Workers unload sacks of charcoal from a truck at a charcoal wholesale market in Mumbai, India, on Monday, Aug. 9, India, the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, has ambitious plans to overhaul an energy mix which still relies on coal for almost 70% of electricity generation. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
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The Ministry of Labour and Employment launched the e-Shram portal recently to develop a national database of unorganised workers. The ministry estimates that there are 38 crore unorganised workers in India. After registration on the portal, workers will receive an e-Shram card with 12-digit unique number. They will avail the welfare benefits under various social security schemes from anywhere in India. A national toll-free number — 14434 — will also be launched to assist and address the queries of workers seeking registration on the portal. 

However, the Narendra Modi government’s initiative lacks key characteristics required to truly help the cause of the unorganised sector worker.

On e-Shram, the onus of registration lies with workers. From the labour administration perspective, the State is providing the framework for registration but the initiative’s success depends on whether an unorganised worker comes forward to register or not. Employers have no role to play in this framework. An alternative could be the government identifying unorganised workers and collecting data. Employers could also be involved in the process. Employer-employee relation, which is a primary requirement for protection under labour laws and access to institutional social security, could have been tested in the process.


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Why e-Shram is important

The immediate benefit an e-Shram cardholder will get is the accidental insurance of Rs 2 Lakh on death or permanent disability and Rs 1 Lakh on partial disability. Any worker, aged between 16 and 59 and working in an unorganised sector is eligible for the e-Shram card – agricultural workers, MGNREGA workers, fishermen, milkmen, ASHA workers, Anganwadi, migrant workers, gig workers, platform workers, street vendors, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, and other workers engaged in similar occupations.

Since its launch on 26 August 2021, the e-Shram portal has registered 21 lakh unorganised sector workers, according to data on the Labour and Employment Ministry’s portal. India has no credible database for its unorganised workers. There are only approximations. The Narendra Modi government failed to provide numbers pertaining to migrant workers who either died or suffered during the pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020.

The absence of data on the unorganised workers is not by accident but by design. Informalisation of the labour force is perpetuated to reduce labour cost by making labour casual and subsequently anonymous. The decentralisation of production structure that has been happening worldwide for three decades is a manifestation of the process of informalisation and flourishing of the global supply chain based on cheap-labour destinations.


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Limitations of e-Shram

The Modi government has opted for an easy way by putting the onus of registration on the unorganised workers. The legal mandate for introducing such a provision emanates from certain sections of the newly enacted Social Security Code 2020 and Occupational Safety Health Working Conditions Code 2020 (OSHWC Code 2020). Under section 109 and 113 of Social Security Code 2020, the central and state governments are supposed to formulate social security schemes for the unorganised and gig/platform workers respectively. Under section 21(2), of the OSHWC Code 2020, the central government should provide an online portal for self-registration of the migrant informal workers. Introduction of the e-Shram portal should be viewed in this context as well. There are severe limitations in this process.

First, there is gross lack of awareness among the unorganised sector workers about the unveiling of such a facility. Information asymmetry is a serious issue in labour administration. Experiences from the past show that when social security schemes were introduced by various state governments, registrations of beneficiaries took a lot of time and even after a decade or so, large sections remain uncovered. For example, registration of construction workers under the construction welfare boards constituted in all states is still unsatisfactory even after 15 years or so.

Second, the majority of unorganised workers are incapable of registering online. They simply don’t have the know-how. That any person can register online by uploading necessary documents is assumed too easily and digital literacy and access are taken for granted. However, in reality, things are not that easy.

Third, if unorganised workers register themselves, they are entitled to become beneficiaries of social security schemes to be formulated by the State. But, entitlements under social security schemes and institutional labour rights are entirely different things. Social security schemes as provided by various governments are akin to social welfare initiatives of the State. Labour rights are altogether different. For example, maternity benefit under the Maternity Benefit Act is 26 weeks paid leave to be provided by the employer. Whereas, maternity benefits under social security schemes are usually monetary assistance of about Rs 10,000 or so. Such assistance is never equivalent to 26 weeks of paid leave. Unorganised workers deserve labour rights and benefits of legislative protection. The e-Shram portal can, at best, ensure entitlements under the social security schemes. Registration on e-Shram portal has nothing to do with labour rights. In the process, identity of a worker is diluted and s/he becomes only a beneficiary under the social security scheme.

There is no denying that India needs a database for unorganised workers. Introduction of e-Shram is a move in the right direction. But at the same time, an opportunity is lost in formalising employer-employee relation in the informal sector as well as in the informal part of the organised sector. Formalising the informal is an avowed component of decent work paradigm, and ILO Recommendation No. 204 talks about transition from informal to formal economy. Creation of database could have been seeded with establishing employer-employee relation in informal work arrangement.

Employer’s role is very important in ensuring labour rights within the broad labour law framework. Informality is based on mystifying employer-employee relation and in the process, bypassing responsibilities of an employer as enshrined in various labour legislations. Creation of database and reclaiming employer-employee relation in informal workspace should be combined together through an appropriately designed labour census conducted by the State within a stipulated time frame. This is a more active way of putting in place a database

Also, employers should be held responsible for providing benefits like social security, compensation in case of accidental death and injury, and occupational safety and health etc. Employers reap the gains accruing from labour productivity and they should be held accountable with regards to provision of certain facilities provided under various labour laws. e-Shram portal abdicates such responsibilities on the part of employers and makes it an affair between the State and the unorganised workers. The eco-system of self-registration as envisaged in e-Shram portal does not involve employers’ participation in the process. This does not augur well for labour rights in our country.

Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and former faculty at V. V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida. He has a PhD in Economics from JNU, New Delhi. Opinions expressed here are that of the author and not of the organiations that he belongs to.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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