Media coverage of the devastating earthquake that caused widespread death and destruction across Kashmir as well as parts of Pakistan on 8 October primarily focussed -- while it lasted -- on the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the quake, especially the immediate needs and problems of the large numbers of bereaved, injured and homeless survivors left to the vagaries of nature and the mercies of fellow human beings.

One aspect of the disaster that has received little media attention so far is its effect on livelihoods. Yet, according to Juan Somavia, director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “Reports of widespread destruction show that the livelihoods of millions of people are threatened or have been destroyed.” As humanitarian and reconstruction efforts proceed, he said, urgent action is also required to create decent and productive employment and thereby rebuild people’s livelihoods. “By losing their employment, even for a short period of time, workers in the affected districts have likely already fallen into extreme poverty,” he warned. According to the ILO, "Reviving the rural economy where most people in the affected areas live and work is both urgent and challenging.”

Employment and livelihoods are, unfortunately, not the stuff of which headlines are made – unless, of course, it is in the context of the corporate world in general and, lately, the Information Technology and IT-Enabled Services (IT/ITES) industries in particular. And labour rarely makes it into the media unless it cannot be ignored – as on 30 September, the day after the nation-wide one-day general strike called by a number of trade unions backed by the Left parties.

On such occasions coverage is hardly objective. The front page headlines in sections of Bangalore’s English press that day reflected varying degrees of disapproval: “Left strike hits all” (The Times of India), “Strike cripples industry, banking (Deccan Herald), “Strike hits industry, trade” (Vijay Times). The New Indian Express was a little more even-handed: “A day lost in shutdown” was placed below the banner headline, “Bandh makes a point but bleeds the nation.” The Hindu was matter-of-fact: “General strike hits normal life.” The Asian Age chose to ignore the strike, except for a page 2 report on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s criticism of the Left parties’ support for it and, in the Bangalore supplement, a round-up of the “mixed response” to the bandh in the city.

If the striking workers of the Honda Motorcycles And Scooters company in Gurgaon received sympathetic coverage in July, it was almost entirely thanks to the brutal violence unleashed on them and members of their families by the police.

To unionise or not to unionise

More recently, a flurry of coverage has been prompted by the question of whether or not employees of the IT/ITES sectors should be able to form or join unions, on which there is apparently some difference of opinion even within the ranks of the Left.

"South Asia's labour market is characterised by pervasive unemployment and underemployment, especially among the youth and the educated."
-- Human Development in South Asia

 •  Enterprising labour of the small
 •  Lawmakers push for entitlements

The lead editorial in The Times of India (TOI) on 28 October, headlined “Labour Aristocrats,” included some telling facts and interesting observations about the 500 million strong Indian workforce: “…a miniscule 5%, or 27 million, work in the organised sector. About 70% of this number, about 19 million, work for the central and state governments… Add a couple more million to that and you get a figure of between 20 and 22 million people who belong to the labour aristocracy. This 4% of workers militate against the interests of the other 96%.” The editorial also contained some advice for the communist parties: “The Left should stop fretting about 4% of the workforce” and should, instead, “look after the interests of non-organised, non-unionised people, who are the vast majority…”

Would that the TOI – and, indeed, the rest of the media -- followed that counsel. Instead, the vast majority of the country’s workers and would-be workers are virtually invisible in the media. For instance, the fact that a draft legislation seeking to ensure social security and welfare for workers in the vast unorganised sector of labour is currently awaiting comments and suggestions does not seem to have crossed the media’s radar.
(See: The Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Bill, 2005, draft with the Ministry of Labour, received from the National Advisory Council in July 2005.)

According to the 2003 edition of Human Development in South Asia, brought out by the Pakistan-based Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, which focussed on "The Employment Challenge," "South Asia's labour market is characterised by pervasive unemployment and underemployment, especially among the youth and the educated; working poor who do not get adequate wages to get out of poverty; working children; and women who face discrimination across the labour market."

Estimates of the total number of unemployed or underemployed people in India vary between 50 and 100 million, with some experts pegging it even higher, at 250-300 million. The Economic Survey of India has reported that the unemployment rate increased from 5.99 per cent in 1993-4 to 7.32 per cent in 1999-2000. To make matters worse, young people accounted for 53 per cent of the total unemployed in the country. But such official data are deceptive. Typically based partly on information from employment exchanges across the country, which are used by a fraction of those seeking work, and partly on the Census conducted every ten years and National Sample Surveys in between, they tend to tell only part of the story. In any case, as the Human Development in South Asia report puts it, “…underemployment and non-productive use of labour (are) the real employment issues” in the region, and the country.

To do or die

In the absence of social or economic security of any kind, the majority of Indians – male and female – have no option but to slave under appalling conditions for less than decent wages, often from childhood to old age. In 18 out of the 32 states and union territories where legislation on minimum wages applies, the minimum permissible daily wage is less than Rs 50; the range of minimum wages rises above Rs.100 only in four states*. It goes without saying that even such low minimum wages are not always paid. To make matters worse, there are seasonal variations in availability of work and calamities of various kinds – from drought to social conflict – adversely affect employment and livelihoods on a regular basis.

It is to address the desperate need of millions of people struggling for basic livelihood that a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was passed by Parliament on 23 August. The Act, which became law in September, aims to provide large-scale employment to the rural poor through public works. It is expected to have the additional benefit of developing the infrastructure base in the countryside. The landmark legislation guarantees 100 days of wage employment in a year to adult members of a rural household who demand employment and volunteer to do unskilled manual work. Under the Act, any adult who is willing to undertake such labour is entitled to apply for employment and be assigned work within 15 days, subject to the current limit of 100 days per household per year. Further, and importantly, an unemployment allowance has to be paid if work is not provided for any reason. The law will initially be implemented in 200 of the nation’s most backward districts, spread across 27 states, but it is to be extended to the rest of the country within five years.

In 18 out of 32 states and union territories, the minimum permissible daily wage is less than Rs 50.