Political manifestos ignore the labour class

For meaningful progress, political parties need to move beyond rhetoric and emphasise evidence-based policies to effectively realise their promises.
Image for representation
Image for representation

Dalit poet and social activist Annabhau Sathe once said, “The earth is not balanced on the snake's head but on the strength of Dalit and working-class people.” Though the working class contributes enormously to the running of the world, they are often ignored and taken for granted by policy makers. In India too, it is quite common for the ruling parties in their authoritative autocracy to forget the ones that built this nation. It becomes important to recall the famous slogan of “Kaun banaya Hindustan? Bharat ke mazdoor kisan (Who made Hindustan? The workers and the farmers of Bharat). 

World organisations have highlighted how India is a young country, with the majority of its population aged between 18 and 35 years, a prime age for a workforce to contribute substantially to the country's growth and development. However, India’s workforce has turned into mere fodder for the largest global capitalist machine. The country is often criticised for the lack of adequate labour protection initiatives. The global north uses the global south, especially China and India, as a workshop for their capitalist expansion. The main reasons for this flocking of 'work' to the global south are cheap labour and an ecosystem that perpetuates inhumane working conditions that increase the employers’ profit. The changes in the nature of work brought in by the rise of the service sector and the gig economy, coupled with the lack of adequate labour laws to protect the working class, is one of the stressing concerns in the labour market in India. It is the responsibility of the government to legislate and implement laws to provide safe working conditions and minimise exploitation. 

The formal workforce is relatively better off with certain rights that guarantee safer working conditions. However, with rising privatisation and the absence of labour laws or their non-implementation, the large formal workforce in the private sector also face different hardships. On the contrary, the informal workforce, comprising 92.4% of the total workforce, is least cared for and mostly exploited, with a high proportion of jobs without contract, job security, health or social security, and long and stressful working hours. History has proved that having safer working conditions benefits not just the workers but yields better results for the overall development of society. 

India's youth account for almost 83% of the unemployed workforce. The rise of self-employment also portrays a grim picture of the labour market. Accidental Deaths and Suicides Report (2022) published by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs mentions that 26.4% of the total suicides are by daily wage earners, 6.6% are from the farming sector, 7.6% are students, 9.2% are unemployed persons, and 11.4% are self-employed persons. That is, 61.2% of the total suicides recorded in 2022 could be partially or fully linked to the lack of labour protection and the employment crisis in India. The country ranks 126 in the world according to World Happiness Report 2024, a worrisome addition one needs to connect to understand the overall social distress. 

The Legislature must be guided by the Constitution of India; however, the policies and the legislations are most often guided by the ideology of the respective political parties that are in power. An important way to understand political parties' intentions is to analyse the manifesto they present before the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Though the proposed pledges in the manifestos are not always implemented in true spirit, they act as documents reflecting the intentions and ideology of the political parties.  

The working class in the BJP manifesto

The BJP's manifesto, titled "Modi ki Guarantee 2024" appears retrospective and is an advertising pamphlet for the government's 'achievements' over the past term, rather than a manifesto to address pressing issues. It is a recycled version of previous election manifestos without any substantial new proposal or strategy. 

On the subject of labour, the manifesto vaguely touched upon enhancing livelihoods, increasing employment opportunities, and facilitating the participation of women in the workforce. However, the mechanisms, pathways, and policies that would facilitate these are missing. 

For instance, while the document aims to increase women's participation, it wishes to do so by developing infrastructure like working women's hostels near industrial and commercial centres. It conveniently fails to outline and highlight specific policy-level initiatives, schemes, and methods for job creation in the next five years. 

While the document did promise comprehensive social security coverage by integrating schemes through the use of post offices for facilitation, it conveniently missed out on institutional support and government assistance to ensure the measures' effectiveness. Failing to specify how they are willing to achieve the goals, as well as the contents of their earlier legislations, raise suspicion about the party’s commitment to improve the conditions of the working class. It almost seems like the BJP's manifesto is guided by crony capitalism rather than the welfare of the working class. 

Moreover, their track record in fulfilling past promises and enacting pro-labour legislation has been disheartening. Their actions often contradicted their assurances. For instance, the introduction of labour codes was criticised heavily for being unfriendly to workers' rights, raising significant concerns about the government's true priorities. These codes favoured establishments and employers over workers and sparked protests by labour unions and workers' rights advocates. Farmers' protest in New Delhi is also testimony that the BJP government's initiatives were not received well by the farmers of our country. Such moves against their earlier manifestos cast doubts on the sincerity of their current promises for the labour class.

Congress manifesto and employment

Interestingly, the Congress manifesto, on the other hand, addresses issues like inequality, social justice and welfare, freedom, democracy, and constitutional values. The manifesto is well-structured, with the foundational underpinning being equity and social justice. It has underlined issues such as wages of frontline workers, institutional credit for Self Help Groups, gender-based wage discrimination, rights of gig workers, apprenticeship, and skill enhancement. The Congress’ promise of the Right to Apprenticeship Act provides a one-year apprenticeship in public or private companies to every diploma holder or college graduate below the age of 25. According to the manifesto, this focus is to help impart skills and enhance employability prospects. 

