By Sanjay Pathak. This article appeared in the magazine Aneek, July 2016, and has been translated from the Bengali by Anindya Dey.
The sheer size of the unorganized labour sector in India, the complex socio-economic and political relations that sustain it, and the deep-rooted networks of exploitation, make any systematic study of the subject a rather challenging task. One can only form a rather superficial notion about the issue from the scarce and often unreliable data.
Moving beyond that requires a strong and consistent engagement with the lives and struggles of people in this sector, through organizing and building movements in these communities. The trajectory of this extremely crucial project will possibly become clearer in the near future. But before we launch into that discussion, let us share a few snapshots from the daily lives of unorganized workers in the Behala-Chanditala area around the city of Kolkata.
Snippets from Daily Life
It is a room with a high ceiling. Right outside the entrance, one can see rows of plastic bags stacked up against the wall on both sides of the street. Inside, all you can see are huge piles of plastic products — buckets, utensils, hangers etc — almost touching the ceiling. Next to these are machines which, as per the rules set by the factory owner, do not stop production unless something breaks. The 12 hour per day work schedule is merely a rule on paper; workers at times have to work for 24 to 36 hours at a stretch. A short flight of iron stairs on one side lead to a platform constructed about 4 feet below the ceiling. This is where the workers live — a 10 ft by 7 ft space which provides the sleeping area for 6-7 workers. Not even the persistent noise from the machines can disturb the slumber of exhausted bodies which have toiled through a brutal 12 hour shift. Underneath the platform is the makeshift kitchen, surrounded by stacks of newly produced plastic objects, where quick meals are cooked at the end of a shift. It is better not to ask what would happen in the event of a fire.
I don’t even get to know when the sun rises and when daylight fades off. I completely lose track of time and which day of the week it is. Fighting with this machine, I have worked not just 12 hour shifts, but often 24 hour shifts and at times even 72 hour ones, for my employer. Yet it does not quench his hunger. One day, when I suddenly hear the sound of crackers along with the noise of the machine, and catch a glimpse of a bright lights, I wonder if Diwali is near. I yell – are e Lakhan, Chhat Puja kab hai re? There is very little chance that my voice will penetrate through the deafening noise of the machine and reach Lakhan. We are called “Majdoor”. For us it means only one thing —Maja se door (far from anything fun), someone whose only purpose in life is to serve his employer.
These are words of an unorganized worker in a plastic factory in the Behala-Chanditala neighborhood.
“Birla White” is a common choice for painting houses. In a temporary warehouse in the area serving as a production unit, one can see stones being pulverized in a machine, treated by various chemicals and packaged. As the machine operates, it is impossible to see through the dense smog of dust and yet the workers are forced to work in this environment without any protection. Next to the warehouse is a card board cutting factory. The same set of 8-10 workers, hailing from remote villages in Bihar, work in both places.
Not too far from from the center of Chanditala, one finds a garment factory consisting of 7-8 production units in the same complex. Most of the workers here are women. They get 120-150 rupees for a 10 hour day, without any benefits. Last year ten women workers were fired without any explanation.
A plastic factory worker was assigned 12 hour night shifts daily. He wanted to change his shift. Once he raised the issue with his employer, it didn’t take long for the worker to lose his job. Such is the absolute power an employer wields over the workers.
Shiben from Kooch Bihar has been employed in transporting building materials in the Behala area for the last twenty years. The “cycle-van” he uses for his work is often confiscated by the local police, who demand a hefty bribe to release it. He lives in a warehouse owned by his employer. There’s a security guard who manages a complex with a number of factories. He earns a meagre 2200 rupees per month without any benefits. He used to be a worker at a factory which shut down. His family is based in Amta, while he lives in the factory premises.
A few hundred domestic workers, mostly women, work in the sprawling housing complexes on the BL Saha Road near Kalabagan and near the Buroshibtala Main Road. In spite of widespread complaints regarding work hours, salaries, leaves, and security, the absence of any organization makes it impossible for them to effectively bargain for their demands. This is how thousands of workers, deprived of any state protection, are forced to toil away at the mercy of extremely oppressive factory-owners.
The total number of unorganized sector workers in the country is about 44 crores, who generate nearly 60 percent of the country’s GDP. How are these people, who form the backbone of the nation’s economy, doing after all? What we presented is just a glimpse into the jarring reality of life as an unorganized worker, in this tiny industrial hamlet of Behala-Chanditala.
