(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 13, 2011
Labour Well Looked after
in LDF Dispensation
P K Gurudasan
WHEN the Left Democratic Front (LDF) assumed office in Kerala in May 2006, the labour scenario in the state was in a total disarray. Retrenchment of workers, lockouts, layoffs, closures etc were quite common phenomena. As a result of all this, thousands of workers, both in the traditional sectors as well as in modern industries, were rendered jobless. Suicides and starvation deaths were reported from the plantation sector. Thus the prime concern of the new LDF government was to bring the derailed labour front back to the tracks.
In this scenario, the government of the LDF felt the necessity of concentrating more on the enactment of new labour laws besides the enforcement of the existing ones. For several years prior to 2006, there were no new labour legislations in the state. Considering the gravity of the situation, the LDF government enacted a series of legislations.
Among these measures, the most important ones are the Shops and Commercial Establishment Workers Welfare Fund Act, Kerala Small Plantation Workers Welfare Fund Act, Kerala Handloom Workers Welfare (Cess) Act, Kerala Jewellery Workers Welfare Fund Act, Kerala Recognition of Trade Union Act, and Non-Keralite Residents Welfare Act, etc. In addition to the above new legislations, amendments were made to several of the existing legislations so as to enhance the benefits to the labour.
The Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Workers Welfare Fund Board, which started functioning in the year 2007, provides a series of benefits including pension to more than 10 lakh workers employed in the shops and commercial establishments. A noteworthy feature of this enactment is that it provides maternity benefits equivalent to that of 12 weeks’ salary to women employees. So far more than 4 lakhs workers have been enrolled in the scheme. The Kerala Small Plantation Workers Welfare Fund Board aims at enlisting plantation workers, numbering about 2 lakh, who were not entitled to the benefits under the Plantation Labour Act 1951. The welfare of lakhs of jewellery workers, who were till now a neglected lot, is now being looked after by the Jewellery Workers Welfare Fund Board.
The Kerala Recognition of Trade Unions Act is an epoch making legislation, the object of which is the streamlining of the functioning of trade unions. Besides preventing the multiplicity of trade unions, the act aims at an enhancement of the bargaining power of the working class. The setting up of the Non-Keralite Residents Welfare Board was a long standing demand of the lakhs of Keralites who work abroad and in other parts of the country.
The state’s Labour Department is currently administering 15 welfare fund boards of this kind and five welfare schemes. The government of the LDF aims at bringing the entire workforce under one or another welfare scheme
Revision of minimum wages for various sections of workers is another area where the LDF has concentrated much of its attention. Accordingly, it has reconstituted the Minimum Wages Advisory Board. Minimum wages were either revised or are in the process of revision in 70 sectors. These sectors include the plantation workers and cashew workers who constitute a considerable section of the workers in traditional industries.
In order to maintain harmonious industrial relationships, the LDF government has constituted an Industrial Relations Board (IRB) in which prominent leaders of all the central trade unions and representatives of industry are members. All the major issues confronting the labour and industry are being discussed in the periodical meetings of the IRB and appropriate solutions are arrived at.
The Industrial Relations Committees (IRCs), functioning in Kerala, are effective forums to settle the labour disputes arising in the respective sectors. These IRCs are functioning in sectors like coir, cashew, toddy, textiles, motor transport etc.
The LDF government has demonstrated in practice its commitment to put an end to several unhealthy trends that are prevailing on the labour front. Accordingly, the labour ministry of the state was able to stop the mafia type activities followed by an independent trade union in the Cochin port. The timely intervention of the labour ministry helped the various agencies that were operating in the Cochin port, to regain their confidence.
The LDF government took particular care in enforcing the labour laws to the advantage of the working people. It has ensured higher rates of bonus, performance allowance etc, to the workers. Minimum welfare pension has been raised to Rs 400 per month from the earlier Rs 110 and Rs 120 existing in 2006. Almost all the existing labour disputes were settled through tripartite discussions.
