The registrar of trade unions in Rajasthan has refused permission to National Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) workers to form a union, on the grounds that they do not qualify as workmen.
When the Majdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti – formed by NREGA workers under the guidance of NAC member Aruna Roy – approached the registration office, they were told that NREGA workers donât qualify as âworkmenâ as defined in the Industrial Disputes Act and the Trade Union Act of 1962, because they are not engaged in a trade or industry.
The Rajasthan registrar of trade unions, in his letter rejecting the MKSS application, said a trade union is an organisation of workmen as under the Trade Union Act. Since the Trade Union Act does not define workmen, the registrar quoted the definition given in the Industrial Disputes Act and concluded that NREGA workers do not qualify. The reason was that workmen have to be engaged in a trade or business or commercial undertaking.
"We are only facilitating dialogue by organising a union. It is sad that the authorities are against an initiative to organise the poorest of workers," said Nikhil De of MKSS.
MKSS will raise the issue during the Majdoor Haq Yatra agitation next week in Rajasthan and will highlight various rights violations under NREGA.
Central trade unions are trying to establish separate wings for NREGA workers because there is a feeling that labour laws are involved in the scheme and the workers need protection through unions.
For example, unions could come to their help to give them their basic right to work, the issue of minimum wages and timely payment of wages, among other things.
Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the CPM-controlled trade union body, does make a distinction between industrial workers and agricultural workers but includes NREGA workers under its fold. It, however, does not recognise agricultural workers as members, unlike other unions.
CITU president A K Padmanabhan said: Agricultural workers are protected by unions but they are a fluid membership which cannot be verified from time to time.
Labour departments in other states do not share the dilemma of the Rajasthan registrarâs office.
The trade union of NREGA workers in Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, was registered without any difficulty, primarily because it was a zonal level affair.
The same goes for the GCKS or the Gram Kooli Karmikara Sanghatane â a union of NREGA workers from Karnataka. Initially, it was allowed to register at the zonal levels but was denied permission to set up a state-level union. However, after much coaxing it is set to register at the state level.
The GCKS union with 100,000 members across 12 states will soon be registered at the state level, said general secretary Abhay. "I donât think unions of NREGA workers have difficulty in getting registered, especially if it is at a district level. Aruna Royâs case seems to be an exception," he said.
Many trade unions, like the one formed by Anuradha Talwar in Bengal, have merely affiliated themselves to the existing New Trade Union Initiative instead of going for an independent registration as a trade union.