Sordid record of the LF Government in West Bengal   

Minimum Wages Act flouted with impunity

Till 1999, the LF Government in West Bengal had included only 46 occupational categories in the schedule for minimum wages, out of which, till date, minimum wages have not been fixed for 11 occupations. According to the Minimum Wages Act, the minimum wages should be revised after an interval of every four years. But the West Bengal Government has never revised the minimum wages for about 20 occupations in the past decade and more.

For implementation of the Act, the LF Government has formed the following enforcement machinery:

1)    16 inspectors for Calcutta and its suburbs;

2)    To enforce minimum wages in the agricultural sector, the West Bengal Government has sanctioned 335 posts of inspectors, out of which only 44 inspectors have been appointed in 43 regional offices of the Labour Department;

3)    Under the Minimum Wages Act, Block Development Officers (BDOs) have been given the powers of inspectors to ensure minimum wages to the agricultural workers;

4)    44 labour commissioners are supposed to supervise the work of inspectors in different districts and subdivisions.

However, going by the ground realities, one can say that this top-heavy administrative machinery has clearly failed to ensure minimum wages to the unorganised workers. Experience shows that in a number of cases the inspectors take bribes from the delinquent employers and the stipulated wages are not enforced. In many cases, even when the workers are thrown out of employment and employers default on the payment of wages, they go scot-free after paying a paltry sum of Rs.200-250 as fine.

In 19 occupational categories, the High Court has granted injunctions in favour of employers and in these categories with large-scale employment -- including rice mills, beedi, chaki mills, tailoring, printing presses, glassware manufacturing, nursing homes, bakeries, and above all, agriculture -- revised minimum wages are not being implemented. The state government has not taken any initiative in the last 10-15 years to vacate these injunctions. As a consequence, the workers in these occupations have been deprived of minimum wages for the last 15-20 years. For instance, in 1980, the state government declared minimum wages for engineering industries employing less than 50 workers. But, as usual, the employers obtained an injunction against it from the High Court. 21 years have passed but the state government is yet to vacate the injunction.

The Labour Department goes about notifying minimum wages in a deliberately callous manner committing procedural mistakes, making it easier for the employers to obtain injunctions. For example, let us take the case of bricklaying: In 1995, the state government revised the minimum wages for this occupation. But the High Court ruled that the fixation of the revised minimum wages was not done as per Section 5 of the Minimum Wages Act and asked the state government to once again revise the minimum wages according to the Act. It took two years for the Labour Department to revise the wages again. The revised wages were finally notified in 1997, but till date, not a single employer has implemented it while the inspectors remain mute spectators.

The state government revised minimum wages for the hosiery industry in 1998 after a gap of 15 years but these wages are not being implemented in two main departments of the hosiery industry, viz. cutting and sewing, which account for 70% of the workforce. The state government has not initiated action against a single employer despite such blatant violation of the Act.

As per the Minimum Wages Act, the state government can bring under the purview of the Act any occupation where more than thousand workers are employed. Despite 24 years of uninterrupted LF rule in the state, the state government has not brought fisheries, beedi leaves (tendu) collection, handlooms, cold storage and godowns (head-loaders) under the Act.

The AICCTU is exposing the anti-labour character of the Left Front Government which claims to be a worker-friendly government. The record of this government is worse than that of governments led by bourgeois parties in many states. This government has done nothing against employers defaulting on ESI and PF either. West Bengal tops the list of such cases of default. AICCTU is also demanding that the Minimum Wages Act be included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution so as to take it out of the purview of the courts. It is also mobilising the unorganised workers on the demand of raising the DA from the present abysmally low rate of Rs.1 to Rs.2.50. Periodical revision of minimum wages after an interval of two years, as in many sates, is also being demanded. With their sordid record in implementing the labour laws, it is no wonder that the CPI(M) and the LF are thoroughly alienated from the working class in major industrial centres of the state and their dismal electoral performance in working class constituencies is no mystery either.

-- B. Dibakar