Trade unions often struggle to enlist workers in the so-called informal sector, who by the nature and orientation of their occupations, are a scattered and divided mass. But in recent times, union leaders have discovered a new avenue of comradeship to enrol members: by appealing to the country’s rural employment guarantee job card holders.

Rural activism: Villagers working under NREGS in Rajasthan’s Dilwara district. Around 25.3 million have got jobs under the scheme across India. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

With complaints of non-payment of minimum wages on the increase among workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), trade unions of all stripes and colours are attempting to gain the goodwill of the rural working class, who often lack an outlet to ventilate their grievances.

For example, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (Intuc), which is affiliated to the ruling Congess party that launched NREGS in 2005 with the support of coalition partners, has announced plans to address problems of workers who get jobs under the nation’s flagship employment guarantee programme.

In its plenary meeting held in Kochi, Kerala, last month, Intuc decided to form trade unions solely dedicated to rural workers eligible for NREGS, which promises at least 100 days of employment a year to one member of every rural household.

The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has gained the membership of at least 15,000 rural workers in Punjab alone during the last three years.

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The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, widely regarded as an affiliate of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, although it doesn’t formally acknowledge the relationship, has set up both associations and trade unions at the local level in the last one year, according to Sukumaran N.M., its secretary. He did not provide any statistics.

“We will form unions in both Congress- and non-Congress-ruled states," Intuc national vice-president Ashok Singh said. Intuc plans to demand the Rs25,000 stipulated compensation that workers’ families are entitled to in case of death at work, but which, according to him, nobody ever receives.

Around 25.3 million households across the country have been provided jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or NREGA. Until July, nearly 870 million man days of work have been generated under the scheme, for which the government has set aside Rs39,100 crore in the current fiscal year.

Under the law, every rural household can volunteer for 100 days of unskilled work in a year. Rural workers can also demand a fraction of the stipulated daily wage in case employment is not provided within a fortnight of applying for a job.

Trade unions say that these guidelines are routinely violated and full minimum wages promised by states rarely get paid to workers.

According to Raghubir Singh, secretary of Lal Zhanda Kaumi Rozgaar Guarantee Mazdoor Union, which is mobilizing NREGS workers in Punjab, and is affiliated to Citu, no job-card holders have received the full pay of Rs136.79 in the state and no one ever receives unemployment wages.

Singh said union membership will reach 30,000 this year in the districts of Mansa, Hoshiarpur and Amritsar, where it currently operates.

Not-for-profit organizations have generally been the ones to champion rural workers’ causes. But with regular employment declining in the formal sector, trade unions, which fund themselves with membership fees, are spreading their nets wide to call on unorganized workers as a survival strategy.

At present, only around 9% of India’s estimated 400-million-strong workforce is unionized.

The informal sector includes all economic activities that are neither taxed nor regulated by the government, and is not included in the government’s gross national product, as opposed to a formal economy.

But organizing this splintered class of workers is easier said than done.

“Unlike a factory where workers are found in the same place, informal workers are scattered. They have to work long hours for less pay. They fear about job security. They fear to form unions," said K. Hemlata, a secretary of Citu.

Mobilizing support in opposition-ruled states has not been easy for some. According to R. Chandrasekharan, Intuc president in Left-ruled Kerala, unionizing NREGS workers in the state has been a problem because “the state does not appreciate the scheme introduced by the Congress government".

The state unit of Intuc has mobilized 25,000 rural workers across 14 Kerala districts, including Thiruvanathapuram and Ernakulam.

Not all unions believe forming exclusive NREGA unions will work in their best interest. Hind Mazdoor Sangh, which claims to have 5.4 million members of which 35-40% belong to the unorganized sector, said it has no plan to form or embrace new unions.

“We are, however, spreading information about the rights of these workers and how to access the benefit in Bihar and Rajasthan," said Ram Autar Mittal, secretary of Hind Mazdoor Sangh.

Experts say the unorganized sector holds the key to trade union activity in the coming years and competition is likely to grow to win new members.

“This is the future of unionism," said C.S. Venkata Ratnam, director of New Delhi-based International Management Institute. “It will continue to go this way as informalization of the formal sector grows. And, trade unions will have to continue to look for non-traditional and atypical forms of employment to find new members."

Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint