A fortnight after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said wages paid under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) would not be linked with minimum wages, Minister of State for Labour Harish Rawat today said NREGA was a flawed law, as it went against the Minimum Wages Act.
Rawat told Business Standard the section in the law which contained a contradiction with the minimum wages Act made it a flawed piece of legislation.
At the same time, he said the Opposition had no right to criticise the government for not paying minimum wages under NREGA. “Where were they when the Act was passed in Parliament?” he asked.
Rawat had earlier spoken at a seminar on minimum wages for the unorganised sector organised by the Planning Commission and the Bandhua Mazdoor Morcha of Swami Agnivesh.
CPI(M) Politburo member Sitaram Yechury, who also spoke at the seminar, criticised the government for passing the law with this contradiction and now taking advantage of it to do away with minimum wages.
Referring to Yechury’s statement, Rawat said Yechury and all others who criticise the government now could have stopped the flawed law from being passed. “Why did they let it go?” he asked. “When I raised this at the seminar also, no one responded.”
But Rawat defended the government’s recent decision to link NREGA wages to inflation while keeping it delinked from minimum wages. “You cannot link it to minimum wages so easily. There are practical difficulties now,” he said.
He said the labour ministry’s decision to have a national minimum wage with a new legislation might resolve the current crisis of having a law that does not recognise the Minimum Wages Act.
He, however, did not reply when asked if having a national minimum wage Act guaranteed its use in NREGA.
The stand taken by Rural Development Minister C P Joshi on delinking NREGA from minimum wages was different, Rawat said. “He feels it is a communist agenda to push minimum wages, as they want people to earn the minimum. We want them to earn more. It is a conspiracy of the Leftists to force poor wages on the poor,” he said.
The non-payment of minimum wages can attract censure from international bodies for violation of international labour standards on minimum wages.
However, the recent notification of higher wages in NREGA by the rural development ministry has left a majority of states paying higher wages under NREGA than the current minimum wages in those states.
Attorney General Indira Jaising had recently said non-payment of minimum wages was equivalent to forced labour. However, with the revised wages being much higher than minimum wages, such an accusation may not hold ground.
The participants in the seminar included NAC members Aruna Roy, Harsh Mander, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahkuwalia, Principal Advisor to Planning Commission Pronab Sen and economist Jayati Ghosh.