How a labour helpline is assisting informal workers in recovering wages

He called a landline number he found on the Internet which was received by the labourline set up by Aajeevika Bureau in Rajasthan, which helped him obtain his due wages. “I did not know which state the call was connected to, but it is very useful for workers like me,” says Gupta. “Now I can fearlessly go anywhere to work knowing that I can access support if I face such problems.” Gupta said that there were other workers with him who had not been paid fully and were waiting to hear from the same contractor before deciding whether to register a complaint on Aajeevika’s labourline.

In 2009-10, Aajeevika Bureau set up an offline support system for migrant/informal workers in Udaipur and nearby regions of southern Rajasthan, to help resolve wage-related issues and access information on entitlements.

Mediation was an apt mechanism to recover compensation from employers because migrant workers were unable to stay in their place of work and enter into litigation, Santosh Poonia, programme manager (Legal Education, Aid and Advocacy) at Aajeevika Bureau, told IndiaSpend. Realising that the issues it was receiving from workers were not exclusive to the Udaipur region, Aajeevika set up a phone-based helpline in 2013.

Mediation through a phone-based system is beneficial for both parties in terms of time and money, said Poonia. “Employers know that if a case is genuine and a third party is mediating, then getting into litigation will not help them. Litigation is our last resort,” he said.

Soon after it was set up, the Udaipur labourline had started to receive 50 cases through the helpline and around 30 offline cases each month. “Nearly 40%-50% cases were getting resolved. [In 2015], we approached the state government [for support and expansion] and have been running it [through the dispute resolution centre of the government] since December 2015,” said Poonia.

From 2015 until June 2022, the Rajasthan helpline has recovered Rs 33.5 crore and resolved 60% of the 18,177 cases it has registered, according to Aajeevika data.

“It helps the workers, and our work becomes easier as well, because many issues get mediated and resolved through the helpline,” said Gajaraj Rathore, a labour welfare officer in Rajasthan. The toll free number helps workers raise complaints of non-payment of wages and some of the cases are forwarded to the labour department, he added.

The Aajeevika Bureau helpline received more than 127,000 calls in 2020 and 2021–more than 40% of all calls since 2015–due to the pandemic-related lockdown and travel restrictions which affected informal workers. The proportion of cases resolved, however, fell during the pandemic, said Poonia, as employers, facing financial issues, were asking for more time to resolve pending wages.

The Aajeevika helpline, though costing just around Rs 60 lakh annually to operate, recovers “around Rs 40 to Rs 50 lakh [in disputed wages] per month and is also able to impart rights-related information and awareness”, said Poonia.

PHIA Foundation, a non governmental organisation (NGO), has been running a similar toll-free helpline in Jharkhand along with the state government since 2016, to help informal workers access labour welfare programmes. After the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the Jharkhand government launched a State Migrant Control Room helpline to facilitate provision of aid and relief to stranded migrant workers, which was managed by the foundation. The intervention helped create a database of migrant workers, mapped workers’ skills, and provided awareness on welfare measures, according to information shared by PHIA Foundation. The helpline continues post-Covid to provide support to these workers, such as in obtaining pending wages and compensation in cases of accidents, according to a June 2022 analysis by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), an independent research organisation in the UK. The Jharkhand helpline is another model that could be expanded across India, the IIED analysis noted.

Male workers register most cases

Most of the complaints on both India Labourline and the Aajeevika helpline are made by male workers.

Women workers tend to report their problems to their husband or male relatives, India Labourline staff said. Another challenge is that women workers may not have access to a mobile phone, making it difficult for them to register a case, or follow it up.

Take the case of Parvathamma*, who hails from rural Tiruvannamalai district in northern Tamil Nadu, around 200 km east of Bengaluru. While Parvathamma did not know her age, she told us she had been working since the days when the daily wage rate for women (now nearly Rs 500) was Rs 10 in Bengaluru. She said that she, along with another woman worker, had worked for 30 days for a contractor, but had received only half the payment. She, however, was unable to retrieve the contractor’s number and did not have a mobile phone of her own, she told the India Labourline team during their outreach work at the Hosakerehalli labour hub.

Rural women and women with no schooling are less likely than most other women to have a mobile phone that they themselves use, and are less likely to be able to read text messages if they have a mobile phone, said the National Family Health Survey-5.

Cases reported by women will also depend on the work sector, said the India Labourline team. For instance, more cases are registered in the garment sector cities, where workers are mostly women, than in the construction sector, where male workers dominate.

Government support can help scale up the labour helplines

Labour and migration welfare experts and scholars feel that helplines similar to India Labourline and Aajeevika can be useful for India’s millions of itinerant workers.

A mediation helpline is usually related to formal workers and would be useful if it can support all stakeholders including informal workers and government officials, said K.R. Shyam Sundar, labour economist, and visiting professor at the Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur. “It provides easy access to the labour department official who otherwise hides behind a plethora of bureaucratic walls, but the question is whether the labour department officials have enough patience and time to resort to this system.”

Sundar felt that ideally, trade unions must actively support the helpline system even though they might feel that their function of intermediating between the government official and the worker is being supplanted by a direct communication system.

While helplines are useful and allow migrant workers to access documents and entitlements, government participation will empower civil society organisations and NGOs, said Ram Babu Bhagat, head, department of migration and urban studies at the International Institute of Population Studies in Mumbai. It will help organisations working on labour welfare to create a platform to support vulnerable groups like migrant workers, and collate a database of issues faced by these workers, he added. Sustaining such initiatives will not take a huge investment; an element of philanthropy like CSR funds may be required.

“We are trying to work with state governments, but it depends on the interest governments show. The labour department in Lucknow responds promptly to our complaints and issues notices to employers,” said Dhar. He added that the helpline had not yet had an opportunity to engage with the Union government.

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First Published: Fri, August 05 2022. 10:00 IST

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