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What do you know about what is happening to the Indian workers and why should you be concerned about them?

Here I draw on and request you to read RUPE (eds. 2019) which makes you know the conditions that result in the bondage and migration of workers from Odisha to the brick kilns of Telangana and the conditions of brick kiln labour in Maharashtra. You also come to know the Kanpur leather industry and its workers, and the conditions of garment workers in Delhi and Bengaluru, and the explosions of mass unrest there. You come to know the effects of contractualisation and informalisation in the organized manufacturing sector, and the scope for struggle in this situation and the experiences of organizing workers in Chhattisgarh as well.

All this which gives you an overall awareness of the Indian workers and their realities, you need to know because as a student of economics, you have been fed with the dominant economic theory. And this theory assumes a fully developed market, autonomous rational individuals, profit maximizing firms, perfectly competitive markets, and rule of law so much so that differences in income are on account of differences in the value added in different activities.

It follows that peasants have low incomes because of their low productivity. They choose to spend more than they earn, and so they incur debt. They migrate to work in brick kilns as a welfare-enhancing rational choice, diversifying their employment. Their low wages there too are the outcome of the low productivity in those enterprises. But the realities are different. There is seasonal, circular migration of labourers from Balangir, Odisha, who work in brick kilns in Telangana. The rural households in Balangir incur inflated expenditures on account of usury on the one hand, and on the other, they are forced to sell forest produce, agricultural products, and their labour power at much below the market price. How is this happening? There are traditional hierarchies, political alliances and collusions that form ‘social networks’. These networks use caste, ethnicity, religion, regional/linguistic ties, and political parties in order to circumvent the rule of law and get coercive control of the labourers. In unfree labour markets, they become institutionalized forms of monopoly/oligopoly, violence, domination, hegemony, closure, segmentation, discrimination and exclusion, suffered by various workers. The State institutions which are supposed to uphold the rule of law are, apart from being corrupt,  themselves thoroughly imbued with the myths propagated by the dominant classes. Though rooted in the rural economy, these networks extend beyond it. Not merely the law, but lawlessness too is part of this mode of accumulation. If you go to the district adjacent to Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, and do fact finding about the brick kilns there, you will notice widespread practices such as kidnapping, bonded labour, forcible confinement, physical threats and assault, gross violations of minimum wage laws, forcible overtime, child labour, and denial of minimum living facilities. Note that the output of this industry that operates outside the law is an essential input for India’s massive construction industry. Thus there are linkages between the seemingly advanced capitalist sector of the economy and semi-feudal exploitation.

If you study the leather goods industry of Kanpur, you find that it is a predominantly export-oriented industry that is integrated with global capital. It is in crisis now due to dependence on uncertain global demand and lack of ties to a domestic market, and also due to the manhandling and lynching by gaurakshaksand their political patrons. The industry is marked by caste and community lines, at every stage, from the level of the capitalists to that of the labourers. There is a large, irrational waste at the raw material stage itself, through the non-recovery of fallen carcasses. This is due to the social stigma attached to such work done by Muslims and dalits. Kasais slaughter the animal, chikaras skin and shave it, and bisatis are Muslim traders. Considerable skill levels are required at each stage in the production process, from selection of hides onward, without involving any formal training or investment by the capitalists or the State. The skills are passed down through informal apprentice systems within the family and community, and these skills are not recognized as such because they are available in plenty, given the large labour reserves in India.

Most leather footwear is consumed in the developed world, but is produced in the underdeveloped world, where there are very low levels of output per labour hour. Why? Because, (a) wages are so low in countries like India that they more than compensate for the low output per hour; and (b) environmental costs of processing leather are very high but can be passed off to the underdeveloped countries. There is a structural asymmetry between the developed country importing firms and the exporting country firms. The latter are abundant, catering to the lower end of the developed world market. As a result, the exporting country firms compete on price only, and the price they receive is a very small fraction of the retail price abroad. Costs other than wages are largely not in the control of the Indian manufacturers so that they can only squeeze wages. This wage squeeze becomes so acute that it eventually atrophies the sustenance of the very skills on which the industry has been built.

Now come to the readymade garments industry in Gurgaon, a suburb of India’s capital, and in Bengaluru in south India. The labour process in this industry is very much like that given in Marx’s Das Capital. There is forced lengthening of the working day and there is increasing intensity of work. The employers drive down wages below the level of subsistence.  Like in the leather industry of Kanpur,  there is link to global demand which compels downward pressure on wages (even a reduction in the real wage), growing informalisation of labour, and suppression of trade union organization in Gurgaon. The garment unit owners in Bengaluru actively tap the reserve army in the villages so as to keep wages at very low levels. Both foreign and domestic capitals succeed in suppressing wages even as the simmering rage of workers periodically explodes in various ways.

What about large capitalist firms that represent relatively advanced productive forces in India? During the period of liberalization since 1991, large firms have adopted a number of strategies to drive down the price of labour power and tighten their control over the entire labour process. There is massive spread of informal labour arrangements such as contract, casual, apprentice, temp, etc. in the organized industrial sector so that these workers constitute the overwhelming  majority.  The formal and informal workers work within a single establishment, often doing the same work with differential pay and rights. This fragmentation of the workforce into a number of categories, and the conventional trade unions’ inability or unwillingness to stretch and reach the informal workers, have thrown the trade union movement into a deep crisis. The growing employer as well as State repression of workers under neoliberal policies of governments in India continues, and continues unabashedly.Workers are treated neither as the strength nor as the wealth of our nation.

In this milieu, the experiences of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morchain organizing workers in Chhattisgarh are interesting. The recent victory of contract workers of the Bhilai plant of Swiss cement multinational giant Holcim is noteworthy. The message from this is clear despite the defeats experienced by the workers at the big factories such as that of Maruti Suzuki. Integration of different sections of workers and integration of workers with other toiling and oppressed sections is the key to the survival of the working class movement against the various odds facing it.  Solidarity efforts, nationally and internationally, feed into this ground-level fight.


RUPE. eds. 2019. India’s Working Class and Its Prospects: Studies, Reports, Notes. Research Unit for Political Economy.Mumbai.

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose

Department of Economics, SRCC