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Will the changes to the Contract Labour Act benefit workers?

A change in the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 may be in the pipeline.  According to news reports, the government may amend the 1970 Act to safeguard the interest of contract workers.  The proposal is to bring parity between permanent and contractual workers in wages and other benefits.

The Contract Labour Act, 1970 regulates the employment of contract labour in establishments which employ 20 or more workmen.  It excludes any establishment whose work is intermittent or casual in nature.  The appropriate government may require establishments to provide canteens, rest rooms and first aid facilities to contract labourers.  The contractor shall be responsible for payment of wages to each worker employed by him.  There are penalties listed for contravening the Act.

According to the Report of the National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), more than 90% of the workforce is part of the unorganised sector.  Contract labour is found in certain activities in the unorganized sector such as in stone quarrying, beedi rolling, rice shelling and brick kiln.  The Commission recommended some measures to protect the workers in the unorganized sector such as ensuring minimum conditions of work, minimum level of social security and improved credit flow to the non-agricultural sector.

The Report of the Working Group on “Labour Laws and other Regulations” for the 12th Five Year Plan, also proposed that the 1970 Act should be amended.  The amendment should ensure that in case of contract labour performing work similar to that performed by permanent workers, they should be entitled to the same wage rates, holidays, hours of work and social security provisions.  Furthermore, whenever a contract worker is engaged through a contractor, the contract agreement between the employer and the contractor should clearly indicate the wages and other benefits to be paid by the contractor.

However, other experts such as Bibek Debroy, Kaushik Basu and Rajeev Dehejia have recommended broad reforms in India’s labour laws to allow for more flexibility in the labour market.  According to them, these laws protect only a small portion of workers in the organized sector.

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