The Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Karnataka, held a four-day delegation against the callous and consistently anti-people policies of the State and Central Governments. This dharna, which mobilised workers from across the State, focussed on several critical issues that affect the working class – wages, price rise and inflation. Workers from trade unions, affiliated to the CITU, from across the State participated in the dharna.
Inflation has without doubt been a persistent problem of our polity. And over the years, the government has only compounded the woes of the people by withdrawing State support and subsidies on essential commodities. Whenever questioned on inflation, the Prime Minister in his genteel tone would guarantee us that the inflation will surely come down in six months or so. Well, in reality we know that it has been two long years of sustained price rise of essential commodities. If the erudite economist leader had hoped that inflation would take its course – and come down due to base effects, monsoons or monetary tightening – it certainly has not happened.
Several speakers at the CITU dharna pointed out that there has been a steep rise in the prices of all food commodities. They quoted specifically the prices of essential food commodities, such as vegetables, onions and dal, that has witnessed wild fluctuations, while prices of other items such as cooking oil, eggs, dairy and meat has been steadily on the rise.
A quick look at the inflation figures are indeed quite revealing. Since 2008, the country has been averaging annual double digit inflation every year. There has recently been a sharp acceleration in the prices of food commodities. Keeping ahead of the general inflation index, the 'Pulses' and 'Meat,fish,eggs' groups index had already doubled in 2009 compared to 2001 with the prices of pulses such as 'dal' going very high.
Ironically, long-term inflation has probably been one of the most stable of macro-economic indicators. The prices of consumer goods have approximately doubled every decade from 1960 onwards.
1960 – 100
1970 – 186
1980 – 408
1990 – 884 (1)
2000 – 2096
2010 – 3873 (2)
Source – Author Calculations from CPI-IW(Consumer Price Index – Industrial Workers) - Ministry of Labour, India.
The story is the same for the agricultural labourers index.
1960-61 – 100
1970 – 190
1980 – 408
1990 – 828
2000 – 1808 (3)
2010 – 3254
Source – Author calculations from CPI-AL(Consumer Price Index - Agricultural Labourers) - Ministry of Labour, India.
The data clearly shows that there has been a sharp acceleration in the prices of goods for Industrial Workers since 1990.
The problem that most workers face is that this consistent rise in the prices of essential commodities has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the wages. While the formal sector employees are insulated to a degree through allowances, the informal and unorganised sectors have hardly any avenues to ensure that their wages keep up with the prices.
The suppression of trade unions only compounds to this problem. This stagnation is also the reason why the Government has been forced to play a hand in raising wages. This was done directly by raising the
National Floor Minimum Wage twice over the last two years (Rs 120 currently) and indirectly by attempting to provide standardised wages through job schemes like MGNREGS.
One of the proposals strongly put forward by the CITU is that the wage rates need to be increased for all occupations to Rs. 6,000 a month or Rs 200 a day. An investigation into the minimum wages of India can be quite illuminating. There is a national floor minimum wage, state level minimum wages, industry-level minimum wage-National, industry-level minimum wage-State , Rural-Urban minimum wages etcetra etcetra. In fact, in the latest Minimum Wages Report of 2009 released by the Ministry of Labour, there are 16 States and Union Territories that have submitted their data. In these states itself there are around 700 unique Minimum Wages.
In fact, it would be safe to say that India has over 1000 different Minimum Wages. These range from the lowest one of Rs 43.88 for handloom/powerloom workers in Karnataka to Rs 359.68 which is prescribed for river-sand collectors in Kerala as seen in the 2008 report. It should also be kept in mind that these are the officially prescribed Minimum wages and not the wages that workers in those occupations may be receiving. This itself is a monumental quantity of redundancy which requires reform and indeed a reduction to a uniform National level or uniform State-level Minimum wages.
Other demands of the CITU dharna included curbing contract labour, the distribution of food-grains at subsidised rates, prevention of the New Pension Scheme (NPS) being linked to equity markets, withdrawing the recent amendment to the Factories Act to increase working hours to 10 hours and increased benefits to the unorganised workers and regularisation of Anganwadi and ASHA workers.
*(1) Linking Factor – 4.753 – 1960 to 1982 series
(2) Linking Factor – 4.63 – 1982 to 2001 series
(3) Linking Factor – 5.89 – 1960 to 1986-87 series
Secki P Jose is a student at the Tata Institute of Social Scieces. He is currently interning with CITU-Karnataka.