The plantation sector was one of the worst affected during the tenure of the previous Congress led government of the United Democratic Front (UDF). As many as 22 major plantations were closed down, as a result of which more than 25,000 workers were rendered jobless. Making effective use of the tripartite machinery, the LDF government got a majority of them reopened. Discussions are in progress for reopening the remaining plantations also. For the purpose of bringing the plantation owners to the negotiation table, the LDF government provided several concessions to them such as waiver of arrears of agriculture income tax, plantations tax, minimum demand charges of electricity etc. A series of other relief measures, such as repair of the dwelling houses of the workers, educational assistance to their school going children, improvement in the drinking water and electricity facilities, free ration, health care etc, were also provided.
The LDF government has been conscious about skill development among the jobseekers in the state. In order to promote skill development, the LDF government started 38 new industrial training institutes (ITIs) during the first four years of its tenure. It has also decided to start 10 more new ITIs during the year 2011-12. In this connection it is worth mentioning that till 2006 there were only 34 ITIs in the state. The LDF regime has also started modern trades in the existing ITIs and upgraded all of them for the purpose.
The implementation of the Rastriya Swasthya Bheema Yojana (RSBY) is vested with the state’s labour department. The scheme is being implemented in the state by integrating the same with the Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme (CHIS) so as to provide the benefit to more sections of people. In addition to the families that have been declared to be below-poverty-line (BPL) by the central government, the LDF government has extended the benefits of the scheme to another 25 lakh families by treating them as BPL. Thus the scheme would benefit 35 lakhs of families. The premium in respect of those additional families is being paid by the LDF government. Besides, it has extended the benefits under the scheme to those above-poverty-line (APL) families as well, who are willing to pay the premium. A notable feature of the scheme the LDF government has introduced this year is the provision of giving to those 35 lakh families additional benefits of Rs 70,000 for treatment of serious ailments like heart disease, kidney disease, cancer etc.
A review of the activities of the labour department in Kerala during the tenure of the LDF government will be incomplete without saying a few words about the cashew industry in the state. As we know, cashew industry is the most important one among the traditional industries of Kerala. This industry employs more than three lakhs workers, 98 per cent of whom are women hailing from the lower strata of the society, especially the SC/ST communities. The industry forms the backbone of the economy of Kollam and adjoining districts. No doubt, the cashew industry has almost regained its past glory now. Gone are the days of unemployment and starvation among the cashews workers. The state owned Cashew Development Corporation and CAPEX provided employment for 284 days and 260 days respectively during the fiscal 2010-11. Minimum wages have also been ensured to the workers, besides the enhanced rates of bonus.
One of the major problems confronting the cashew industry is the shortages of raw cashew nuts, as a result of which the industry has to depend on imports. In order to overcome this difficulty, the LDF government has constituted an agency, called the Kerala State Agency for the Expansion of Cashew Cultivation (KSACC). Large scale cashew cultivation has been started under the auspices of the agency. The state government has already approached the government of India for the setting up of a cashew board, with its headquarters at Kollam, for the overall development of the cashew industry. During the last four years, the LDF government provided Rs 221.19 crore as budgetary support to the cashew industry.
The Employees State Insurance corporation (ESI) scheme is being administered in the state through the labour department. The ESI department achieved tremendous growth during the tenure of the incumbent LDF government --- in terms of the number of insured persons as well as of the infrastructure facilities. The number of insured persons rose to 6.7 lakhs from 3.45 lakhs in 2006. Upon the request of the state government, the ESI Corporation has sanctioned a medical college at Kollam. The construction work is already in progress. It has been decided to reserve a certain percentage of seats in this medical college for the children of workers who are members of the ESI scheme. A dental college also has been sanctioned at Ezhokone. It is heartening to note that the ESI Corporation has agreed to start nursing colleges also, which will be attached to the 12 ESI hospitals. In order to provide super speciality treatment to the beneficiaries, 63 super specialty hospitals have been empanelled.
Kerala has already framed the rules under the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act. For the purpose, the LDF government has constituted the State Social Security Board. It is in the process of identifying the schemes to be taken up under it.
As a result of its persistent efforts, the LDF government has been able to maintain a peaceful labour climate in the state. Kerala has now earned the reputation of being an investor friendly state, which is reflected in the launch of several new projects such as the Smart City, Vallarpadam Transhipment Container Terminal, Vizhinjam Harbour etc. The state’s labour department is moving ahead with its slogan of "better production, quality production and high productivity" in all sectors in Kerala. However, the LDF regime’s intention is to achieve this goal without compromising on any of the legitimate rights of the working class.