When a sudden lock-down was announced in March 2020, the travails that unorganised workers, especially migrants, went through quickly captured the attention of the nation. They were unable to access any government benefits because they were not registered in any of the government's databases for various schemes of assistance. With nowhere to turn, they were left to fend for themselves, often on the streets. The sheer numbers of such people in desperation brought their plight to the attention of the media, with unforgettable images of hardship faced by millions of workers and their families.

In June this year, the Supreme Court castigated the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE) for having failed to create a database of unorganised workers. In July 2018, the court had directed MoLE to make available a module to the States and Union Territories to register workers. "When unorganized workers are waiting for registration, and are waiting to reap the benefit of various welfare schemes of the States and Centre, the apathy and lackadaisical attitude by the MoLE is unpardonable. ... [The] Ministry is not alive to the concern of the migrant workers, and the non-action of the Ministry is strongly disapproved," the Court said.

Observing that "several states have stated that they are waiting for the module to be provided by MoLE to proceed with the registration of unorganised workers", the SC directed the Secretary of the Ministry to make this module available to States by 31 July 2021 and complete the process of registration of all unorganised workers by 31 December 2021. The SC has also directed all the States/UTs to implement the Inter-State Migrant Workmen’s Act of 1979. 

The poor registration of unorganised workers is attributable to the weak implementation of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security (UWSS) Act of 2008, and several other impediments.  The UWSS Act makes district administrators responsible for the 'record-keeping function', but allows this task to be delegated to the panchayats and the municipal bodies in rural and urban areas respectively. The Act also called for the setting up of Workers Facilitation Centres (WFCs) to disseminate information on available social security schemes, and assist unorganised workers to register.

These steps, however, were not activated in Karnataka for many years. Workers used to submit applications to the Karnataka UWSS Board directly, which regularly refused to register them on the ground that there was as yet no scheme framed for the benefit, and registration would serve no purpose.

Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

Signs of change, but not enough

With the Supreme Court taking note of the issue once again, there are some signs of change. Of the 181 proposed WFCs -- called Karmika Seva Kendras in Karnataka, one in each of 175 taluks and 6 in Bengaluru -- 159 have been set up so far. Common Service Centers (CSCs) are also functioning in every village panchayat; all these are providing assistance to workers to upload their data to the Seva Sindhu portal. Those previously registered under the Karnataka State Private Commercial Vehicle Drivers’ Accident Benefit Scheme, as well as unorganised workers of 11 sectors who were registered under the Ambedkar Workers' Helping Hand Scheme are being added to the new database.

Registration alone, however, is only a first step, and without subsequent steps it is entirely pointless. The Ambedkar Scheme, for example, provides only a Smart Card as an ID with only a promise of future benefits.  Hence, even the domestic workers who have received smart cards under the Act have not received any benefits as there is no Scheme even for these 11 sectors.  The question arises:  What is the use of registration and issue of Smart Card if there are no schemes providing benefits?

That, hopefully, will change. But much more extensive registration of unorganised workers is needed, else the intended benefits will remain inaccessible to most. In February 2021, the Domestic Workers' Rights Union approached the High Court of Karnataka, seeking its intervention on the non-registration of domestic workers by the Karnataka UWSS Board. The Union stated that despite applications having been filed for registration of more than 3500 domestic workers, only approximately 500 have been registered. 

Those seeking assistance under welfare schemes point out that the rules for the implementation of protective laws often end up thwarting access to the benefits instead. The UWSS Act, for instance, says that every unorganised worker shall be eligible for registration through a self-declaration confirming that he or she is an unorganised worker and there is no need for proving in which sector one is employed. But now, when applying for any benefit, such as the Rs.2000 announced as compensation for the loss of livelihood during the lock-down under the Ambedkar Scheme, an employment certificate by an official or employer is being demanded in addition to the applicant's Aadhar. 

At registration centres, Rs.250 in service and commission charges is being extracted from each domestic worker for uploading their applications to get relief of Rs 2000.

An order dated May 28, 2021 issued by the state government makes online registration on the Seva Sindhu portal mandatory for availing this benefit. The Union has represented to the Court that many domestic workers were not capable of filing their applications online, and this requirement would deprive a large number of eligible domestic workers from getting compensation. And when they do find assistance, it is often from a rent-seeker; the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority confirmed to the Court that around Rs.250 in service and commission charges is being extracted from each domestic worker at the registration centres for uploading their applications for availing relief of Rs 2000.

A more inclusive approach is needed

Construction workers face another hurdle - having to prove through certificates from unions, employers or officials that they have worked for a minimum of 90 days in a year in construction. But this would defeat the whole point of integrating benefits under different schemes. If eligibility for registration or for any social security benefit is made sector-specific and linked to the number of days worked in that sector, an unorganized worker who keeps shifting employments, may become ineligible under all sector-specific legislation even though he may have worked throughout the year in different sectors. 

Most unorganised sector workers are not attached to any specific occupation, as Kingshuk Sarkar, a labour administrator with the Government of West Bengal has noted. "Rather", he writes, "they shift from one occupation to another based on availability". A seasonal construction worker may go back to his village to become an agricultural worker. Such eligibility criteria lead to exclusions of workers from benefits.

For example, a construction worker in Bengaluru switched to running an auto-rickshaw as he could not get work in construction due to the economic slowdown. His registration with the welfare Board for construction workers was cancelled as he had not fulfilled the eligibility criterion of working as a construction worker for 90 days that year. Construction workers' unions, by opposing the merging and rationalisation of all separate labour laws under the Social Security Code and demanding that their separate Act and Board be retained, may actually be harming the interests of their own workers.

The Domestic Workers' Rights Union have also drawn the court's attention to harsh expectations placed only on unorganised workers. Unorganised workers being brought under schemes meant for the general population are put through the harassment of obtaining eligibility and employment certificates to prove their identity as workers, whereas they could have simply applied for the schemes directly like everyone else.

The definition of 'unorganised' work, as well as a narrow definition of those performing it are also causing exclusion. An unorganised wage worker is defined as someone "working in the unorganised sector", which is itself defined as "an enterprise that employs less than ten workers". The result of this is that rather than qualify the work and the person seeking benefits, the basis for eligibility shifts to the other, unrelated factors.

There is a much better alternate, which the Centre itself has previously recognised. Clear-cut and unambiguous exclusion criteria for others could in fact form the basis of good inclusion of unorganised workers in benefit schemes. The National Advisory Council of the UPA government recommended that apart from some select groups - those workers who are already covered by ESIC and EPFO, the self-employed and others paying income-tax, and farmers owning more than a certain acreage of land - all others should be automatically considered as unorganised workers and this needs to be made the basis for providing universal social security.

It is noteworthy that the Karnataka Government has started a Family ID project called 'Kutumba', a comprehensive data-base of each family that the government wants to use for automatic disbursal of benefits to eligible citizens in a suo motu manner "without them having to even apply".  This would hopefully remove the impediments currently in place to citizens accessing benefits.  Such simplification will be key to universalising social security of unorganised workers. 

It is unclear when the shift to this all-encompassing alternative will happen, but meanwhile millions of unorganised workers would be better served by a more coherent and enabling approach to assisting them. The urgency of that need has never been greater than it is today, as countless families struggle to cope with the consequences of the pandemic.