The Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023: A Critical Understanding of the Apprenticeship System

On 13th December, 2022, 155 workers were arbitrarily terminated from employment by Yazaki India Pvt Ltd., an Indian arm of a Japanese company that manufactures automobile parts. Despite having worked for 4-5 years, they were termed apprentices and not recognized as workers. Overnight they found themselves unemployed, and on the streets. When questioned about the mass illegal termination, the Management claimed that the workers were not on their rolls, but were apprentices, who they could terminate at will.


Among Yazaki India's 3000-strong workforce, only 130 individuals are designated as permanent employees. Of rest – the majority of about 1500 workers - are classified as apprentices and the rest termed as contract workers. This classification allows the company to deprive over 95% of its workforce of basic labor rights, such as minimum wages, leave, job security, and social security.


When we examine the Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023 that was adopted by the 111th International Labour Conference (ILC) held in Geneva from 5th to 16th June, we need to keep in mind the reality of apprenticeships and how they manifest themselves in practice.


The Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023 (No. 208)


The new Quality Apprenticeship Recommendation, hereafter ‘Recommendation’, on Quality Apprenticeship was adopted in the 111th ILC with the objective of supporting "opportunities for people of all ages to become skilled, reskilled and continuously up-skilled", and were to serve as regulatory guidelines for apprenticeships.

The ILO had earlier adopted the Apprenticeship Recommendation, 1939 (No. 60), and the Vocational Training Recommendation, 1962 (No. 117). Both of them were superseded by the Human Resources Development Recommendation, 1975 (No. 150), and subsequently by the Human Resources Development Recommendation, 2004 (No. 195). Due to these juridical replacements, it was found that no existing ILO instruments comprehensively address apprenticeships. With an intention to fill this gap, the ILO has now brought in the Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023.

The Recommendations, understands ‘apprenticeship’ as “ A form of education and training that is governed by an apprenticeship agreement, that enables an apprentice to acquire the competencies required to work in an occupation through structured and remunerated or otherwise financially compensated training consisting of both on-the-job and off-the-job learning and that leads to a recognized qualification”.

The Recommendation provides for a regulatory framework for apprentices requiring that the apprentices inter alia (a) receive adequate remuneration or other financial compensation; (b) are not required to work hours that exceed specified limits; (c) are entitled to holidays with adequate remuneration or other financial compensation; (d) are entitled to sick leave; (e) have access to paid maternity or paternity leave; (f) have access to social security; (g) are afforded freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; (h) are afforded protection on occupational safety and health.

It also outlines measures to promote equality, diversity and social inclusion in apprenticeships, taking special account of the needs of persons belonging to vulnerable groups. Furthermore, it mandates member states to establish a supportive atmosphere conducive to fostering quality apprenticeships.

We now look at whether the Recommendations effectively address the concerns arising from how the apprenticeship system unfolds in practice, using India as an illustrative example.


The Apprenticeship System in India


The Apprenticeship Act was brought in in 1961, just after the Second Five Year Plan, that concentrated on developing the public sector and industrialization. The Statement of Objects to the law notes that “In the context of the five-year plan and the large-scale industrial development of the country, there is an increasing demand for skilled craftsmen. The government considers that it is necessary fully to utilise the facilities available for the training of apprentices and to ensure their training...”.

The law removes apprentices from the definition of workers, thereby excluding them from almost all labour laws. This includes key laws such as the Minimum Wages Act, social security statutes like the Employee State Insurance Act (ESI), and the Employees' Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act of 1952, as well as the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, among others. While the stated aim of this law was to facilitate practical training within factory settings, fostering the development of skilled labour and enhancing employment prospects, it soon evolved into a loophole enabling industries to circumvent legal protections for the workers.

Subsequently, the Apprenticeship Act was amended to increase the ceiling of engagement of apprentices in an establishment from 2.5% to 15%. It was also amended to delink the wages payable to the apprentice from minimum wages, and instead fixed wages ranging from Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 8,000/-. Additionally, the revised legislation permitted individuals to serve as "apprentices" for up to three years.

