Context: As economies around the world struggle to recover from the double whammy of a pandemic and a lockdown, unemployment is soaring. There is a growing demand for work as a right. 

Right to work

  • It is the right to earn livelihood without any obstruction.
  • The term ‘right to work’ is often used in the context of unemployment or lack of availability of work.
  • Safeguarding employment: The state  should generate its own employment. But at the same time, it’s also supposed to safeguard people’s employment. That includes everything, from ensuring that street vendors have vending zones, and fish workers are protected, to ensuring that farmers have viable incomes.
  • All of this comes broadly under the right to livelihood or right to work. 

Legal status of the right to work 

  • Internationally: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which were acceded by India,recognise the right to work in an employment of one’s choice and the State’s responsibility to safeguard this right.
  • In India, we don’t have a constitutional right to work but it is provided under DPSPs.
    • Article 41 of the Constitution provides that “the State shall within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.
  • Under right to life: In Olga Tellis & Ors. v Bombay Municipal Corporation & Ors.- ‘right to work’ was recognised as a fundamental right inherent in the ‘right to life’.
  • Statutory right: Under MGNREGA, a person can hold the state accountable for not fulfilling the right by demanding an unemployment allowance. But if the law is amended or withdrawn, the right vanishes.

Relevance of right to work: 

  • India has been seeing a declining jobs-to-GDP ratio, and mostly jobless growth, with labour also subject to the laws of the market. It is precisely under these circumstances that this right becomes important. 

  • There are questions about the responsibility of the state in a capitalist economy where welfare and employment are not a guaranteed by-product of private economic activity.


  • Ignoring GDP per capita
    • For instance, GDP growth can come from both an increase in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction as well as from the manufacture of medicines. 
    • We rarely discuss per capita GDP growth; from the vantage point of people’s welfare, the former matters more. 
  • Distribution issues: For a labour-abundant country like India, how much policy sense it makes to encourage capital-intensive methods of production.  More and more automation in a country like India is likely to lead to jobless growth. 
  • Profound lack of public goods and assets: In MGNREGA, the asset creation part is often under-emphasised.
  • Weak labour laws: The government has whittled down 44 labour laws into four labour codes that labour organisations have criticised as a dilution of workers’ rights.

    • India is a labour surplus economy. In the capital-labour bargaining process, labour is structurally weak in India.

    • For the informal sector, there is very little legal protection, very poor awareness of the protections that exist, and weak implementation. 

Way forward:

  • Decentralised Urban Employment and Training, or DUET: It is to create new employment opportunities so that those who are unemployed may be gainfully employed and earn a dignified living. 
    • This dignity is supposed to come from work conditions, such as being paid a fair wage and having regulated work hours
    • Also there is the social value of the work that people do such as repairing school buildings, cleaning parks, and so on.
    • Urban local bodies can issue job vouchers to certified public institutions such as schools and universities for pre-approved tasks like painting school buildings, repairing broken furniture.
  • Creating public goods: 
    • It is the state’s responsibility to provide these public goods, and this imperative can be combined with an employment creation programme just like MGNREGA does in rural areas. 
    • Together with MGNREGA, an Urban Employment Guarantee can be a very important piece on the way to ensuring the right to work.
  • Providing basic services: It is incumbent on the state to provide basic services such as health, education and housing, and in providing them, employment is generated. 

    • For example, Thailand has a universal basic healthcare system that is labour-intensive. It solves two problems at the same time: it builds social infrastructure, and creates jobs. 

  • Better condition for workers: An effective employment guarantee programme can be an excellent solution to the structural weakness of labour. 

    • If the state steps in and significantly reduces the surplus labour, particularly in the casual market, it automatically creates the conditions for better treatment of workers.

    • Tightening the labour market is a great way to ensure that workers are treated well. 

  • Right to leisure: If the state guarantees a good eight hours of work, then automatically one is guaranteed that the rest hours are for enjoying life.

    • The right to be lazy: This is a live debate in Marxian political economy. The right to work is often seen as the right to be exploited by capital. 

    • Work should be fulfilling, work should be creative, and work has to be put in its place, which is hopefully a very small place.

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