The problem, however, is not restricted to such small industrial regions. It is probably fair to say that this is the generic situation across the country. Although we won’t go into the details of regional variations and similarities in the condition of unorganized workers in this article, we will point to certain broad features, based on the available government data.
India’s Unorganized Sector: A Quick Glimpse
Compared to the organized sector, the government data available for the unorganized sector workers is of a much poorer quality. Therefore, constructing any picture of the real conditions of the workers based on such data would certainly be incomplete.
According to the National Sample Survey Organization 2011-12, around 2.8 crore of the 47.41 crore employed work in the organized sector while a whopping 43.7 crore are employed in the unorganized sector. Within the unorganized sector, around 24.6 crore workers are associated with agriculture, while 4.4 crore workers are employed in construction. The remaining are employed in the manufacturing and service industries. According to the report, nearly 51 percent of the total workforce of the country is self-employed. “Employment and Unemployment Survey 2011-12” suggests that West Bengal has the largest share of workers in the unorganized sector. It has also been suggested that the contractual workers, who are employed by the organized sector in large numbers, do not figure in these data. There is an unmistakable trend of moving a huge fraction of the workforce into the unorganized sector, where the protection of the labour laws can be compromised. Needless to say, one doesn’t get to see this reality in the Planning Commission documents.
The Labour Ministry of India divides unorganized workers into four categories by occupation, nature of employment, specially distressed groups and service.
Small and marginal farmer, landless agricultural laborer, share cropper, fishermen, those engaged in animal husbandry, beedi rolling, labeling and packing, building and construction workers, leather workers, weavers, artisans, salt workers, workers in brick kilns and stone quarries, workers in saw mills, and workers in oil mills.
Nature of employment:
Under this category, the terms of labour/employment are considered. Attached agricultural labourers, bonded labourers, migrant workers, contract and casual labourers are part of this category.
Specially distressed groups:
This sector includes toddy tappers, scavengers, carriers of head loads, drivers of animal driven vehicles, loaders and unloaders.
This category includes service workers such as midwives, domestic workers, barbers, vegetable and fruit vendors, newspaper vendors, pavement vendors, hand cart operators, and those working in unorganised retail.
Obviously, the unorganized sector extends way beyond these artificial and high inadequate categories. Cobblers, handicraft workers, women tailors, self-employed disabled people, rickshaw pullers, auto rickshaw drivers, silk workers, wood workers, leather and jewelry workers, garment mill workers, private bus workers, security guards, workers at auto repair shops, zari workers and those in many other trades also belong to the unorganized sector. This staggering spectrum of occupations and the complex socio-economic relations that arise from them have been clumsily pigeonholed by the state into a set of artificial categories. As the unorganized sector workers build their struggle, these ground realities are expected to become clearer. But for now, let us present some facts and analysis to outline some of the important features in the conditions of the unorganized sector worker in India.
Some General Facts
As mentioned earlier, unorganized workers form the overwhelming majority of the Indian workforce. Most of them are people from the adivasi (indigenous) communities, lower castes, religious minorities and other oppressed social groups. Given the long history of discrimination and deep-rooted exploitation, these communities have been systematically denied educational and economic opportunities. Workers usually have only seasonal employment. According to the NSS report, around 45 percent of the total workforce is unskilled, of which about 65 percent are women. Most places have 12 hour shifts, the working conditions are despicable and workers are denied the minimum wage as well as any other benefits. They are forced to work in hazardous environments, and get no social respect for their hard work.
Lack of education and skills, as well as the lack of opportunity to get training puts the worker in an extremely disadvantaged position vis-a-vis the business owner. In fact, in many cases, the usual worker-owner relation is supplanted by relations based on personal or family ties, or some other social relation. There are significant caste and communal divisions among the workers, especially in rural areas. Often an employer will engage a subcontractor leading to a regime of unabated exploitation of the worker. Due to dismal wages, it is common for workers to incur debt and be forced to work for free in order to repay the loan.
In certain cases, like the zari workers for example, the entire family is on the verge of destitution, where the parents along with the children are solely engaged in this work, trying to sustain themselves. The children in the family have no opportunity to pursue education. In addition, there are diseases that workers and their families contract because of the hazardous working conditions. Even in the few industries, where productivity of the unorganized sector matches that of the organized sector, the wages in the former are abysmally low. On the one hand, the lack of opportunities and the criminal indifference of the state are subjecting the workers to extreme forms of exploitation. On the other hand, their lack of organization is crippling their ability to seek protection under the existing labor laws.