Consequently, situations similar to the one highlighted in Yazaki India Pvt. Ltd., where workers work at the mercy of the employer and can be thrown out of employment at will, emerge. 

This experience of apprenticeship and on-job-training is also seen in the functioning of the National Employability Enhancement Scheme (NEEM), which was introduced by the Union Government in 2013. While the scheme was ostensibly introduced to develop a skilled workforce through “on the job training”, it became another route to ensure cheap labour. The workers engaged under the scheme are not considered workers, but trainees and lie outside the protection of law. After 2017, when the scheme was substantially amended, it became a tool for recruiting workers in various industrial hubs, including the Manesar[1] industrial belt, where workers enlisted under this scheme receive only a "stipend" of approximately Rs. 9,000, compared to permanent workers performing the same tasks who receive wages amounting to Rs. 80,000. Strikingly, workers continue to be designated as trainees even after the stipulated training period expires and are often presented with the ultimatum to either remain as trainees or lose their employment.

While these schemes have the purported objective of ensuring employability of workers, the reality is, clearly, otherwise. Firstly, the system is often manipulated to label workers as trainees, thereby denying them their rightful entitlements.  Secondly, concrete measures to secure employment for those who have undergone training are conspicuously absent. It is worth noting that a proposal advocating the reservation of 50% of regular jobs for apprentices after their training was abandoned due to industry-related pressures. Official data on the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, another such skill development scheme, showed that only one out of four persons who underwent the skill training got jobs in the past 8 years[2]. Pertinently, the nature of the jobs they got, and the security of the same is also uncertain.

Significantly, these deceptive practices are closely intertwined with the historical oppression based on caste, as a substantial portion of workers compelled to endure such precarious working conditions hail from Dalit and other marginalized communities.



Gaping holes in the Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023 and the perpetuation of insecure jobs


The Indian experience highlights how the concept of apprenticeships and on-the-job training, instead of primarily focusing on enhancing worker skills, often transforms into a means of supplying low-cost labour to industries. This, in turn, results in the denial of even the most fundamental labour rights. In the broader context, workers are compelled to work under precarious and unprotected working conditions.


The Recommendations fails to recognize this vital aspect, and in many ways allows for the perpetuation of this practice, without requiring that those appointed as apprentices are ensured basic rights. While it mandates that apprentices “receive adequate remuneration or other financial compensation”, it does not mandate the payment of a minimum wage. While the Recommendation does mandate that apprentices should be ensured social security, holidays, maternity leave, etc., it falls short of closing the disparity between apprentices and other workers who undertake identical tasks, thereby perpetuating discriminatory systems. It would have been appropriate for the Recommendation to have mandated at the very least equal working conditions, when the same work is being performed.


The second aspect it overlooks is that enhancing employability does not guarantee actual employment and would not solve the problem of unemployment. The Recommendations acknowledge that quality apprenticeships can lead to decent work and improved employability, but they fall short of taking the step to mandate an obligation to secure employment for those who have undergone training. The fact that the industry opposed an amendment to the law aimed at ensuring that at least a portion of the trained workforce would be integrated into the permanent workforce of the country highlights how the industry perceives such schemes — primarily as mechanisms to provide cheap labour, rather than ensuring that workers are both skilled and able to find employment. The Recommendation, by not imposing any obligations to ensure actual employment, leaves a gap, allowing for the supply of cheap labour to the industry without effectively ensuring job opportunities for those being made "employable."


The Recommendations has the stated intent of facilitating a transition from the informal to the formal economy and from insecure to secure work. However, it fails to recognize that the solution it proposes is, in reality, exploited to prolong insecure work conditions, and it lacks measures to prevent such misuse. To achieve a meaningful transition, its not enough to solely ensure the employability of workers; it's crucial to mandate the provision of employment afterward.