Needed: Incentives to Employment
Intro: Our population is about 120 crores, out of these; about 60 crores are of working age. Of these, only three crores are employed in the organised sectors and two crores are
government servants. Only one crore are employed in the private sector.
The Union Government is planning to reform labour laws as proposed in Rajasthan recently. The Industrial Disputes Act will now be made applicable to industries employing more than 300 workers against 100 workers at present. Small scale industries will be able to close down without first taking permission from the labour department. They will be free to dismiss workers whom they find to be inefficient. The Contract Labour Act will be made applicable to those who are employing more than 50 contract workers against 20 at present. This will provide a huge relief to these industries. The cost of production in small units is more due to use of manual machines and due to the absence of highly skilled engineers. They will be able to compete with large units based on their lower labour costs.
Small units find it extremely difficult to face labour trouble. I was once running a paperboard factory in Uttar Pradesh. The workers were paid nearly three times the wages paid to contract workers. They were relaxing while keeping their hands on bundles of paper that were to be tied. They retorted, “We are doing the work,” when asked by the supervisor. They were not afraid of being dismissed. They would say, “Pray! Do go ahead and dismiss us. We will go to labour court. A lottery will be opened if we win the case. We will suffer nothing if we lose because we would be doing work on our fields anyways.” I could not manage such obstinate workers and the factory closed down. Nearly 150 workers were rendered unemployed.
Considerable evidence is available that easier labour laws help to generate employment. Increased enforcement efforts in the case of Brazil led to more unemployment. Doubling of minimum wages in Indonesia led to a two percent increase in unemployment. Labour market reforms in Germany pushed down German wages relative to other countries, thereby increasing German competitiveness.
This was one reason that Germany was able to face recession of 2008. Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Netherlands have made it easier to dismiss workers taking cue from these experiences.
Reform of Labour law will fall much short of our needs, however, because the proportion of workers employed in the organised sector is very small in our country. Our population is about 120 crores, out of these; about 60 crores would be of working age. Of these, only three crores are employed in the organised sectors. Of these, two crores are government servants. Only one crore are employed in the private sector where these reforms will have some positive impact. Now, say, the numbers employed by the private sector increase from one crore to two crores as a consequence of implementation of these reforms. That will reduce the numbers seeking jobs from 57 crores presently to 56 crores. It will be a drop in the ocean. It is necessary to directly provide stiff incentives to employment to jumpstart the process of employment generation in the organised sectors.
About Rs 40,000 crores per year is being spent in MNREGA today. This money may be used to provide a subsidy of, say, Rs 40,000 per year per new worker employed in the organised sectors. This will provide a huge incentive to the industries to employ workers instead of machines. About one crore jobs would be created. The total amount spent by the Union Government on various welfare schemes including diesel, fertilizer and food subsidies is around Rs 500,000 crores per year. Providing this money in form or employment subsidy would create 12 crore jobs. The remaining workers in the unorganised sectors will also be benefitted because of less availability of workers in the unorganized sectors. The problem is too big in our country to be handled by reforms in the labour law alone.
There is a bigger danger lurking around the corner. Studies show that reforms have directly led to reduce employment, even if they have led to increase in employment in the economy as a whole. One study found that workers displaced as a result of privatisation in the cashew sector in Mozambique were thrown into a large pool of the already unemployed, and largely remained so. Another study found that workers displaced due to the closure of textile mills in Ahmedabad typically replaced their moderately well-paid formal sector employment with low-income informal sector labour. The danger is that reforms will immediately and directly lead to loss of jobs and this will create a huge social unrest in the country while the new jobs created in sunrise sectors will be far and few. NDA-II should not forget the experience of NDA-I. It is unquestionable that the efforts of that Government led to the IT revolution in the country and projects such as the Golden Quadrangle led to a huge improvement in connectivity. But, this was not sufficient to keep the NDA in power. Implementa-tion of reforms without providing incentives to jumpstart new jobs will take NDA-II along the same track.
A suggestion made is to provide unemployment benefits while implementing these reforms. Those who lose their jobs will get some protection. Once again, this will not work in our country because of the sheer numbers of persons entitled to such compensation. As said above, there are about 57 crore persons who are waiting to be employed in the organised sectors. These all would be entitled to receive such compensation. This money will have to be indirectly collected from the taxes paid by businesses employing the one crore workers in the organised sectors. Such burden on the small organised sector will be huge and unbearable. This approach may be appropriate for countries where organised sector often covers ninety percent of the workers and only 10 percent have to be provided with unemployment compensation.
A bigger issue is reform of the government. The workers in the organised private sector do undertake some work even if they are slow and careless like the workers in the factory I used to manage. The government workers are more often than not wholly idle. One class fellow of mine was employed in a Public Sector fertilizer factory in Gorakhpur. The factory closed down but at the time of my speaking with him he had been drawing his full salary for full fifteen years without doing any work whatsoever! The need is for the Government to make an external assessment of all two crore government servants and dismiss that one percent who obtain lowest rankings every year. This will improve the efficiency of the government, reduce financial burden and be the path-breaker for implementing reforms in the private sector. Reforms must start at home—in the Government in this instance.
-Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala (The writer is former Professor of Economics, IIM Bengaluru)