikarjun Kharge at his office in New Delhi. DH Photo.

Union Labour Minister M Mallikarjun Kharge has had a dream run as a politician. Having joined politics 40 years ago, this 66-year-old Dalit leader has never tasted defeat. The veteran Congressman has been elected to the Karnataka state Assembly nine consecutive times and now to the Lok Sabha. He was an MLA for 37 years — 17 of them as minister and 20 years in the Opposition.

Though he presided over various departments in Karnataka as minister, he was never labour minister. But then, he entered politics after being a trade union leader in Gulbarga’s MSK Mills, a stint he says will stand him in good stead now. Excerpts from an interview with B S Arun of Deccan Herald, his first as Union minister:

To what extent has the economic slowdown hit the Indian working class?
The Union government’s Labour Bureau, in a sample study, indicated a loss of around five lakh jobs during Oct-Dec, 2008. The exporting units had higher decline in employment, which include gems and jewellery, metals, textiles, automobiles and mines. However, during Jan-March, 2009, the employment in certain select sectors is estimated to have increased by around a quarter million (2.5 lakh). The Labour Bureau, through a survey covering 3,192 units in 21 centres, showed improvement in employment situation and this can be corroborated with the economic growth, observed to be relatively better at 6.7 per cent during 2008-09. The latest survey indicated marginal increase in the employment rate of 0.6 per cent in some sectors such as gems and jewellery, textiles, IT-BPO and automobile.

In the second UPA government, is there any thinking on amendments to the Industrial Disputes’ Act, 1947, and the hire and fire policy?
I don’t personally agree with such laws. At present, there is no such proposal for amendment to the ID Act with regard to minimum number of workers in an establishment for closing down and the hire and fire. Special provisions relating to lay-off, retrenchment and closure applies to industrial establishments, factories, mines and plantations employing not less than 100 workers. These provisions stipulate that the employers before effecting lay-off, retrenchment or closure must obtain prior approval. My ministry has introduced the Industrial  Disputes (Amendment) Bill, which seeks amendments relating to increasing the ceiling of workman from Rs 1,600 to Rs 10,000 per month, direct access for them to the labour court, etc.

What is the status of social security funds for unorganised workers?
We lay emphasis on social security for the unorganised sector. The Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana for below poverty line (BPL) families was launched in 2007. The scheme provides for smart card-based, cashless health insurance cover to the families of five each. The premium is shared between the Centre and state governments in the ratio of 75:25. For this year, a provision of Rs 350 crore as Central share has been earmarked. So far around 48 lakh smart cards have been issued. Unorganised sector is estimated to have six crore families. We have requested all states to take up the project. But some states are not coming forward as they say they have their own schemes. However, they are only for major diseases, not for day-to-day health problems. We pay Rs 30,000 without any contribution for the workers. We are planning to bring above BPL families also under the scheme. We are consulting other ministries in this regard as well as the Planning Commission.

There has been a controversy over exemption of labour laws in Special Economic Zones. What is your view?
The SEZ Act, 2005, does not preclude applicability of labour laws in SEZs. Rather it deals with the power to modify different Acts, which specifically state that such modifications should not apply to trade unions, industrial disputes, etc. The SEZ Rules, 2006, delegates powers to the development commissioner under the ID Act, 1947, and other related Acts in relation to the units and the workmen employed by the developers in SEZs.
Some states had sought relaxation in some provisions of the Central laws so as to facilitate setting up of SEZ and special enclaves in their respective states. These proposals broadly relate to regulating working hours, delegation of powers of labour commissioner to the development commissioner, empowering the latter to fix minimum wages, increasing the number of hours of work, making provisions for allowing women workers to work in night shift, etc.

There is a demand from the industry for night shifts for women. What is your view?

As per the Factories Act, 1948, no woman is allowed to work in factories except between 6 am and 7 pm. However, there are two opinions in this regard: that they be allowed to work and another about their safety and security. This is a delicate issue. We will see how best we can allow them to work and look into their safety. Now a days, there is enthusiasm among women to work during night shift. The ministry had introduced a Bill in 2005 to amend the Factories Act. It gave some relaxation for women to work between 7 pm and 6 am where adequate safety exists. The Bill lapsed but we are now in the process of re-introducing it now.

What about the need for setting up of more Industrial Training Institutes, changes in courses they offer for different skill development?
Training in 112 trades, catering to the requirement of various sectors of economy, are offered through a network of 6,906 ITIs and industrial training centres. In compliance with the announcement made by the Prime Minister for setting up of 1,500 ITIs and 50,000 skill development centres under public private partnership, action for formulation of scheme has been initiated. The detailed project report, including funding pattern, roll out plan, time frame and roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders is under preparation. These ITIs will come up in three years.

Employees and employers are always at loggerheads. What will you do to bring in harmony in their functioning?
I am for a good understanding among tripartite partners — labour, employer and government. I held a meeting with trade union leaders on July 8 and with employers on July 9. I wanted to know about their problems and improvements that can be made in the ministry, to what extent I can solve them, to what extent they can help me. I will also call a tripartite meeting shortly. Already, I have held a meeting of state labour secretaries. I will also call a meeting of labour ministers shortly.

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