Further, the manifesto has touched on one of the most crucial and forgotten aspects - frontline workers. The Union government's contribution to the payment of frontline ASHA, Anganwadi workers is promised to be doubled. Additional job creation in these domains is also promised. 

The same work and wage regulation is promised for women in a move against gender discrimination, along with a pledge to increase institutional credit to help women SHGs. An increase in per day wage to Rs 400 for MGNREGA, an urban employment guarantee work scheme for urban poor, a law to specify and protect the rights of gig workers and unorganised labour, as well as a law to regulate the employment of domestic workers are also promised. 

Addressing critical components like the rights of gig workers, social security provisions, and implementing an urban employment guarantee scheme is imperative, particularly in light of the burgeoning urban informal workforce in India. This is compounded by evolving work dynamics and mounting apprehensions regarding employment within the gig economy.

CPI(M) manifesto's brief encounter with labour rights

Communist Party of India (Marxist) manifesto focused on minimum wages, unemployment insurance for the jobless, and increased days under the MGNREGA scheme. Although this manifesto may not have elaborated or specified the nature of involvement, schemes, and policies, it echoes the party’s principal ideology and underlines the importance of equity, employment concerns, and workers' rights. 

Other regional parties

Other popular regional parties that piqued our attention include Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Trinamool Congress (TMC), and Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP). 

DMK's elaborate manifesto promises to deliver basic social security benefits and enhance employment opportunities. Their manifesto is anchored around the Dravidian model of governance, which aims to deliver effective results in matters concerning socio economic indicators. DMK's manifesto promised increased number of working days, wage, and fund allocation under MGNREGA. 

Further, it also assures a minimum pension through the Employees' Provident Fund (EPF), a unified law to protect and safeguard domestic workers' rights and minimum wages, and a committee to ensure the social security of domestic labour. An urban employment scheme, similar to MGNREGA, guaranteeing employment for urban workers, has also been mentioned.

TMC's manifesto, titled Didir Shopoth (translated to Didi's oath), addresses significant contemporary concerns. One of the major announcements is 100 days of guaranteed work for all job cardholders with a minimum stipulated wage. The manifesto assures employment for India's rural workforce for at least 50 days. A job-based incentive scheme to stimulate job creation, particularly for women, by providing financial incentives to corporates is also spelt out. 

It also mentions the commitment towards a national policy directive for the informal sector, focusing on enhancing wages, working conditions, and access to formal credit. An interesting element is a promise for a new policy to reintegrate women into the workforce through part-time work policies and special re-skilling programmes to increase their labour force participation. Further, job-based incentives for large firms based on a higher proportion of hired and retained female workers is also pledged. Other assurances include professional apprenticeships for educated youth to boost employability. 

In line with the Congress manifesto, TMC also emphasised a social security scheme for gig workers by guaranteeing a welfare board that registers labour and provides benefits, mediates disputes, and maintains a corpus for supporting them.

The election manifesto of the YSRCP, on the other hand, comes across as a lazy attempt at alluring voters, where a higher weightage has been given to the continuation of welfare schemes. Pretty much against what the name of the party (comprising youth, farmers, and working class) suggests, a small emphasis has been put on skill development as a pathway for enhancing employment generation, underlining the promise to create skill hubs, skill development colleges, and a skill university in the state. 

However, no attempt has been made to address the improvement in the working conditions of the informal labour force, nor has there been any mention of hiking MGNREGA wages. 

The need for working-class-friendly initiatives

Though the election manifestos do echo promises to improve the lives of labourers, they shed little light on the possible pathways to achieve the same. Each party has outlined its vision to address crucial issues with regard to employment and labour; however, a critical examination is required to understand the gaps in these proposals. 

The commonalities among these various manifestos include enhancing livelihood opportunities (if not comprehensive policy proposals or promises, an acknowledgement of the concern), particularly for women and informal labour. Given the high proportion of informal labour in India, this is also crucial to reduce inequalities and bring economic stability to households. 

Promises regarding the expansion of existing schemes like MNREGA and initiatives such as the urban employment guarantee scheme also reflect the recognition from political parties of the need to address evolving employment challenges. 

The BJP's manifesto has not succeeded in being comprehensive and spelling out concrete proposals. While it did outline broad goals, it could not consider the complex challenges in employment generation and bring out clear directives on how it aims to address the employment question. Further, while manifestos from Congress, DMK, and TMC underline and recognise wage discrimination challenges for gig workers, comprehensive strategies are required to address the proposals in depth and offer sustainable solutions to ensure effective implementation and coverage. 

Overall, while a few manifestos highlighted the recognition of pressing labour challenges in India, more specific strategies to address them are required. For meaningful progress, political parties need to move beyond rhetoric and emphasise evidence-based policies to effectively realise their promises. Failing to realise the need for progressive labour laws and not striving to have safer working conditions is not only indicative of gross mismanagement of human resources, but also hinders the overall growth of our country. 

Boddu Srujana and Aurolipsa Das are Assistant Professors at the Department of Economics, Easwari School of Liberal Arts, SRM University-AP. Sipoy Sarveswar is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Anthropology, Visva-Bharati.

Views expressed are the authors' own.

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