The Rajasthan government, in July 2023, passed two laws – “The Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act 2023” and “The Rajasthan Minimum Guaranteed Income Act 2023” – both of which represent important labour law reforms and enunciate an understanding of labour rights that needs to be contextualised and understood. These laws come on the heels of struggles by various sections of the working class and organisations in Rajasthan and represent another instance of struggles forcing legal reforms.
The sustained economic crisis, which was exacerbated by COVID and the disastrous lockdowns, have effectively led to increasing informalisation of the labour force, depreciation of wages and growing job insecurity. In the face of this, the Modi government embarked on, what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine”, that is the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups or natural disasters – to push through pro-corporate measures. Laws relating to agriculture, land ownership, acquisition of lands for industries were all amended by the Modi government.
The Modi government pushed through the four Labour Codes aimed at denying workers hard-earned rights over the past 150 years, and giving legal sanction to job insecurity through contractualization and informalisation, and starvation wages. The BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat latched on the opportunity and introduced various ordinances freeing employers from complying with labour laws and pushing workers towards slavery. Incidentally Congress government in Rajasthan too tried its hand at this and issued an order enhancing daily working hours to 12 hours, but was compelled to withdraw the order within a month because of the severe fightback from the working class.
Three years later, the Rajasthan government has enacted these two labour rights-related laws, which have been heralded by many as a progressive step to ensure realisation of rights of workers.
The Rajasthan Minimum Guaranteed Income Act 2023:
This enactment provides statutory basis for rights in three broad areas – Right to Minimum Guaranteed Income, Right to Guaranteed Employment and Right to Guaranteed Social Security Pension, besides providing for the implementation mechanism for realisation of their rights, and procedures for ensuring transparency, accountability and grievance redressal.
- Right to Minimum Guaranteed Income: The law imposes a statutory obligation on the State government to provide “minimum guaranteed income” by providing work in urban and rural areas or by providing pension to an eligible category of old age/specially abled/widow/single woman.
- Right to Guaranteed Employment in urban areas - India’s first Urban Employment Guarantee Law: A noteworthy aspect of this enactment is the employment guarantee to persons in urban areas. With the enactment of this law, Rajasthan has become the first state in the country to enact a law that guarantees employment in urban areas. Persons residing in urban areas of Rajasthan have the statutory right to guaranteed employment i.e. the “right to get guaranteed employment for doing permissible work of at least 125 days in a financial year and to receive minimum wages therefor weekly or in any case not later than a fortnight”.
- Enhancing rural employment guarantee to 125 days: It is worth noting that as far back as 2005, the UPA government had enacted Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) guaranteeing 100 days of work to people in rural areas. Crucially the Rajasthan law increases the entitlement to rural workers by adding 25 days of rural employment guarantee over and above the 100 days mandated by MGNREGA.
- Right to Guaranteed Social Security Pension: As pointed above, the law envisages minimum guaranteed income old age persons, persons with disabilities, widows and single women, through the statutory guarantee of pensions. Pensions for senior citizens, widows and persons with disabilities is presently under various Schemes, which do not have the force of law and do not bestow any legal rights on the beneficiaries. This enactment has now made pension a legal right, the violation of which can be challenged in a court of law. It is reported that the guarantees pension will be Rs 1,000 a month with a provision in the law that this pension shall be increased by 15% every year. This provision of annual increase in pension is towards offsetting inflation to an extent.
The laudable aspect of this law, in particular, is the guarantee of employment to persons in urban areas. Note that the law uses the word “persons” implying that there is no household quota and any person can seek enforcement of this right by demanding work from a designated Progam Officer in the urban local body, who is duty bound to provide employment from the list of permissible works in the urban local body, within 15 days of the application being made. Failure to do so entitles unemployment allowance on weekly basis to the person demanding work.
This law is essentially the urban legal version of the MGNREGA, and it is likely that it will face the same hurdles in implementation as the MGNREGA including failure to provide work, non-payment of unemployment allowance, law wages and delay in payment of wages. Having said that, let us remember that the MGNREGA, despite all its operational drawbacks, proved to be succour to the rural poor during the COVID crisis.
Lastly, on the question of pensions, it is inescapable that it has been made into a legal right for old age persons, persons with disabilities, widows and single women. However, even the increased pension of Rs. 1000/- is measly and insufficient.
The Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act 2023:
Lack of secure jobs and the growth of the service industry is producing an army of platform workers in most urban areas across the country. NITI Aayog has estimated that there were 77 lakh gig workers in 2020-21, which was expected to reach 2.34 crore by 2029-2030. However, these workers, in the employment of numerous platforms such as Zomato, Swiggy, UrbanClap, Dunzo, Blinkit, Zepto, Ola, Uber, etc., have been placed at the height of structural vulnerability and state failure due to collaboration between exploitative platforms and a crony corporate anti-people State.
The Rajasthan government has now passed this new law, becoming the first state to statutorily mandate social security benefits to gig workers. Some of the notable features of this new enactment are as follows:
- Gig worker has been defined as a person “who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer–employee relationship and who works on contract that results in a given rate of payment, based on terms and conditions laid down in such contract and includes all piece-rate work.”.
- It mandates the creation of the “Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers Welfare Board”, headed by the Labour Minister, which, among other duties, shall ensure registration of platform-based gig workers, aggregators and primary employers, and monitor schemes for gig workers, etc. The Board can also suggest schemes to the State Government and also constitute committees for providing recommendations to the State Government.
- In regard to the registration of platform-based gig workers, it mandates that the aggregators will be legally obligated to provide its database of all platform-based gig workers onboarded or registered with them.
- The State government shall register and generate a unique ID to all platform-based gig workers.
- “The Rajasthan Platform Based Gig Workers Social Security and Welfare Fund” is to be established under this law. The fund shall be constituted primarily by grants from the government and a “welfare fee” to be charged on each transaction related to platform-based gig workers.
- It also contemplates a grievance redressal mechanism for gig workers in relation to any grievance pertaining to their rights under this Act.
Thus, in essence, the Act constitutes a Welfare Board to which the gig workers would be registered and which would monitor the implementation of social security schemes for gig workers formulated by the Rajasthan government.
No doubt, the Rajasthan government recognising the sorry plight of gig workers has attempted to draw up a law towards ensuring social security benefits to gig workers, is welcome, yet insufficient.
Outside of the critique around the efficacy of welfare boards, particularly in light of the functioning of the Unorganised Workers Board constituted under the Unorganised Workers Act, the Building and Construction Workers Welfare Board under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and various other sector-specific Boards in various states, there is one fundamental problem with the Rajasthan Act. The Act wrongly assumes that gig workers function outside traditional work arrangements and instead have a contractual relationship with the platform operator which determines the rate of payment. This assumption is not merely fallacious but adopts the erroneous explanation of the platform organisations that gig workers are “independent contractors” or “entrepreneurs” or “partners” or “agents” and deny gig workers the status of “workmen” as per the existing labour statutes. In fact, considering the host of factors laid down by the Supreme Court in various cases, in determining the jural relationship of employer-employee, it can only be concluded that gig workers are indeed workers as per existing law. It is necessary to note that courts in the UK and Amsterdam have already held that drivers of Ola and Uber would be ‘workers’ for the purpose of labour law. Hence, the effect of the Rajasthan law is to grant legitimacy to the false understanding that gig workers fall outside the traditional relationship of employer-employee.
The Rajasthan laws represent the reality that seemingly good intentions cannot be a replacement for the real realisation of workers rights.