Economic rights

On the occasion of World Day for Decent Work (October 7), the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) – Nagaland Region highlighted the worsening reality of domestic workers in the state, who are invisible and isolated from other workers, the low status of domestic workers and their low paid wages with little protection even after working for long hours day and night. The NDWM-Nagaland Region is working for domestic worker’s rights, dignity and respect and empowering them to make them a visible part of the society where their contribution for the economy of the world is duly recognized, said Sister Pamila, Coordinator of NDWM-Nagaland Region on the occasion. The demands of domestic workers in the state to the government, according to her, are recognition as workers, inclusion of domestic workers in schedule of employment, thereby ensuring minimum wages, protection against all types of harassment, social security and access to benefits, and employers provide contracts for domestic workers. Here it is not just domestic workers, but the rickshaw-pullers, card puller, construction workers, etc. who are subject to exploitation outside the mainstream economic and legal systems. In fact, very few of us, if any, might have ever bothered to stop and think of a rickshaw or the dhelas as anything more than just another mode of transport. We regularly use human labour to ease our tasks – be it the porter at the railway station or the maidservant in our home. In an economic sense, these occupations are perfectly legitimate – an example of market forces at work. But is it morally acceptable for a society to allow professions that are clearly inhuman, possibly even cruel? Given the economic conditions, questions of economic morality may seem irrelevant. The economic rationale, however, must be squared with social objectives, and here lies the dilemma. Should there be a concept of individual economic rights that would protect human beings from having to take up inhuman occupations? Obviously, democratic governance is not enough to guarantee proper working conditions. It is clear that neither market capitalism nor political democracy provides the right answers – in fact, capitalism appear to encourage exploitative behavior, driven by the exigencies of the marketplace. Capitalism advocates that the marketplace is the best enforcer as well as the judge of economic rights. In this view, it seems sacrilegious to even speak of economic rights. Conventional wisdom dictates that it is perfectly acceptable to speak of the right to vote (civil rights) but the right to work or say, the right to eat (economic rights) sound socialist, and therefore, not as acceptable. What then might be the solution? If societies have by and large come to agree on social rights, it should be possible to determine related economic rights. As a starting point, it is imperative to define economic rights for individuals. Economic rights would not only include a right to work or a right to eat but would also include a right against exploitation. Under this, it should be possible to identify employment opportunities that are exploitative and over a period outlaw them. Such regulations are easier in the formal sector, than in the unorganized areas of the economy. Bringing them into the formal sector would enable the government to provide a safety net for them. It has proven futile to impose a ban on economic activities involving inhuman labour in cities and towns everywhere. The objective should be to make the users of these services pay the economic cost of the labour, which should include long-term costs (e.g. the health impact of intensely physical jobs). The focus should be on drawing people into the domain of the formal sector and then to arm them with economic rights that expand their choices. This is a daunting task; especially when an overwhelming percentage of the work force is outside the formal sector. The role of watchdog agencies can be especially useful in focusing the attention of citizens on these issues. Just as it took a long and arduous journey to embody the concept of civil rights in social policy, it will probably take a long time and many ideological battles to incorporate economic rights as an integral part of public policy. A determined beginning, however, must be made.