Unanimous Decision to Renew and Expand Agitation against the State Violating the Constitution and the Minimum

Wage Act

In the second day of the consultation on minimum wages organized by the Bandhua Mukti Morcha in collaboration with the Planning Commission and NMML, participants included Justice J.S. Verma, Prof. Mohan Gopal, Prof. Jean Dreze, Medha Patkar, Amarjeet Kaur, Annie Raja, K.B. Saxena, and Sushila Devi. The meeting began with the presentation of three cases from the field where the non payment of minimum wages led to documented cases of bonded labour (due to very small amounts of debt) and the shocking payment of Rs 1 per day in two districts of Rajasthan. This situation is rampant in India, and highlights the urgent need to respect and enforce the provisions of the Minimum Wage Act. There was unanimous agreement that a rational minimum wage policy must allow workers to a life of dignity, and the State in violating the Minimum Wage Act was violating the Constitution and calling in question its own legitimacy. Prof. Mohan Gopal (Director Judicial Academy) and Justice Verma (ex-CJI) reiterated the unconstitutionality of the government’s continued violation of the Minimum Wage Act. Prof. Gopal also said that the foundation of a Republic is its values, which cannot be interchanged with the rank monetary values of the market. Justice Verma said that the Supreme Court should in fact take suo motu cognizance of the State’s violation of multiple articles of the Constitution, esp. the right against exploitation and the right to live with dignity, and existing Supreme Court rulings and issue a writ of mandamus to all governments to ensure payment of minimum wages. Amarjeet Kaur (AITUC) discussed the emergence of dangerous trends in the country, where the State was not only regressing from the tenets of the Constitution, but actively violating its provisions itself instead of enforcing them on private parties. Jean Dreze debunked the propaganda that NREGA wages were leading to the spiralling prices and said that instead, increasing NREGA wages is essential to protect the worker against the debilitating inflation. He further explained that part of the desperate need to undermine the NREGA through minimum wage violations is evident in large sections of the business community and media, which bemoaned the possibility of the world’s largest trade union in the world through NREGA. Annie Raja expressed anger at Montek Ahluwalia’s comment that the government will abide by the Courts decision regarding minimum wage violation in NREGA stating that the citizens’ should not have to fight with the State for their rights. She also said that this reflected the anti labour, and anti democratic attitude of the government ‘cause the State was actively curbing space for democratic dissent. K.B. Saxena highlighted that MGNREGA workers are being paid pathetically low wages on the ground- as low as Rs 30 per day in some places, and having to migrate and be at

the mercy of contractors. They are as a result being led into conditions of forced labour and bondage. Medha Patkar focused on a social order that exacerbated inequality and artificially reduced the value of efforts of the unprotected social class to a bare minimum in order to keep them permanently oppressed. At the end of the day, an open statement condemning the Prime Minister’s letter to Mrs Gandhi making an unconstitutional assertion that NREGA wages are “statutorily delinked” from minimum wages was read and endorsed by all present. The statement (attached) is also endorsed by 150 activists and academics working on NREGA and related issues. Finally the following resolutions were passed unanimously: 1. We decry the incarceration of human rights activist Binayak Sen on charges of sedition, and demand that he be released immediately. Further there is no place for sedition laws in a democratic country, and such laws must be repealed 2. Government must recognize the right of people to organize and such organizations must be legally competent to dialog and negotiate with the government 3. Minimum wage is a constitutional and non-negotiable fundamental right, and must be respected at all times. 4. There must be a rational basis for determining minimum wage. Minimum wage must be decided through a tripartite board, which must include worker representatives 5. In a democracy, there must be a consultative process to determine and change policy. The GoI decision to violate minimum wages runs counter to overwhelming political and legal consensus, including three Chief Ministers, 15 legal luminaries (including 3 ex-CJIs), grassroots opinion and even the Chairperson, NAC 6. Cash transfers are not a substitute for a rational and just minimum wage. In fact cash transfers are anti-democratic in that it is an attempt to substitute an inviolable right to work with a government dole. 7. The Minimum Wage Act as it stands is ultra vires of the Constitution in that it has reduced the Constitutional standard of a living wage to that of a minimum wage. The Act must be amended to delete the Exemption Clause (Section 26), the principles to determine minimum wage must be defined to ensure a legal basis for calculation, indexation and revision of wages must be made mandatory, and time period for revision must be reduced from five years to one year. 8. Every individual, including children in the family should be counted as a whole unit. The average size of the Indian family is five members and this must be the basis of minimum wage calculation.