Wages To Die For – Minimum Wages in Meghalaya

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the richJohn Berger

Rice, from 12 rupees a kilo to 16, and rising still. Unpalatable meat prices. Nutrition beyond their means, people hunted by illnesses. Costly private health care condemns the poor as if getting sick is a crime. Education, an expensive choice between hunger and learning. Wages and incomes of labouring farmers, factory workers, shop assistants, security guards, or even genteel private school or college teachers, are just not enough. And yet, our system looks away from these uncomfortable domestic realities to the east, south, west and north, any direction but home, a home where labour is cheap and living, expensive.

In any just and democratic society, people need an adequate and well-compensated livelihood to survive and prosper. Article 39 of the Constitution of India outlines that the state shall direct its policy towards securing for its citizens a right of an adequate livelihood. In article 43 it goes on to say that the state shall endeavour to give all workers – agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure, and social and cultural opportunities. The Supreme Court took this further and said that minimum wages does not mean the bare sustenance of life to stay above starvation but minimum wages should ensure not only sustenance of the worker and his family but should also include their medical needs, proper leisure and a decent standard of life.

The Minimum Wages Act of 1948 was a legislation designed to fulfill some of these constitutional aspirations. Under this act various state governments mandate minimum wages for different categories of professions and revise this regularly to ensure that the workers are covered for rising prices. But under pressure from the rich and powerful, the governments have tried to keep minimum wages very low and the list of professions to which these wages apply restricted to a very few professions. For instance in Meghalaya, the minimum wages specified currently is Rs. 70 per day for unskilled labour and Rs. 85 per day for skilled labour. One way to understand these wages is to find out whether this wage allows a family to have a decent standard of life or in other words are these wages, Living Wages?

So How Much does a family need to survive in Meghalaya ?

Let us assume an average family size of six (Mother, Father, three school and one college going child). How much does this family need every year to make ends meet at the current level of prices? We make this calculation for a family in the rural area and assume 25 working days per month or 300 working days per annum. Also, that this family has meat once a week and one change of clothes for each person once a year. Even though it is a known fact that the PDS system is plagued with corruption, exploits the poor and is in a state of collapse, we give benefit of doubt to the government and assume that the family gets its correct share of ration at the correct rate. Where health and Education is concerned given the present state of these systems and the non-availability of free and compulsory education in our state and the absence of health care, our calculation is based on the minimum that a family would need to cough up for having some minimal access to these essential services.

1. Rice 20 kg / week or 80 kg/ month. Let us assume that the family gets its proper ration every month from the ration shop. Then too the costs are as follows
From the ration shop 35kg at the rate of  Rs. 6.15 Rs.215.15/month
From the open market 45 kg at the rate of Rs. 16 Rs. 720/month
2. dal, sugar, condiments, vegetables, tea etc. Rs. 250/week Rs. 1000/month
3. Meat once a week Rs.120/week Rs. 480/month
Kerosene 25 litres@Rs. 15/litre Rs. 375/month
Total Rs.2790/month Rs.33480/annum
Fees Rs.150/monthx3= Rs.450/month Rs. 5400/annum
Uniform Rs.600/child x 3 Rs. 1800/annum
Books and stationary Rs.700/childx3 Rs. 2100/annum
Fees Rs. 6000/annum
Books and stationary Rs, 600/annum
Total Rs.15,900/annum
School going children Rs. 400×3 Rs. 1200/annum
College going child Rs. 700
Mother + Father Rs. 1000
Total Rs. 2900/annum
Doctors fees+medicines Rs. 400/month Rs.4800/annum
Transport+communication Rs. 250/month Rs. 3000/annum
House Rent (given the migration to urban and semi urban areas for work and education) Rs 9000/annum

With the minimum wages at Rs. 70 per day for unskilled labour and Rs. 85 per day for skilled labour, any just minded individual would notice the mismatch between the income and expense. The income does not even cover the expense of food, leave alone health and education.

At the present wage rate, just to survive, at least three members of the family have to have around 330 days of work per person. Children have to drop out from school and/or the family has to forgo necessary medical expenditure and/or cut down on their food intake. This is based on the assumption that the Public Distribution System works and the family is getting rice and kerosene at the specified rate. If we discount the actual workings of PDS, the situation is much more grim.

Even progressive programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which entitles a rural family a guaranteed 100 days of work per year at notified minimum wages is not working in our state, because in addition to other anomalies, the notified minimum wage is so low. If we compare our minimum wage to other states, this disparity is much more clear. In  Kerala  and  Bihar, minimum wage includes a dearness allowance which means that wages automatically change based on inflation. In Kerala the wages range between Rs. 125 for unskilled agricultural work, Rs. 165/day for unskilled road and other construction work and Rs. 218/day for skilled road and construction work. In Bihar the minimum wages range between Rs. 81 for unskilled work to Rs. 137/day for skilled labour. Even in Mizoram the Minimum Wage is Rs. 103 for unskilled labour and Rs. 183 for skilled labour.

If the argument given is that the Meghalaya Govt. does not have enough revenue to pay people an enhanced minimum wage on govt. projects, it is untrue because all the wage component on NREGA comes from the central govt. If the Meghalaya Govt. had any concern for its people it would have taken the cue from other states and immediately increased the minimum wage and let the center foot the bill. Rather than rectify the situation, the government and its bureaucracy is busy teaching the rural poor some accounting tricks. People are being asked to work for fifty days and sign for hundred. Ironically, this government has plenty of money to spare when it comes to appeasing people through political appointments to useless and often defunct committees, paying exorbitant fees to self proclaimed development “experts” and consultants, but when it comes to acting on behalf of the people, they start looking for excuses like cost of labour making Meghalaya less investor friendly.

So how much should the minimum wages be ?

If we use Rs. 69,080 as the yardstick and hope that a family gets 300 days of work in a year, the minimum wage due to a labouring family should be around Rs. 230.00 per day. Any wage less than this will not only be unjust but will continue to keep people hungry, children uneducated and is nothing short of murdering the poor. Moreover, this basic wage of Rs. 230 cannot remain static. We need to evolve mechanisms to ensure that there is automatic rise in wages with the rise in the cost of living. Maybe every year based on the Cost of Living index of Meghalaya, we have to increase the basic wage. But only notifying the minimum wage is not enough, we need minimum wage to cover every profession, where a person enters into wage employment.  This means that even domestic labour, shop assistants, restaurant workers, workers in private firms and companies, Private Schools and colleges (and universities), private hospitals, auto workers, drivers, i.e. every profession has to covered by the minimum wage. And finally, the government has to create and strengthen mechanisms to ensure that employers adhere to the notified minimum wage and any complaint against them have to be quickly investigated and if found guilty promptly punished.

These are simple truths, even clichés. But why is there no high level think tank / talk / consultation about it? The managerial knowledge or deal-making prowess the ruling elite possesses is never directed towards the banal reality of poverty. The speed with which this elite is ready to sell off the states resources is never applied for pursuing a progressive and egalitarian agenda because the idea of development being peddled to us these days considers any egalitarian and distributive act to be a sin against the god called market.

This situation is not going to change even if we create more employment opportunities by signing corrupt power deals or turning Shillong into a Knowledge city or engineering a strawberry/aloe vera/coloured capsicum mania. Mere jobs do not reduce poverty but jobs with living wages and a functioning social security infrastructure do. If this is not so then the rich increase their riches by paying the workers less than what is due to them and the poor get poorer.

And we don’t need some Bob Marley to tell us that a hungry man is an angry man…


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