The new labour policy, announced appropriately enough on May Day, offers workers a ray of hope. The pushing up of the minimum wage to Rs7,000 raises the possibility that they can lead lives of dignity. The increase was essential given that a recent survey conducted by Fafen (Fair and Free Election Network) indicates that a rising share of household budgets is spent on essential edibles, with over Rs8,000 per month on average spent on this. Times are harder than ever.
Retired workers are to get medical benefits, pensions will keep pace with those offered to government employees and the children of labourers are to be offered free technical education. It is unclear if they will also be able to benefit from basic education under the scheme. The key to government policy must be to open up opportunity and accept the possibility that the child of a worker may have the potential to go on to become a doctor, or lawyer or architect — just as much as his more privileged counterparts.
The recognition that mine workers face particular risks is particularly welcome. This section of the labour force, which toils under conditions that are almost invariably arduous and quite often dangerous, deserves special attention. The new policy lowers the pensionable age for them under the Employees Old Age Benefit Scheme to 50 rather than 55 years. Equally relevant is the move to set up manpower information centres as a step towards addressing the immense issue of unemployment.
There is no doubt that the plight of workers is a miserable one. Steps taken under the regime of General Musharraf had acted to worsen it. The new, pro-worker measures offer some much needed relief to a group of society that has too often been the victim of neglect and official indifference.