Labour reforms intended to make marginalised employees work longer for lesser wages will mean a new age of industrial slavery.

Photo: AFP

“It was too back-breaking, intimidating and dull,” says a group of migrant workers from factories that dot the industrial belt of Ghaziabad, when asked about their normal day. This correspondent was travelling with Jana Natya Manch (JNM), which was performing in the industrial hubs, where their legendary founder Safdar Hashmi was active during his life time. The objective of their street theatre was to make workers speak about their working conditions and jnm’s actors would perform based on the inputs given by the workers.

It was late and the workers were visibly tired after the arduous day they had. Even though the performance was organised at the premises of a trade union office, the workers were initially reluctant to speak. “Workers are afraid that spies of the management would be present at the gathering,” says Anil, a migrant worker from Bihar. Overcoming their initial apprehensions, workers started narrating their stories.

The central theme was the attempts by the management to accelerate the pace of the work and prolong work hours, brutal victimisation of the ‘rebel’ workers who dare to question inhuman acts of the management, zero tolerance for unions and intimidating and biased attitude from labour department and police to the problems faced by the workers. Most shared a common background — they were all thrown out or dispossessed from their traditional rural livelihoods in the recent years, which witnessed increasing commodification of the agriculture.

Listening to their grim stories would make one wonder whether they are reproducing some passages from Friedrich Engels’s classic The Condition of the Working Class in England, which was the outcome of his field work in Manchester in 1842-1844, when England was in the throes of industrial revolution.

Engels describes the history of migration and living conditions of the working classes in the northwestern town of England. “It is no uncommon thing for a man and his wife, with four or five children, and sometimes the grand parents, to be living in a 10×12 feet room,” he writes.

Seeing the working class conditions in the National Capital Region (NCR) or other industrial belts in the country, the similarities to what Engels wrote are hard to miss.

Like the Irish workers in Manchester during that period, Indian workers are increasingly forced to discover the “minimum necessities of life”. “Neoliberal times are witnessing massive assaults on the rights of working class which we gained in the initial decades of post-independent India. The Modi regime which is going ahead with pro-business labour reforms is destroying whatever little legal protection workers enjoyed,” says AK Padmanabhan, national president of the CITU.

Padmanabhan, who joined Ashok Leyland factory in Madras as an apprentice in his teens in 1963 recalls how majority of his co-workers in the fabrication unit did not have all of their fingers. “In that industrial belt of north Madras, industrial accidents were an every day affair. In fact, the medical college hospital in the area had doctors who specialised in treating those with dismembered fingers. As a result of heroic struggles, managements were forced to invest in technology that would ensure workers’ safety.

“By the time I got dismissed for union activities in 1972, there were considerable improvements in workers’ safety. But I feel that there is a tremendous increase in industrial accidents in the liberalised era. Now in all traditional as well as new manufacturing hubs, workers are seriously injured on a daily basis, and in most cases they are not reported.”

Trade unionists have documented several such cases where accidents occur because of lack of safety measures as well as attempts by management to increase the speed of the labour process beyond human capacity — auto workers in Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar have to produce one car approximately every 45 seconds.

In a shocking incident this August, Ramji Lal, a young worker was crushed by a robot during the production process in a auto-component factory in Manesarallegedly due to management negligence. “There is a general indifference to industrial accidents from the state and the civil society. This is perhaps a reflection of marginalisation of the labouring poor from India’s public memory,” Padmanabhan adds.

Gautam Mody, general secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), agrees with Padmanabhan that working classes are under unprecedented attack in liberalisation era. “Capital is merely interested in making quick and super profits by squeezing workers. It’s always capital which is behaving in an aggressive and violent way. But business classes and state establishment have succeeded in creating a false image that workers are against industrial development. Corporate media plays an important role in reinforcing this myth. Liberalisation era witnessed the disappearance of labour correspondents in newsrooms. Most of the time, labour issues are covered by business correspondents who always wish to be in the good books of corporates.”

It’s interesting that most of the media houses sent their “auto correspondents” to report labour conflicts in recent years in the auto-manufacturing hubs. Labour historians say it is important to demystify certain myths about labour that are becoming part of “common sense”

One such myth is that the working class is becoming a minority and size of “middle class” is increasing. “All empirical evidences from official data show increasing proletarianisation in post-liberalisation India. Instead of understanding labour as a social relation with capital, the tendency is to understand labour in terms of income and wages. There is also a major alterationin the traditional pattern of workplace distribution” says historian KN Ganesh.

Capital, with the aid of shrewd managerial strategies, prevents significant portion of the working classes from self identifying with their class. In the old pattern of workplace distribution, work was generally carried under one roof of a large factory. This provided ample opportunities for the workers to socialise and establish solidarity which could lead to the formation of trade unions. This pattern was destroyed with practices such as outsourcing and contract labour. Currently, several big businesses outsource segments of their work to contractors, who in turn would give it to subcontractors and this chain might repeat before it reaches actual workers, who would toil from their homes for extremely low wages. Proliferation of separate packaging, labelling, assembling and transporting industries which are tied to the manufacturing sector indicates this trend.

