A government survey of the Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs), released earlier this month, reveals that the number of non-permanent workers is on the rise in state-owned companies, which are not just tasked with achieving commercial efficiency but also "discharging their constitutional and social obligations."
According to the Public Enterprises Survey 2019-20, the casual and daily rated workers in public companies saw a rapid increase of 178% between 2015-16 and 2019-20. Besides, the number of contractual employees rose by 86% in the same period. This increase in non-permanent jobs in public companies is further accompanied by a cut in regular jobs; a reduction of 25% in regular employees is recorded in the same period.
The annual report, which captures the essential statistical data for all CPSEs on numerous parameters, is prepared by the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) under the Ministry of Finance. It was tabled in both Houses during the recently concluded monsoon session of the Parliament.
The prevalence of non-permanent category jobs has been observed across almost all the sectors that have the presence of public sector companies, including steel, petroleum (refinery and marketing), coal, heavy and medium engineering, among others. Resultantly, over 37% of all the public companies' employees belong to non-permanent categories in 2020. This figure was close to 19% in 2016.
The central government survey covers those public enterprises wherein the Government of India holds more than 50% equity. Subsidiaries of these companies, registered in India, in which CPSE has more than 50% equity stake, are also categorised as CPSEs, and thus, included in the survey.
There are 256 operational public enterprises in the country as of March 2020, according to the 2019-20 report.
Notably, the Narendra Modi-led government has now selected many of these companies for disinvestment, putting the government employees in jitters. In this fiscal year's budget, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman laid down a roadmap for a new policy for the public companies, under which the Centre will only maintain a presence of the public companies in strategic sectors – that too, a "bare minimum" one.
Trade unions are up in arms against the policy decision of the Modi government, alleging that it amounts to "selling the national assets." There have been numerous work strikes and demonstrations staged by the employees' associations in protest for many years now.
The recent figures regarding the changing employment trends within the public enterprises only show, according to trade unionists, why building a "large movement" remains a "challenge."
For example, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) employees have intensified a stir prompted by the Centre's decision to disinvest its shares in the petroleum company. As of March 2020, the PSE survey showed that out of total workforce strength of 40,172, as many as 28,923 employees -- constituting 72% – were on contract.
Similarly, in Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), another public enterprise in which the Centre is looking to divest its portion of shares, about 48% of the 1,33,586 employees were on contract.
Among the eight public enterprises in the coal sector, including Coal India Limited, 23% of all the 3,50,996 employees were non-permanent.
Swadesh Dev Roye, national secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), told Newsclick on Thursday that the problem of contractualisation of work is a "cancerous one." He added that one must not just focus on increasing non-permanent jobs in the public sector enterprises because there are different, "much serious" related aspects.
"It is not only that the contract or casual workers are on the rise. These workers are also now increasingly employed in jobs that are perennial in nature; their employment in such core operations is thus against the labour regulations," he said.
The Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970, abolishes the engagement of contract workers in work that forms part of the core operations in an establishment. Similarly, in the past, the Supreme Court has also observed that perennial work should not be contractualised.
Roye, who has been active in the oil and petroleum sector, further rued that even as contract workers are employed at the cost of regular ones, the remuneration that the former receives is "very less."
There are many reasons why public enterprises, just like private ones, shift towards contract employment, said Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). "First, the companies look to save costs on their wage bills by paying contract workers less amount for the same work and by also denying them social securities," she said.
It has also been the policy of the respective central governments soon after 1991 to push for the contractual and casual workforce in the public enterprises because they are "pliable" and "hard to unionise," Kaur said.
"Right now, when the Centre is aggressively pushing for disinvestments of public companies, the trade unions are facing this challenge only – to build a large movement by also seeking the participation of the contract workers in the actions of the union," she told Newsclick.
According to Kaur, most employees' unions in public companies have realised this reason behind the contractualisation of labour, and thus, they are also taking up the issues of the contract and casual workers.