Work on national and state-level urban employment guarantee programmes forms a key focus area for us. Together with Social Accountability Forum for Action and Research (SAFAR), CSE is working on building a public campaign for an Urban Employment Guarantee (UEG) for India. This work is being done on behalf of Peoples Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG).

PAEG, formed in 2004, is a loose coalition of peoples’ organizations, activists, media professionals, lawyers and academics which successfully campaigned for the need for a rural employment guarantee act. Subsequent to the passage of the MGNREGA, it now attempts to play the role of a coalition exercising oversight on the implementation of the Act with the primary objective of protecting workers’ entitlements.

Social Accountability Forum for Action and Research (SAFAR) is a collective of activists, researchers and development practitioners. We work at the interface of the state, law and society to deepen institutions and practices of social accountability and improve access to welfare rights.

The need for an urban employment guarantee

An Urban Employment Guarantee Program aims to provide work on demand to the urban poor by guaranteeing their right to work with dignity. Akin to MGNREGA which has served as a lifeline for the rural poor in the country for a past decade and a half, the UEG aims to provide a safety net and livelihood opportunities to the many crores of low income and informal workers in urban areas across the country. In addition to providing work on public works, the UEG will also attempt to define a framework to protect the employment of those currently self-employed/earning a daily wage and connect them to a wider net of social security that enables them to access nutrition, shelter, education and health care.

In April 2019, CSE published a policy paper on Urban Employment Guarantee.

The discussions around UEG have been galvanized amidst the ongoing covid-19 pandemic which has had a disproportionately high impact on the livelihoods and earnings of the urban poor. A survey conducted by CSE along with other civil society organizations found that 8 out of 10 respondents in urban areas lost their jobs as compared to 6 out of 10 in rural areas. The full report can be found here.

However imperfect the MGNREGA maybe, it was still a viable option for the rural poor during such economic shocks such as the lockdown. In the absence of any social security, the urban poor were forced to undertake treacherous journeys spanning thousands of kilometres in order to reach their native villages.

The pandemic and the lockdown have exposed the long existing vulnerabilities facing India’s urban poor and therefore we believe the time is ripe to start discussing the UEGP. Whereas Kerala had a UEGP for almost a decade, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa and Jharkhand have recently introduced their own schemes resembling UEG as a response to the economic fallout of the pandemic. Some of these new programs are summarized here.

Building a public campaign for a UEG

Since June 2020, PAEG has been holding virtual consultations with experts ranging from civil society, trade unions, academia, subject matter specialists and the government to arrive at the desired minimum elements of what should constitute an UEG. We are also in the process of reaching out to sector specific experts, e.g. waste pickers, sanitation workers, construction workers, street vendors and other such worker groups to understand how the UEG can accommodate their unique needs. The consultations have centred on key issues central to the conception of such a programme such as:

i. Eligibility criteria for workers to be a part of the programme, given the fluid urban labour market
ii. Coverage of the UEG in terms of geography (metropolitan cities, urban, peri-urban, tier 2/3 cities etc)
iii. Scope of entitlements under the UEG
iv. Nature of works
v. Role of Urban Local Bodies in the implementation of an UEG
vi. Norms for transparency, accountability and grievance redress
vii. Financing of such a programme

As a part of this campaign we are also in the process of doing a literature survey of ranging from academic research, policy briefs, op-eds and government documents to look at similar schemes across the country and the world, and primary data that can inform the specifics of our demand for an UEG.

Given that our discussions have gathered pace, we want to try and ensure that the process leading up to the large scale public campaign for the UEG remains representative, inclusive and benefits from the in-depth work, attention and concern that has been undertaken by various groups towards this issue. To this end, we are focusing on the following four tasks:

i. Doing more in-depth research of labour and the economy to inform the larger UEG framework.
ii. Engage with groups and people in different states (Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Rajasthan to begin with) and understand how the employment guarantee schemes initiated in the States are working on the ground, and identify points of intervention from the point of view of advocacy
iii. Initiate physical consultations with workers and worker groups on the current onslaught on labour rights and incorporate the demand for an UEG in this discoursed.
iv. Conduct rapid surveys on the field to get a sense of current labour realities.

India is home to the largest youth population in the world. Creating gainful employment for the growing workforce is a priority if the ‘demographic dividend’ is to be reaped. Yet, in recent years, despite sustained economic growth, the Indian economy has failed to generate adequate jobs. The majority of the population continue to be employed in agriculture while contributing to only a quarter of the nation’s GDP. In this context, the creation of jobs that are productive, sustainable and decent is imperative. Financial globalisation and consequently greater access to capital for domestic firms has had implications for job creation in the country. The Centre’s work will examine reasons for the inability of India’s growing economy to create productive and decent jobs while identifying potential sectors and activities that could lead job creation in the future.

Recently there has been a lot of anxiety around the lack of skilled labour in India. While public policy has renewed focus on skill generation and providing vocational training, there exists very little data on the effectiveness of these interventions. On the other hand there is very little official recognition of informal and historically acquired skills as viable means for generating sustainable employment. Research at the Centre builds the case for taking informal skills seriously while at the same time improving the quality of formal skill creation institutions.

An understanding of the labour market in India requires moving beyond statistics so as to consider qualitative dimensions of work as well. These include physical conditions of work environments, the nature of employment arrangements in terms of security and dignity of work.  Post-liberalisation, in response to global demand for flexible and just-in-time production models, alternative work arrangements emerged allowing for workers to be hired and fired easily, with minimum or no social security benefits. Consequently, formal jobs which are accompanied by some security of tenure, and/or social security benefits have contracted. Instead, informal jobs, i.e. precarious jobs without basic social security support, have multiplied, both in the unorganised and organised sector. On the one hand, these jobs allow flexibility for enterprises and workers. On the other hand, it makes work precarious, unregulated and insecure. Acknowledging the importance of considering qualitative aspects of work, the Centre’s work will draw from multiple disciplines including economics, political economy, sociology and development studies.

Agriculture continues to be the predominant sector of employment, accounting for almost half the labour force.  At the same time, it contributes to less than a quarter of GDP indicating low productivity work and disguised unemployment. While the services sector is an important employer, most jobs are informal and vulnerable. Most service sector enterprises are small-scale, own account enterprises with limits to productivity. Manufacturing and construction have emerged as important employers, yet the nature of work is often precarious and in abysmal conditions. Manufacturing is identified in government policy as a major employer – Make in India, yet this sector has seen increase in capital intensity as well as the rise of informal contract-based employment arrangements.  These will be some of the broad themes that sectoral studies at the Centre will focus on.

Legislation regulating the hiring and firing of workers, working conditions, benefits, and other aspects of the capital-labour relationship is at the centre of the debate around “jobless growth.” Multiplicity of laws, overlapping regulatory institutions, and costs of enforcement are often cited as the reason for poor employment creation. On the other hand most of India’s labour force is in informal employment outside the ambit of labour laws. Are labour laws an important constraint for job creation? If so, in which sectors? The work at the Centre will examine the broad implications of labour laws incorporating considerations of political economy and governance, while also focusing on specific cases in selected sectors or regions.