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Interview: Condition of labourers in India is much better today than 50 years ago, says Labour Secretary Shankar Agarwal
Working with the vision to provide a decent working environment to workers, an improved quality of life, to make India a child labour free country and enhancing employability through employment services and skill development on a sustainable basis, Union Ministry of Labor and Employment is doing a fantastic job.

To know more about the ministry's future plans, Merinews.com's senior journalist, Sanjay Mishra, spoke to Labour and Employment Ministry Secretary, Mr. Shankar Agarwal. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Q. Despite various government schemes, improvement in labourers' condition is not up to expectations. What do you have to say on this?

Ans. I do not agree that workers condition has not improved. 50-60 years back, the condition of workers was very bad. But now, the scenario has changed. At present, they are in much better condition. There was a time when workers were forced to work for twelve to sixteen hours. But this is not happening today. You can not make workers to work beyond 8 hours against their will. But we can't do anything if there is a mutual understanding between the workers and entrepreneurs. This happens because of the workers' greed to earn some extra money. So, they opt to work for some extra hours.

Shankar Aggarwal

Q. Is there any kind of monitoring that the Labour ministry does to protect workers from exploitation?

Ans. Yes, we have an efficient Enforcement agency. Whenever we get any information about any employer violating labour laws, forcing workers to work for more than 8 hours without paying them their dues, our enforcement team takes the required action. See, the government takes care of the workers interests very well, but the thing is workers must speak against the violation of labour laws.

Q. There is a huge gap between organized and unorganized sector in terms of number of people employed there. Why?

Ans. If you see the data, 90 per cent of workers are in unorganized sector and only 10 per cent workers are in organized sector. This gap is also due to workers choice to work in the unorganised sector because they know very well that in the organized sector, they have to follow several conditions related to labor laws made by the government for the protection of labourers' interest.

For the time being our enforcement agency had also deviated from its path of tracking labour issues. Instead of taking care of workers' interests, it was exploiting the situation. Actually entrepreneurs do not want to get involved in conflicts. Secondly, sometimes they also become greedy and try to save money at the cost of employees' benefits. They know very well that if they come under the organised sector they will have to obey the labour laws, they have to make EPF, ESIC contributions. So, they don't want to become part of the organised sector. But, every entrepreneur does not have the similar feeling.

Q. Often it has been seen that schemes which are run by the government for the workers, do not benefit them much. Do you agree with it?

Ans. No, I'm not convinced with this perception. I totally deny this. You tell me a single case where the workers have not received the benefits of a scheme. The scenario has changed today. Now, the workers are very much aware of their rights. See, there's a huge difference between the situation of labourers today and 10 years back.

But this is a long journey, and to achieve the final goal, we have to wait. Actually we make laws in ideal conditions. So, it will take some time to achieve the expected result. I agree that we may not have achieved the goal by 100 per cent, but to say that we have not covered a significant distance in that direction, is wrong.

Q. You are saying that today the workers are very much aware, alert about their interests. But your protection is mainly for workers in the organized sector. However, the problem is mainly with the unorganised sector, which is out of your purview. What are you doing for workers in unorganised sector?

Ans. People who are working in the unorganized sector, labor laws are not applicable to them. But the government is helping such work force through various schemes. Now, the government has decided that they will cover all the labourers i.e. from organized as well as unorganized sector.

What is Social Security? Under social security one of the things is life coverage .... it means, if a person dies, natural or an accidental death, his family members should get such a financial help that they can survive easily. The government is helping them also through various schemes...recently many schemes have been launched by the government. These are very useful schemes specially for unorganized sector. To provide them life coverage 'Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Suraksha Yojana' and ' Pradhanmantri Jeevan Jyoti Yojana' are proving to be very good schemes. People are joining these schemes in large numbers.

Secondly, people from lower income group also want health security, which means that if they get ill and are not able to bear the cost of the treatment cost, the government would bear all the expenditure. The organized sector has such a facility. Now, we are thinking how to bring the unorganised sector under the ESIC scheme. We have a plan to give health coverage to the entire family at Rs. 200. Thirdly, we want workers in the unorganised sector to get pension benefit in their old age. For this, the government has started 'Atal Pension Yojana' under which one can get pension in his or her old age. Under this scheme, the contributions will come from the beneficiary as well as from the government. Through these schemes the government is trying to help the labourers working in the unorganised sector.

Q. What are your views regarding the problem of child labour in India? Has Indian government got success in tackling this problem?

Ans. There is improvement in the problem of child labour in the country. If you look at the data, ten years ago the situation was different. There is a sharp decline in child labour. You won't find cases of child labour easily. Now, it's a rare scenario because the government has made some tough laws against child labour. Under this law, children under 14 cannot work. It's a crime. You can say, this is a major step taken by the government.

I would like to say one more thing, those who are still using child labour won't be forgiven. Legal action will be taken against such people. There is a need of creating awareness also among people to tackle the issue of child labour. I will say awareness is more important than enforcement. If people are aware, then the problem of child labour can be fully tackled.

The problem mainly arises when poor parents force their children into child labour for some extra income. They need to be told that it is illegal. They need to be told that their children must get education. The parents should understand that their educated children can serve them in a better way.

The government is providing free education to children, providing free books and uniform, has started mid-day meal schemes in schools. So, now it is not difficult even for the poor parents to get their children educated.

I know it's a bit difficult to create awareness, but it's not impossible. It may take time, but it will happen. One day the problem of child labour would be fully addressed.

Q. Unemployment is a major problem in the country. People are migrating from villages to cities in search of jobs. Do you think this trend should stop?

Ans. See, governments have been trying their best at their level to address the issue of unemployment. Several government schemes like skill India, DDU-GKY, Make in India, Digital India, MNREGA etc. are giving opportunity to the people to get jobs. And I am sure these government initiatives will help in bringing down the unemployment rate.

As far as migration is concerned, it will never stop. Historically, migration has been going on for centuries. People move from one place to another place in search of jobs and business. And this is still going on. Village to city, city to city - people migrate in search of better life...this is not a big matter.

And if we want to stop migration from villages to cities, we have to first improve the rural infrastructure. We have to create employment opportunities in the rural areas.

I believe that through Skill India we can prepare a community of skilled people. And by encouraging the manufacturing sector through Make in India we can provide jobs to skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled people.

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