K.R. Shyam Sundar

The nuances of the unorganized workers’ identity are complex which portal registration may not be able to capture

On August 26, 2021, the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MOLE) launched the E-Shram, the web portal for creating a National Database of Unorganized Workers (NDUW), which will be seeded with Aadhaar. It seeks to register an estimated 398-400 million unorganized workers and to issue an E-Shram card. However, it has come into existence more than a decade after the passage of the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act in 2008; and if we consider inter-State migrant workers, the portal is a little more than four decades late.

It has come about even after repeated nudging by the Supreme Court of India. Had the Central and the State governments begun these legally mandated processes on time, much of the distress of lakhs of vulnerable workers would have been avoided. It is the result of state apathy. No government — either the United Progressive Alliance or the National Democratic Alliance — can stake claim for this legally mandated measure. In fact, the political class owe an ‘apology’ to informal workers.

A long process

Given the gigantic nature of registering each worker, it will be a long-drawn process. It is natural that in the initial stages, the pace of registrations will be slower; at the time of writing this article, 0.61 million workers have been registered. Considering the estimated 380 million workers as the universe of registration — debatable as the novel coronavirus pandemic has pushed lakhs of workers into informality and the estimate also depends on the assumptions used for estimation — 6.33 million workers have to be registered for completion of registration in 60 days, and 4.2 million workers for 90 days. The Government has not mentioned a gestation period to assess its strategy and efficiency.

Workers stand to gain by registration in the medium to long run. But the instant benefit of accident insurance upto ₹0.2 million to registered workers is surely not an attractive carrot. The main point of attraction is the benefits they stand to gain during normal and crisis-ridden periods such as the novel coronavirus pandemic now which the Government needs to disseminate properly.

Data security, other issues

There is also another issue: why should small employers be incentivized to ask or require their workers to register even though the government reportedly requires them mandatorily to register their workers. While the Government can appeal to them, any penal measure will hurt the ease of doing business. The apparent productivity gains arising out of social security assurances to these workers is a moot point. One of the vital concerns of e-portals is data security, including its potential abuse especially when it is a mega-sized database. The central government would have to share data with State governments whose data security capacities vary. There are also media reports pointing out the absence of a national architecture relating to data security.

There are several issues concerning the eligibility of persons to register as well as the definitional issues. By excluding workers covered by EPF and ESI, lakhs of contract and fixed-term contract workers will be excluded from the universe of UW. Under the Social Security Code (SSC), hazardous establishments employing even a single worker will have to be covered under the ESI, which means these workers also will be excluded. The NDUW excludes millions of workers aged over 59 from its ambit, which constitutes age discrimination. Given the frugal or no social security for them, their exclusion will hurt their welfare.

As such, SSC is exclusionary as ESC and EPF benefits will be applicable only to those employed in establishments employing 10 or 20 workers, respectively. Thresholds in labour laws segment the labour market. Many workers will not have an Aadhaar-seeded mobile or even a smartphone. Aadhaar-seeding is a controversial issue with political overtones, especially in the North-eastern regions. But it is necessary and the Government is right in insisting on it. The extent of definitional and systemic exclusions is vast and there may be other categories of exclusion due to possible procedural deficits.

Complex identities

The very identity of unorganized workers presents problems thanks to its complexity and ever-changing identities. Many are circular migrant workers and they quickly, even unpredictably, move from one trade to another. Many others perform formal and informal work as some during non-office hours may belong to the gig economy, for example as an Uber taxi or a Swiggy employee. They straddle formal and informal sectors.

The nuances of the unorganised workers’ identity are so complex that one wonders whether the mechanical and assumptions-based portal registration will be able to capture the complexities and dynamics involved regarding them. Even though MOLE has included gig workers in this process, it is legally unclear whether the gig/platform worker can be classified first as a worker at all (the other three Labor Codes do not include these workers), and second as organized or unorganized workers — the definition of an “unorganized worker” in the Social Security Code (vide. S.2(86)) does not specifically include them, unless they are declared ‘self-employed’ or ‘wage workers’.

In fact, the NCO family code does not specifically include ‘gig/platform worker’ even though they may be registered under several categories of ‘drivers’ which will hide their unique identity. Of course, there is an all-inclusive miscellaneous category that will have to be intelligently used to expand the occupational categories.

Other impediments

The central government will have to depend on the State governments for this project to be successful. The main trouble points arise at the regional level for two primary reasons. It has been reported that in some States such as Maharashtra, the server was down for a few days. The incentive for multiple attempts on the part of registering workers will be weak. The helping stakeholders must make suitable interventions in these cases.

In many States, the social dialogue with the stakeholders especially is rather weak or non-existent. The success of the project depends on the involvement of a variety of stakeholders apart from trade unions, massive and innovative dissemination exercises involving multiple media outlets of various languages, the holding of camps on demand by the stakeholders and on their own by the Government, efficiency of the resolution of grievance redress mechanisms, micro-level operations, etc.

There is also the concern of corruption as middle-service agencies such as Internet providers might charge exorbitant charges to register and print the E-Shram cards. Therefore, the involvement of surveillance agencies is crucial. More importantly, the Government must publish statistics at the national and the regional levels of the registrations to assess the registration system’s efficiency.

E-Shram is a vital system to provide hitherto invisible workers much-needed visibility. It will provide the Labor Market Citizenship Document to them. I would go one step further to argue for triple linkage for efficient and leakage-less delivery of all kinds of benefits and voices to workers/citizens, viz. One-Nation-One-Ration Card (ONOR), E-Shram Card (especially bank account seeded) and the Election Commission Card. Last but not least, registrations cannot be a source of exclusion of a person from receiving social assistance and benefits.

The article E-Shram needs some hard work to get going first appeared in The Hindu on 17th Sept, 2021.

About the Author

Dr K R Shyam Sundar

K R Shyam Sundar, Professor, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur

You tube Link for e-SHRAM portal – Shramev Jayate: Impact and Way Forward