Social ills of the daily wage system

Shukla Bose
5 min readMay 14, 2020

I am putting myself at great risk and getting into unchartered territories by writing this because I am neither an economist nor a sociologist. I am just a social worker who deals with the maladies of society on a daily basis.

This COVID19 phenomenon has thrown open several lacuna and gaps in our system which hitherto was not given much attention to, in spite of several varied political proclamations. We just took for granted that India had some poor. The average urban Indian had no idea what this poor looked like, till we saw them flushed out because of the Corona crisis. They are all daily wage labourers, uneducated, and unable to hold permanent jobs. They float with moving opportunities and become a part of the migrant workforce that becomes anonymous in the holes in cities called slums. What we are realizing today that much of this workforce is a group of single men that come from a particular village and live together in congested living quarters provided by their temporary employers. They are also migrant labourers that leave their village with their entire family including a couple of children. We always took for granted that daily wage labourers were those grey nondescript figures we see at construction sites or loaders in a market place. These daily wage labourers are also those that serve in small restaurants, work as tailors behind fancy boutiques, and as craftsmen behind well-known jewelry shops. These and many more workers are now protesting that they are more than just statistics and have a life of their own.

This crisis has taught us that these 450 million migrant labourers who have so far been neglected and generally ignored, actually impact our social wellbeing. We realize most reluctantly that social justice is necessary to create a positive and meaningful outcome for people and societies. We are therefore reminded of the 1972 book “Limits to Growth” which was much criticized then and dumped as “garbage of history”, actually has a valid point that ”the earth is finite” and the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods would eventually lead to a crash.

It is shameful for us, as a nation, to have more than half of our much-touted population at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Consequently, on their physiological level of needs related to hunger, thirst, and pain is not being fulfilled. Maslow stated that if one ‘need’ level is fulfilled, the individual aims to fulfill the next one according to his priorities. Accordingly, the second level of priorities of safety and security, which includes also sanitation and health, is also not being fulfilled. After that, on the third level is the necessity to guarantee a steady living standard that includes childcare, transportation, and marginal resources. The parameters of these three levels can easily be connected to definitions of social well being as it is the basis of a healthy and stable life. We, as a nation, have failed to provide nearly 500 million people these basic needs. Once these needs are taken care of, then only can they ascend to individual needs like relationship, family, and friends that address self-esteem and self-actualization including also ethical values. This is connected to the definition of social justice that is beyond social well being which maintains that equity and equal opportunities should be available to all individuals belonging to society. We have failed in providing both the counts of social well-being and social justice to millions and therefore cannot be considered as a developed country irrespective of what economic growth we may flaunt. And for this, not one political party but several past regimes of political leaders are responsible.

To be the developed nation that we claim we want to be, we must look at a fair wage and a just way of disbursal of it. Giving daily wages to unskilled labour is a safe way for the businessman but it is not the safe way of living for millions of people. And this Corona crisis has exposed the vulnerability of these daily wage earners. I am more concerned about the sociological and psychological impact this daily wage syndrome has created in these households. This earning by the day, whatever the amount may be, creates an attitude where the families cannot do any fiscal long term planning and cannot invest in the future. They cannot put their children in schools because they are not sure where they will be and how they can afford it. They can never insure themselves for health and life. They don’t even know what that means. So when there is an illness in the family all the meager savings they may have, get totally wiped out. And then to top it all, the labourer makes a stopover at the local liquor shop and sometimes spends more than half of his daily wage on either gambling or alcohol while the hungry family waits at home for their meal. Then, of course, there is domestic violence resultant from frustration, despair, and guilt. The silent witnesses to all this are the children at home who get slowly traumatised and their choices in life gets further limited. This perpetuating a vicious cycle of life for the daily wage earner continues.

This is the time to think of our daily wage labourers differently. The Parliament had passed the Wages Bill in 2019 mandating a universal minimum payment of Rs178 a day which is less than the Rs 375 a day recommended by the labour expert panel and far less than the Rs 700 fair wage recommended by the 7th Central Pay Commission. In 2012, there were around 487 million workers in India, the second largest after China. Of these over 94 percent work in unincorporated, unorganised enterprises ranging from pushcart vendors to home-based diamond and gem polishing operations. Apart from giving more wages we also need to think of giving them stability. Therefore it is worth looking at the labour ministry panel recommendation of giving Rs 1,430 housing allowance for city-based workers. This would address the housing concerns these workers have significantly. It is also time to look at the inequity of wages because, at the moment, women earn roughly 45% less than men in the same occupation. And there is enough data to prove that it is the women that are holding the family together and investing in the children’s education and health.

I would like to move a little further and suggest for us to explore the possibility of converting the daily wage system to a weekly wage pattern, to begin with, and then ideally shift to monthly wages. This would force this large workforce to begin to plan long term and try to achieve justice and equality in some form. This would also impact the future generation of our country, their children.

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Shukla Bose

Founder @parikrma. Interested in child development, women empowerment, education transformation & impact dynamics. RTs not endorsements