Why Unorganized Labour?
The total number of unorganized workers in the country is about 43.7 crores and according to trends available in government reports, the numbers are showing a steep increase every year. The surge in the number of unorganized workers in the years following economic liberalization in India is unmistakable. Even in the organized sector, the practice of employing contractors became widespread. Structural changes were quickly introduced in the production system so that casual and contract laborers, who were not protected by the labor laws, could be employed in large numbers. This necessitated decentralization of the production process, which still continues. Farming out has increased, the number contract laborers has swelled.
The state says that one needs to simplify the procedures for doing business. So what was done to achieve that? State control over capital, production, market, and foreign investment, was withdrawn. Under the slogans of “India Shining” and “ Make in India”, foreign capital was openly invited. But, of course, just an invitation wouldn’t be enough, unless you amend the labour laws in ways that the global capital demands. After all, you have to remove every obstacle on the path of the so-called development. Naturally, the solution is to further weaken the severely inadequate labor protection laws. To justify such drastic changes, national interest was declared to be inextricably linked with the capitalists’ interest.
But who would be the sacrificial lamb for this grand performance of national interest? Who would bear the real costs? Of course, it would be the uneducated, destitute unorganized sector workers. The NSS findings for the 2011-12 states that 80 percent of workers in the unorganized sector either have no contractual agreement with the employer or have contracts for less than a year, thereby receiving very little protection under the present labor laws. Capitalists want to use the project of liberalization to put together a global system where they will have undisputed control over the labor market, where they can hire and fire at will. No legal hurdles should be allowed to challenge the hegemony of capital. The current efforts of the central government to amend the existing labour laws should be viewed in this context.
The need to restructure production process in the era of globalization quite naturally made it unconventional and highly unorganized. Big capital demanded big profit which in turn required an army of unorganized workers. This restructuring of production led to a decline in the quality of products on the one hand, and made the market more competitive on the other. It opened the floodgates for using casual and part-time workers, who could be employed on far harsher terms than before. The owners wanted to cut costs of production in an increasingly competitive market and workers’ wages, working conditions, social safety benefits were the first casualties. Work shifts became significantly longer than before. The existing labour laws proved highly inadequate to protect the working class, as exploitation of the workforce reached unprecedented levels.
While pictures of affluence from the big cities are being projected as evidence of the country’s spectacular economic success, the plight of industrial laborers, farm workers, domestic workers, security guards, construction workers and people employed in a host of other small businesses, living forever on the margins of this progress, tells a rather different story.
Social Safety System
A slightly detailed reading of the “Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act 2008” will show that it lays down certain guidelines for providing social security and and welfare benefits to the unorganized worker. How can this be an effective legislation unless it includes legally binding clauses on the right to work and future opportunities for the worker, if it does not mandate a minimum wage? This legislation does not clarify many significant details — what should qualify as appropriate social security benefits for the worker and his family, what should be the necessary features of such benefits, how and when can the worker actually access them, where will the funds come from and so on.
The proposals for minimum social security and legal rights of the ILO (International Labor Organization) were never accepted. When the right to work is not guaranteed, there is invariably a tendency to see social security benefits as an isolated issue. This is precisely what has happened for unorganized workers, who have been duped and cheated with the promise of social security. Almost identical things can be said about the “ Unorganized Sector Social Security Program” launched by the West Bengal government. A program, which does not secure the legal rights of workers, predictably did not create much enthusiasm.
The existing labor laws are highly inadequate, seldom applied effectively and have many sections which are demonstrably against the workers’ interest. What is really lacking is a coherent piece of legislation which addresses the pressing issues of workers’ nutrition, health, living space, work opportunities, wage, working conditions and post-retirement benefits. Although such a legislation does not exist at this point in time, it should be made a central issue of workers’ struggle in the coming days. Now that we have a presented some preliminary picture of the condition and problems of the unorganized workers in the country, what’s the way forward?
A deep and thorough analysis of the life and struggles of the unorganized workers may be lacking, but it isn’t hard for one to get a broad idea of the crisis. However, not much grassroots work has been done on this issue, as of now. As a result, embarking on the gigantic socio-political exercise of understanding the wide spectrum of occupations in the unorganized sector and its problems, taking into account the regional variations, and simultaneously building effective organizations among them, is most definitely the need of the hour.