A struggle for meal benefits.

AuthorShekhar, R. Karthik
PositionCommunication - Abstract


According to World Bank estimates, rising food prices between October 2010 and January 2011 drove 44 million more people in the developing countries into poverty (Sundaram, 2011). Access to nutritious food is a part of the democratic entitlements of the working class. Unfortunately, the government in India has failed to revise the meal benefits available to workers during the past ten years when the food prices have more than doubled. Yet the income tax exemption limits available for meal benefits have not been revised. It may be felt that the struggle for raising the income tax limits of meal benefits for workers within the organised sector in India is an elitist articulation when lack of access to food security is pushing many workers in the informal sector into deeper recesses of poverty.

However the struggle for raising the income tax exemption limit for meal benefits must be seen in the light of the work organisation moving towards becoming a total institution, and the corresponding decline in the spaces of resistance (Jackson & Carter, 2011). What appears as a trivial struggle is an important entitlement for workers. The right to nutritious food in the workplace is a right that guarantees the nourishment of the worker's body. Once these benefits are asserted as an important entitlement within the organised sector, and rights such as appropriate income tax limits are preserved, then the benefits available to organised sector workers become a benchmark and standard for the state to provide to the informal sector workers as well. The informal sector workers can argue against the inequality and discriminatory framework in not extending access to food security to them. Access to food security in the context of a community has been linked to the ideals of community self reliance and social justice (Hamm and Bellows, 2003). Thus, the erosion of food related entitlements for workers in the formal sector reflects a loss of rights that have been earned over a period of time. The erosion of rights in the formal sector can often be a precursor to the marginalisations that follow in the informal sector. Neoliberal agendas are often advanced after crushing the collective action of workers within the organised sector. Therefore, it is necessary to contest the erosion of rights that takes place in the formal sector on account of the deterioration in the quality of democratic entitlements such as meal benefits.

Due to the limits of meal benefits remaining stagnant, the quality of nutritious food available to workers has suffered greatly. A limit of Rs. 100 per day has been placed on the meal vouchers that could be handed over to employees. Consequently, companies in the Information Technology and Information Technology Enabled Services sector are functioning within this limit of Rs. 100. Thus meal benefits which should have been revised to upto Rs. 200 continued to remain at Rs. 100 thereby reducing the quality of food available to workers. This indicates the processes of extraction of surplus by avoiding payments which must be legitimately made to workers. It is the erosion of the workplace as a site of welfare as adequate free meals are an important welfare measure that should be available to workers. According to CBDT circular no. 15/2001 [F.No.275/192/2001-IT(B) of 2001, free meals provided in the workplace are a staff welfare measure. Expenses upto Rs. 35 per meal were treated as a staff welfare measure and if the expenses pertaining to the meals increased beyond Rs. 50, then these expenses were treated as perquisites available to workers. Dominant perspectives of organisational development require workers to interact candidly with each other and take greater responsibility for their actions as organisational members (Nielsen, 1984). Trade union action which argues for meal benefits reverses this paradigm and argues for organisations to take responsibility for its members and ensure that their welfare interests are taken care of. Further, candidness is required in speaking up to power in organisations and ensuring greater democratisation of organisational spaces.

Situating free meals as welfare benefits could also lead to an increased productivity of employees within the organisation. Yet the state has failed to realize the importance of such welfare measures and thus has not yet revised the income tax exemptions available for such measures. Tax exemption was provided in India for Rs. 50 per meal in 2001. During this year the tax exemption had increased from Rs. 35 to Rs. 50. However during the past ten years, this tax exemption has not been raised. It is a standard practice in most other countries to increase the tax exemption based on the consumer price index every 2 to 3 years. Another advantage of providing meal benefits to workers in the organised sector is that it is a measure which could help in arresting inflation (Carrasco and Mukhopadhyay, 2012). Since the food related needs are met in their workplace, workers...

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