Work, Health & Rights – MFC Discussion [1]

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Medico Friends Circle completes 40 years with this annual conference in Hyderabad. Seeing the energy and quality of discussions this morning is admirable. The gathering is quite diverse – activists, NGOs, researchers, development professionals, engineers and doctors (although the name suggests that it is a group of medical professionals.

Theme of this MFC meet is Work, Health and Rights.

The concerns within this are about what is work, work conditions and gender, particularly in the unorganized sector. Now, the distinction between organized and unorganized sector is not straight forward or simple. The concern originates from the health care situation of 97% of the work force in India today. To address this, it would be required to structurally analyze the forms of legal, economic and social relationships in which the workers exist with their employers.

Organized/Unorganized categorization is based on sectors of production, whereas, workers can be employed under formal and informal modes. One view is that it is a convenient economic-legal categorization which grades people on the degree of benefits they receive as a part of work force. The other is that the categorization of organized sector began with the Factories Act.

Agriculture has been mostly informal but with MNCs coming in many aspects of agriculture has become organized yet the workers have remain unorganized. There are problems when an industry begins to get organized. And these problems are of concern to development and growth.  Two primary concerns in defining nature of sector and work are-

  • Legality
  • Social Security

The right to unionize should be of critical importance when a sector organizes. This according to one view, helps ensure social security which should be of primary concern from a gender perspective.

Unorganized-organized categorization would soon become irrelevant in the neoliberal world says one participant citing the  case of Rajasthan government where employees who were made permanent after 2004 do not have any pension benefits or security.. They only take a monthly salary.

Contrary to this, some perceive that the categorization is a fairly clear one at that and there are two markers of such a distinction-

  • Worker – direct hires, contract workers (under ESI Act).
  • Entitlements – employer provided, employee-employee contributory model, safety net (RG Yojana)

When in 2006 it was declared that “menial services” will be contracted out in the public sector why didn’t anyone object? The dalits were completely pushed out from the resultant opportunities. In the government sector dalits were turned away. And therefore, it is necessary that the meet discusses caste and class also.

The view that these categories are becoming redundant is held by quite a few. “Today we find that a permanent worker is an endangered species says a former trade union worker.” The sector is moving towards dissolving this employer-employee relation.

I find it interesting that the people here concern themselves with figuring out these overwhelmingly confusing categories of organized-unorganized and formal- informal work. It is interesting because here is a group comprising mostly of practitioners and fieldworkers and not academicians who find it problematic the way workers are seen and engaged with rests on such arbitrary system.

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