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India needs a productive and committed workforce: Tine Staermose

Oct 04, 2013

"We are not putting the business-as-usual lens on technical advice for India”, says Tine Staermose, ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team for South Asia and Country Director for India in an interview with UNIC.

Tine Staermose

Rajiv Chandran: In the post-2015 on-going discussions, what role will employment play in enabling countries to reach a more equitable future?

Tine Staermose: First of all, when we look at the current situation globally, it is pretty clear that employment is high on the agenda everywhere, in the developing world as well as in the developed world. Secondly, the emphasis in terms of setting the agenda for post-2015, is going to be driven much more by the South than in the past. Having spent almost 15 years in South Asia I feel that debates in the developed world focus too much on unemployment, which is really not so much the issue in countries like India, here it’s more the underemployment issue which is a critical factor to look at or the working poor as this group is also sometimes referred to.

Underemployment means that people may work eight, 10 hours or 12 hours a day, they may work seven days a week, they may be self-employed, they may be wage earners, and yet they still do not earn enough to make a decent living. Poor people cannot afford not to work. And that is something we’ve known for quite some time. But it is something that is still not factored sufficiently into global debates. In the Asia-Pacific, we have seen an increase in the number of MICs in the last five to 10 years. And it is pretty clear that even though they have attained this status, it doesn’t mean that this wealth is distributed equally. Inequality issues are discussed openly by governments. We know that in India, for example, the economic policies, despite a relative decline in the overall poverty rates in recent years, have yet to show results in terms of a more equitable distribution of this wealth.

Chandran: What are the key challenges relating to the world of work in India?

Staermose: Again, a number of issues. Two of them stick out very clearly: one is the challenge of youth employment – the fact that the demographics are such that there are so many young persons in India and that consequently 8-10 million people enter the workforce every year. How is India going to equip, skill, educate, prepare these new entrants into the labour market? Not only for them to just have a job. The challenge is really to ensure that they have a decent job, which means that they have decent wages, that their aspirations are fulfilled. Because if they are not, they will not become productive in the work-force, and India needs a productive and committed workforce in order to sustain growth. In return they have a right to be treated with dignity and provided decent working condition. Secondly, in addition to young people, it is the female labour force’s participation that we in the ILO have been looking at in terms of a number of major research studies. And it is quite clear that there is an untapped potential here. It is also clear that we have many educated females who are not entering the workforce.

There are a number of reasons for that. We all know that the socio-cultural traditions play a role when women are not entering the workforce, but let me highlight one critical issue. Women in India, for them to enter the workforce today – and here I am talking about skilled and educated women – have some conditions, and one of those conditions is safety. And as we have seen since last December, violence against women in general is widespread and an issue of great concern. From the ILO’s side, we have specifically been looking at violence against women in the workplace. For 16 years we have been waiting for the Sexual Harassment Bill, which came in April this year. Our technical team has, through all those years, been involved in providing technical assistance and advice to the legislative process.

Despite the fact that we think that there are still some weaknesses in the Bill, it is a very welcome step. Employers’ organisations and industry in general have come forward and are working actively on codes of conduct and how to do something about this at the workplace, in big industries as well as in smaller workplaces. So, for women to enter the labour force and become productive and active in India’s growth, we need to ensure that workplaces are safe, not only the absence of violence but also non-discrimination, ensuring that there are equal opportunities, ensuring that their pay is on par with what their male colleagues receive for the same educational qualifications and for doing the same job.

So these are things, which if they are addressed, can attract more women into the labour force in the future.

Chandran: The ILO in India has also had a history of working very closely on the issue of child labour. Can you give us a quick update?

Tine Staermose: The single most important piece of information is that we are keenly awaiting the ratification of the two core Labour Conventions of the ILO, namely Conventions No. 138 and No. 182 on child labour. It’s very interesting – I was involved in this more than 15 years ago, and at that time, we could not even talk about child labour with government officials in India. So the positive part of the story is that we can now not only talk about it, but we now have very constructive engagement with the Central Government, as well as at the State level.

Having said that, there are a number of challenges. I don’t think it is important to talk about numbers because numbers can always be contested. But there has been a decrease, and I think that is the true picture, but on the other hand no children should be deprived of play and education during their childhood. The decrease is to a large degree an impact of the Right to Education Act, which supports the approach for children to be at school and not at work. That is also one of ILO’s strategies all over the world, and we are working very closely with other UN agencies on that.

We have been working with the government through a so-called convergence approach. The convergence approach is well known to those who work in development in India. It is an approach where vulnerable families are helped to access social protection schemes and in the case of child labour the target group is families, where children work and do not attend school. We work with these families to withdraw the children from work and put them in school or provide vocational skills training for adolescents. It is very important because the financial access and the social services that lie within the different packages in the social services, in the large schemes, all need to be much better targeted towards the most vulnerable families as this does not happen easily nor automatically.  The implementation process at the ground level has its challenges. And, so we’ve been working with the government and also our partners; ngos, trade unions and employers. The trade unions have been very active in addressing child labour for many years, not only raising awareness but also promoting and pushing for ratification of the two core Conventions on child labour that I initially referred to.

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