Saturday, February 2, 2008

Social Responsibility — Not Just Corporate Responsibility

I read an interesting news item the other day which talked about temporary workers employed in the Noida authority going on strike. This is by no means unusual, of course - strikes, though not as crippling in India any more except perhaps in Kerala and West Bengal, do still happen and occasionally make sufficient news and noise. What was interesting here was the demands that the Noida employees were making.

The demands:

* Residential plots for all the employees in Sector-122

* New bank accounts for all

* PF and bonus facilities

* Compensation of Rs 5 lakh in case of an employee’s death

* Recruiting a family member of a dead employee on 50 per cent salary hike

* Compensation for PF and medical facilities from 1988 onwards

* Cases against the protesting employees be withdrawn and all will be posted back to their respective posts

Some of the financial demands like Provident Fund and compensation in case of death or the employment of a family member are demands that are quite common and we are used to reading about them at every strike call. But what had me stumped was that the temporary employees were demanding residential plots and new bank accounts.

While fighting for your rights is never a bad thing, especially if a case is definitely made out, I wonder when we will learn to appreciate what we have and not make audacious demands. After all, the bulk of the work force in India is unorganized and non-unionized and those who are in any form of organized employment, belong to unions and have collective bargaining power should consider themselves fortunate. According to the results of the National Sample Survey conducted in 1999-2000, total work force as on 1.1.2000 was of the order of 406 million. About 7 % of the total work force is employed in the formal or organized sector (all public sector establishments and all non-agricultural establishments in private sector with 10 or more workers) while remaining 93% work in the informal or unorganized sector. And this figure might be actually on the lower side as post 1991, there has also been a decline in trade union activity over the years. So the 7 percent who are may be even temporary workers with no clear job security are better off than the large mass of the population who enjoy no such benefits.

As Delhi was all abuzz abut the temperature coming down to zero degrees Celsius for the first time in recent memory, one could but wonder about the plight of the close to 140,000 people who live on the streets in Delhi, and many of whom are frozen to death in winter. But many of these rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, vagrants and other destitute snuggle upto each other among dry leaves or generate heat by burning tyres did those striking abjurers shed a tear for any one of these ones. Oh, no. There eyes were all glazed dreaming of the free residential plots that they hope to either get or at least use as a bargaining chip as they sit down to negotiate better terms for themselves.

These days a lot of attention is paid to corporate social responsibility and how a large number of corporate houses are not doing anything for society in general and only enhancing shareholder value. But when I hear of workers demanding residential plots in a country in a situation where there is a shortage of 2.47 crore houses in urban India and aggregate housing shortage in the country has increased by 134% during the last six years, I wonder whether we should begin talking not just about corporate social responsibility but the common responsibility of the citizen. For clearly if the corporates have their responsibility, the workers seem to be no saints either.

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