Living wage system will be a life changer for India’s workforce

One of the motivating factors for the government seeking a shift from the minimum to living wage system has been the buoyancy in economic growth.

The momentous news that India will shift from the minimum wage system to that of a living
wage by 2025 has evoked a muted response. This, even though implementing it could lead to a
significant decline in overall poverty. Moving towards a living wage would impose much higher
labour costs on both government and private sector, but the outcome will be eminently worthwhile
in the long run.

While considering the implications of this move, it is important to recognise the difference
between a minimum wage and a living wage. A minimum wage is the legal limit below which
remuneration cannot be paid to workers. In contrast, a living wage is the amount needed for a
family to live above the poverty level, taking into account food, housing, and other essentials.
Currently, the minimum daily wage is fixed at Rs 176 per day, a level arrived at in 2017. Even this
minimum wage is not being paid uniformly throughout India.

Given the fact that the minimum wage is enforced in an uneven manner, the initiative is bound to
be resisted by state governments as well as private industry. Both public and private entities will
have to shoulder a higher financial burden in terms of labour costs. The issue of effective
implementation will thus have to be given careful consideration while formulating the plans to
launch a living wage in this country. This is critical as otherwise, an excellent policy measure
could end up being a regulation on paper alone, and will fail to have the needed impact on those at
the bottom of the pyramid.

Even in the case of minimum wages, it has not been possible to enforce the rules uniformly. One
complication is that states lay down their minimum wages even if the Union government sets
higher rates. Regional disparities are thus persistent.

It should be recalled that the living wage movement was launched initially in the United States. It
was introduced in Baltimore during the mid-1990s where several non-profit and religious
organisations found that the minimum wage laid down did not bring families out of poverty. It was
then felt that wages should be based on more realistic criteria. In other words, these should cover
basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, rather than simply being fixed at arbitrary minimum
levels. The same concept has now been introduced in many countries around the world, including

As of now, the move towards a living wage in India is a work in progress. The government has
sought technical assistance from the International Labour Organization (ILO) to develop a
framework for estimating and implementing it. Realistically, the target of 2025 must be considered
as somewhat ambitious since the country is on the verge of general elections and major policy
decisions have to be put on hold. This will especially be so for sensitive issues like workers’ wages
and rights. The proposal can thus only be taken up when the new government takes charge in
mid-2024. It will also have to be seen whether the proposal continues to be a priority for the new
regime. Though pre-poll surveys are leaning heavily towards the return of the Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), long-term alterations in
labour policies will depend on the economic climate over the next few months.

On the plus side, one of the motivating factors for the government seeking a shift from the
minimum to living wage system has been the buoyancy in economic growth. In the fiscal year
2023-2024, GDP growth is expected to rise to 7.6 per cent, in the light of a better-than-expected
performance in the third quarter. The October-December quarter showed a growth of 8.4 per cent,
considerably higher than earlier anticipated. The accelerated growth path has emboldened the
government to move towards a new approach, as the economy is considered strong enough now to
bear the higher burden of enhanced wages.

In case the policy does shift, it will come as a bonanza to India’s roughly 550 million workforce.
According to the labour ministry, 93 per cent of these workers are in the unorganised sector. The
benefits will only accrue to them, however, if it is possible to enforce rules so that all categories of
employers provide the enhanced wages. The issue of affordability especially in small businesses is
bound to be raised but the improved economic environment should enable even such enterprises to
absorb higher labour costs. Ultimately, the purpose of employment must be to ensure workers live
with dignity rather than survive at just subsistence levels.

(Sushma Ramachandran is a senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the
views of DH.

Living wage system will be a life changer for India’s workforce


Living wage system will be a life changer for India’s workforce

SC directs TN DGP to hold inquiry

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