“Ensuring decent work, dignity, and respect for all” remains the chief challenge in the labour market with decent work and workers’ rights as core issues, as it is reflected in the deliberations in the Ninth BRICS Labour and Employment Ministers’ Meet (September 26-29, 2023) and the joint declaration made at the conclusion of the event in Durban, South Africa.
BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have been facing four specific problems which remained in focus during the meet: Promoting labour rights for all and reducing decent work deficits; Universal access to social protection and ensuring a minimum basic income; Promoting decent work and closing the skills gap in the informal economy; and Building sustainable enterprises, innovation, and enhancing productivity.
The labour markets in BRICS countries are impacted by future of work mega drivers, including technological advancements, climate change, demographic shifts and changes in investment and trade patterns as well as mutually reinforcing crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The declaration has, understandably, avoided mentioning the impact of Russian aggression on Ukraine, on workforce. However, the countries have reaffirmed their commitments to respect, promote, and realise fundamental principles and rights at work to provide decent work for all and achieve social justice.
The countries have committed to “reducing informal work through the promotion of the transition from informal to formal economy, expanding social protection coverage, eliminating discrimination in employment and occupation, ensuring adequate and fair wages and enhancing job security.” The promotion and realisation of labour rights has been given a high priority.
Promoting an enabling environment for freedom of association and collective bargaining requires a combination of legal and institutional frameworks, strong employers’ and workers’ organisations and an efficient labour administration that promotes labour rights, facilitates labour inspection and professional dispute settlement services. Tripartism and regular consultations with the social actors must therefore be enhanced. The effective abolition of child labour remained priority, and the countries committed to step up our efforts to eradicate child labour based on the Durban Call to Action. Significance of labour rights and international labour standards have also been acknowledged.
Universal access to social protection has been acknowledges as human right. Ensuring a minimum basic income was emphasized and declared that BRICS members would aim at “providing at least a basic level of income security for all through nationally defined social protection floors.”
It must be noted in this regard that “universal social protection” was endorsed during 2017 Labour Employment Ministers Meeting through BRICS Social Security Cooperation Framework, and an MoU was signed in 2018. However, very little has been done so far. The countries have however reiterated their “determination” to enhance progress towards universal social protection for all by 2030.
BRICS members have again committed themselves for promoting decent work and closing the skills gap in the informal economy. It should be noted that much higher proportion of workers are in informal work, in India about 90 percent. The joint declaration read, “we commit to closing the skills gap of the informally employed to reduce decent work deficits and enhance the ability of workers and enterprises to transition to the formal economy.” To promote sustainable enterprises, innovation and enhancing productivity, the countries have agreed to establish a BRICS Productivity Ecosystem for Decent Work Platform.
The joint declaration is pleasant to read at a time when the labour market is facing unprecedented multiple crises. ILO Director-General Gilbert F. Houngbo, while addressing the meet, has called for ensuring labour rights. He regretted that 160 million children were engaged in child labour in 2020, while close to 50 million people were living in modern day slavery in 2021. He said that crises are compounding, social injustices persist, and the aspiration of decent work for all is a long way from being achieved.
ILO DG exposed the participating countries by saying, “We know that many including in the BRICS countries are working excessive hours. Forty-eight hour working weeks – and even much longer – are all too common.” Every day, millions of people work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, just so they can feed themselves and their families. Well over two million die each year as a direct result of occupational accidents and diseases. Hundreds of millions more are injured at work. Discrimination in the workplace remains a problem of immense proportions. If we consider gender for instance, we see significant gender wage gaps and lower employment participation rates in most countries.
While welcoming the BRICS declaration, ILO DG mentioned two specific issues – First, labour rights are human rights. A founding principle of the ILO is that labour is not a commodity. Workers must be treated with dignity and be protected from the disproportionate power of employers, whether public or private. Secondly, respect for labour rights helps reduce inequalities and enables workers to claim a fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate. Central to this are freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Houngbo also emphasized that “a higher proportion of workers in BRICS countries are in informal employment.”
On behalf of the Organised Labour in the BRICS countries, the BRICS Trade Union Forum conveyed their six key points. First, Deliberate and targeted investment in people for inclusive development, job creation and guaranteeing quality healthcare and education.
Second, Elimination of income inequalities in class, gender, or racial… more critical for informal, farm, domestic, platform, and other atypical and vulnerable workers as well as persons with disabilities. The ever-growing levels of income inequality remain a threat to social stability, progress and peace across the world, including in the BRICS nations.
Third, Institutionalisation of social dialogue and cooperation by tripartite partners of government, business and labour to advance decent work and inclusive development remains fundamental if we are to make progress in overcoming our many socio-economic challenges. This means national processes should defend and advance decent work, collective bargaining and social justice.
Fourth, The ILO, its Governing Body and overall composition must be inclusive. Fifth, Advancing Social Protection and support for workers and communities facing deprivation, despair and poverty, whilst ensuring the long-term sustainability of economies and the planet, and improving the lives of working-class communities. And sixth, … A just transition that ensures clean energy and environmental justice, whilst protecting and creating jobs and communities.
What transpired in the BRICS Labour Ministerial Meet 2023, has great significance for India, where informality is around 90 per cent, unemployment around 8 per cent, no social security coverage for 76 per cent of workers, and joblessness and price rise has triggered a cost-of-living crisis, about 68 per cent of people are not able to even afford healthy food, and majority of women and children are anaemic. PM Modi led government must honour the commitments made in the declaration and do something for workers, rather than pursuing such a labour reform through the four labour codes that Central Trade Unions believe anti-labour. It must also be recalled that the present ruling establishment has all along since 2014 been violating the tripartite principle, and not even convening meeting of ILC, the highest tripartite body, since 2015. CTUs has been alleging to have sidelined in the present regime. Modi government must stand to the commitments made in BRICS Labour Ministers Meet. (IPA Service)