These arrangements which depress and stagnate the wages of the lowest section of the workers (who form the majority) ensure better remuneration for the higher managerial cadre without increasing the total wage bill of the firm. No wonder, in Indian manufacturing sector, labour share in the total production cost is extremely low when compared to Western standards.

No dissent allowed Police crackdown on Honda workers in Gurgaon, Haryana. Photo: Manoj Kumar

A recent study by Institute for Human Development titled ‘India Labour and Employment Report’ says that “the shift from wages to profits is large” in the reform period. The report based on government statistics documents that “the share of wages in total value-added in manufacturing has fallen from 0.45 percent in the 1980s to 0.25 percent in 2009-10” indicating more drudgery for low wages.

In the current climate of increasing inflationary pressure, this trend is growing. As pointed out by Tapan Sen MP, general secretary of the CITU, suppression of wages has reached an all-time low and any attempts to squeeze more would lead to social unrest.

This penchant for super profit by squeezing workers is said to be the major reason behind industrial conflicts in recent times. To elicit more working hours from labourers, managements use diverse techniques.

This includes drastically reducing meal and rest breaks, manipulating attendance records etc. Several companies torture workers when it comes to bathroom breaks.

Some workers in ncr whom Tehelka interviewed claim that supervisors keep special entries of their “bathroom movements”. Supervisors often target “dissident” workers, by manipulating “bathroom movements”. For example, if a worker actually uses bathroom three times on an average in a day, supervisors would double it and these ‘evidences’ would be used by the management to ‘prove’ that the worker is wasting his time in the bathroom “smoking cigarettes”.

Apart from threatening workers “on wasting time”, management also extracts extra work to compensate for the time allegedly wasted in rest rooms.

Accelerating the pace is generally done by adopting advanced technology as well as reorganising the production process into minute segments which could be measured and calculated in detail. Automobile factories are leading with several such ‘innovative’ practices.

In the IT industry (which is an important segment of service sector which contributes 58 percent of the gdp and generates 27 percent of employment), all leading companies are in the process of restructuring their software production model from the traditional “waterfall” model to the “agile” model. “In agile model, your task is divided into minute parts and very minute details of your work are monitored. It ensures that workers are not sitting idly even for a minute. Work pressure is high and sometimes I feel that I’m like the character of Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times,” says Rajesh, a software engineer working with a US-based company in Bengaluru.

Most of the firms in manufacturing and services have also established surveillance cameras at “strategic locations” to monitor workers. “To prolong the workday or to intensify the labour process, capital needs a docile workforce. Militant unions would be a hurdle for this. That’s why Indian managements are going all out against unionisation,” Gautam Mody points out.

In neoliberal era, managements are generally using two types of techniques to resist unionisation. First is to install a company sponsored union which is known as a “yellow” or “puppet” union. In several instances, management connives with police and labour department (as in the case of Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki) to deny the right to form a genuine workers’ union. Second is to destroy the union by employing extra legal methods.

Workers in ncr who shared their experiences with Jana Natya Manch gave minute details of the union-busting tactics. “In several cases, management goons are posted as junior managers, supervisors and security guards in the company. Sometimes companies hire ‘bouncers’ and they are deployed officially,” says Gopal, a worker.

It has also been found that that most managements prefer to hire goons from dominant castes in the location of the company as bouncers or as managerial staff to control workers. This is to ensure social control of workers through the institution of caste. “Management selects unemployed youths with good physique for this. They are provided with special diet also,” a group of workers say.

High percentage of casual workers in the total workforce is also helping the management to suppress attempts by the workers to form unions. First, casual workers are denied even basic legal rights and hence it is easy to terrorise them. Secondly, there is a remarkable difference between wages of regular and casual/ irregular workers for the same work.

So when regular workers try to unionise, management spies manipulate the contract/casual workers stressing on wage disparities and other things to keep the work force divided.

Despite mounting evidence of working classes drowning in drudgery and despair, Indian ruling elite is pushing ahead with labour reforms, which trade unions feel is designed to impose new forms of slavery. In fact, the general strike organised jointly by trade unions in the country on 2 September evoked huge response, even from workers affiliated to trade unions controlled by ruling parties.

But the Modi government has reiterated that it is keen to pass Labour Code on Wages Bill and Labour Code on Industrial Relations Bill in ‘national interest’. Workers’ organisations have provided detailed critiques of the clauses in the Bills and proved that once the amendments are passed, workers would lose their basic rights for collective bargaining. It is also said that it would result in a “Company Raj”.

Then the natural question is why Modi government is so eager to get it passed? One could find a probable answer in a resolution passed by Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the workers wing of the RSS in their 133rd national executive meeting held at Bhopal in February. The resolution reads like this: “… The labour reforms and economic reforms are against the interests of the nation. The government is unduly favouring corporate sector and indulging in criminal neglect of social sector.

“The corridors of power are filled with American-based NRI advisors and ministers who are loyal to corporate sector. The vice-chairman of the NITI Ayog, economic adviser, RBI Governor etc are examples. It is to be remembered that many of them were the advisors of those financial institutions in the US which collapsed during the global financial crisis.”