Workers Facilitation Centres can help informal labour in bondage-like conditions

The story of the 10-year-old girl employed as a domestic worker by a middle-class family in Dwarka, Delhi, has shaken our conscience. It was not only a case of child labour; the child was often assaulted, beaten up and even hit with hot iron tongs. Her parents couldn’t recognise their daughter with the burns and injuries all over her face and hands when they met her after two months. The whole family is engaged in labour, the girl’s mother is also a domestic worker, and the father is a construction worker. The family moved from Muzaffarpur in Bihar to the national capital to make a better living. They agreed to send their daughter to work against a promise of better education, food and clothes.
Sending your child out to work is a bitter choice forced on most of the millions of families that migrate from villages and small towns to distant cities, in and outside their home states, in search of work and to improve their lives. There is a system of middlemen and contractors who get workers from distant villages to work in agriculture, construction, garment making and brick kilns. As contractors and middlemen are paid for acquiring the labour, the workers have a high degree of obligation to fulfil their commitments at work. However, as there is most often no written contract to spell out the terms of employment and the wages they are to be paid, migrant workers are often forced to work below the minimum wage and in conditions which are not conducive to their well-being. The act of migrating exacerbates the vulnerabilities that these workers face. They do not have any information about the place they work, and they do not have much of a support system. All of this reduces the little confidence and sense of self-worth they possess.
This is the context that led the parents of the 10-year-old girl to send their child to work as a domestic worker in a seemingly respectable middle-class household. The pervasive nature of this context forces many hundreds of thousands of children to work in bondage or bondage-like situations, despite strict laws against child labour.
ActionAid Association has worked with informal sector workers across diverse sectors in twenty-eight States and two Union territories. The organisation has found the worker facilitation centre (WFC) to be an effective means to reduce the precarity and vulnerability of informal workers, especially those exploring the option to migrate. The WFCs support informal workers during distress and help them with information and linkages to various legal protections, along with the existing social security measures and entitlements.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the WFCs became a focal point for stranded workers to get information regarding travel and transportation back to their home states. The WFCs distributed food, water and medicines. Many workers approached the WFC to get information about the pandemic, its “do’s and don’ts” and vaccination.
Over the years, the WFCs run by ActionAid association across various states have helped hundreds of thousands of workers register their names on multiple portals, including the e-Shram portal, MGNREGA job cards and under the various welfare boards like the Social Security Welfare Board Building and Other Constructions Workers Welfare Board.
WFCs have also taken up issues of low wages, unequal wages, delayed payment of wages and wage theft. In Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, the WFC, run by ActionAid Association and Vigyan Foundation, took up more than 1,000 cases of wage theft, of which 240 cases were resolved in which workers recovered wages due totalling Rs 35 lakhs. WFCs have also played a critical role in keeping track of the thousands of bonded labourers released in the course of ActionAid Association’s work in recent years. The WFCs in nine districts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have helped over 53,000 workers, including 178 rescued bonded labourers, avail various government schemes and entitlements.
Prakash Rathodiya is a 20-year-old man trapped under ‘chakri’, a form of bonded labour practised in the area, in the employment of a landlord in a village in Vadodara district in Gujarat. Prakash comes from a landless family who earned their living through labour. In 2019 Prakash had taken an advance of Rs 30,000/- from the landlord, and he was forced to work long hours, accompanied by abuse and beatings, to pay off the advance. After a particularly nasty thrashing, Prakash ran away to his sister’s house in Nadiad, in Kheda district. When he returned a month later, the landlord and some strongmen came to Prakash’s house, beat him and took Prakash back to their house. They beat Prakash’s mother and grandmother, who tried to defend Prakash. After undergoing a lot of beatings, Prakash somehow managed to escape and return to his sister’s house.
During one of the field visits of the Dabhoi-based workers’ facilitation centre, activists learned about this case. The team helped provide Prakash’s mother and grandmother with medical treatment, as some injuries they sustained during the landlord’s attack were quite severe. An FIR was filed, and Prakash has paid Rs 1,50,000/- as compensation by the State Government.
Through interventions like this, workers now find the WFCs a safe space to gather and speak openly about their dilemmas and challenges. In the words of Prakash: “The chakri system is a life of slavery, and we can make a living by working hard. I hope the organisation will help many more people like me who are still forced to live a life of slavery. I will guide all those people and show them the right path. I sincerely thank the organisation.”
ActionAid Association is now establishing worker facilitation centres in 12 more cities across six states. Firstly, these WFCS will create awareness among the workers on various labour laws and legal protections available through multiple trainings and capacity-building initiatives. Through the training programmes, the WFC will also support workers setting up collectives, and in the initial period, serves as a bridge between the workers and the labour contractors and employers on the one hand and the concerned Government Departments, especially the Labour Department through its Labour Commissioners and Labour Inspectors which is essential to address workers grievances including on matters of wages, working conditions and leaves.
Secondly, The WFCs help workers access and claim social protection benefits through various schemes and policies. The WFC does this by assisting workers in preparing the documentation, making the certification needed, and registering for the various schemes by the Centre and the State Government.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Human Rights Commission developed two sets of advisories for States to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers. Prominent amongst them was the request to set up Worker Facilitation Kendra/Centre at the district level and in cities. The functions of this centre, as per the NHRC, included the registration of all workers in their districts, disseminating information on all government welfare and social security schemes and COVID-19-related schemes, conducting skill mapping and connecting workers to job opportunities through the Employment Portal, providing access to legal services and grievance redressal mechanisms, providing information, training, and equipment to workers for protecting themselves and serving as spaces to resolve complaints received at the Worker Helplines. The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 2008 also encourages states to establish workers’ facilitation centres.
If set up and run efficiently, the Workers Facilitation Centres can support informal labour and not only protect and promote workers’ rights but also ensure that no parent is forced to send their child to work or get trapped in conditions of human bondage.
(The views expressed in this article are by Dipali Sharma, Director Organizational Effectiveness, ActionAid. Onlineandyou.com doesn’t own any responsibility for it.)

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