Voluntary groups are dissatisfied with the government decision to link wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) to inflation. They said this wasn’t enough and workers must be paid the statutory minimum wage.
While indexation of wages under MNREGS to the consumer price index for agricultural labourers was a welcome step, the core issue persisted, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) said. In 10 states, the wages provided under the scheme were less than the prevailing minimum wages, it claimed.
The organisation quoted a letter sent to the prime minister by Congress President and National Advisory Council (NAC) Chairman Sonia Gandhi. It communicated the consensus at NAC, which said “workers under MNREGS need to be paid minimum wages as notified under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Also, they are being paid less than the statutory minimum wage. This is totally unacceptable and needs to be corrected at once”.
The Ministry of Rural Development (MRD) had done nothing in this regard, MKSS said.
It is miffed with the letter sent by the prime minister, categorically saying the government had decided MNREGS workers would not be covered under the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act.
The outfit claimed this was in spite of a strong contradictory opinion from the labour ministry, among others.
MKSS said the minimum wages were sacrosanct and their violation was a violation of citizens’ fundamental rights, and amounted to “forced labour”.
“This has been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court. In Sanjit Roy vs State of Rajasthan (1983) case, it even declared the Exemption Act unconstitutional, saying: “No person shall be required or permitted to provide labour or service to another, on payment of anything less than the minimum wage. If the Exemption Act, by excluding the applicability of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, provides that minimum wage may not be paid to a workman employed in any famine relief work, it would be clearly violative of Article 23.”
It also cites Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising’s opinion: “The non-obstante clause in Subsection (1) of Section 6 by itself will not enable the central government to fix wage at a rate lower than provided under the Minimum Wages Act. The payment of wage below the minimum wage would amount to forced labour. The labour ministry, too, has put on record its “fundamental objections” to Section 6(1) of the Act, cautioning it will not stand legal scrutiny, since it undermined the sanctity of the Minimum Wages Act.
The organisation said MRD had deliberately ignored the orders of the Andhra Pradesh High Court and was facing contempt proceedings for not paying minimum wages to MNREGS workers.
“Even the current notification will result in MNREGS workers getting less than the minimum wage. The government has strayed from its own promise. In May 2004, UPA’s common minimum programme noted the government would abide by six basic principles for governance. These included “enhancement of the welfare and well-being of farmers, farm labour and workers, particularly those in the unorganised sector” and “providing a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment […] every year at minimum wages, for at least one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower middle-class household”, MKSS said.
“The right thing for the government is to notify the prevailing state minimum wage, wherever the increased indexed wage rate is less and use these rates as the base for future indexation. This is the only constitutionally, legally and politically tenable solution,” it said.