Nos. 70 & 71, April 2018

Nos. 70 & 71 (April 2018)
India's Working Class and its Prospects

India's Working Class and its Prospects

About the articles in this special issue

The first three contributions in this issue concern brick kiln workers. These are among the most oppressed and wretched workers in India. The demand for bricks has risen with the rapid growth of the construction sector in the post-2004 period. India is the world’s second largest producer of bricks, after China, though its production, at an estimated 240 billion bricks per year, is perhaps one-fourth of China’s. (Kamyotra 2015)

The technology of Indian brick kilns is relatively backward and stagnant.38 The clay or mud is manually dug from a field, manually moulded into bricks, and fired in inefficient furnaces using various fuels. Entire families are employed in this activity, with children being used to flip bricks (since they are lighter than adults, and can stand or squat on the bricks without cracking them). Debt-bondage of the labourers is widespread. Trade union organisation has reached as yet a negligible percentage of the workers, though efforts are on at many places. It appears that the main form of surplus value extraction is in terms of absolute surplus value, rather than relative surplus value. There appears to be no effort by the Government to gather data regarding brick kiln workers, but some recent estimates put the figure at 9-10 million workers.39 By way of comparison, the total number of workers in India’s organised factory sector, according to the Annual Survey of Industries, is 10.7 million. The conditions of labour of the brick kiln workers, then, cannot be dismissed as a marginal phenomenon. What drives millions of workers to work in such conditions?

Today’s dominant economic theory assumes a fully developed market, autonomous rational individuals, profit maximizing firms, perfectly competitive markets, and rule of law. According to this worldview, then, differences in income are on account of differences in the value added in different activities. 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.

Questioning this orthodoxy, Tathagatha Sengupta and G. Vijay study the seasonal, circular migration of labourers from Balangir, Odisha, who work in brick kilns in Telangana. They study conditions in the place of origin of the labourers to understand how rural distress and un-free labour relations are chronically re-produced. By probing deeper, they reveal that rural households in Balangir incur inflated expenditures on account of usury, on the other hand, they are forced to sell forest produce, agricultural products, and their labour power at much below the market price.

The authors argue that traditional hierarchies, political alliances and collusions form ‘social networks’, which use caste, ethnicity, religion, regional/linguistic ties, and political parties to circumvent the rule of law and get coercive control of the labourers. Social networks first of all imply that the social relations of production are not governed by economic force alone: neither are all economic transactions anonymous and impersonal,  nor do resources flow freely according to superior economic choice alone. Networks in such unfree labour markets become institutionalised 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.

In Capital, as we saw, Marx considered the emergence of ‘doubly free’ labourers (free of feudal constraints, and without any means of production of their own) a pre-requisite of capitalism. In that case, the labourer ‘freely’, and through an impersonal exchange, contracts to sell his or her labour power to the capitalist for wages. In a sense, Marx set himself the hard case to prove: namely, that, under capitalism, even where labourers ‘freely’ sell their labour power without bondage, force, or fraud, they are exploited. However, Marx knew well that not all labourers in the England of his time were ‘doubly free’, nor were all capital-labour relations were free of personal domination and extra-economic coercion.40

And so some might argue that the existence of millions of such ‘doubly bonded’ brick kiln labourers in India is not evidence of semi-feudal conditions, but capitalist relations. However, the crucial point is this: it is impossible to address the exploitation of these workers principally at the level of industrial organisation; fundamentally, the addressal of the problem would revolve around changing the agrarian relations which reproduce the coerced labour relations.

The report of a fact-finding committee constituted by Jagrut Kashtakari Sanghatana takes us to the brick kilns themselves. It documents 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. It is revealing that the output of this industry operating outside the law is an essential input for India’s massive construction industry, which accounts for 7.6 per cent of national income. This brings out the linkages between the seemingly advanced capitalist sector of the economy and semi-feudal exploitation. The findings of the committee relate not to some distant rural pocket, but to conditions in the district adjacent to Mumbai, the country’s financial capital.

We also publish here a brief note by Khetrabasi Naik, a journalist and writer, on migration to brick kilns. It is a cry from the heart of one who has closely followed the fate of bonded migrant labour (known as dadan labour in Orissa), and tried through his writing to awaken the conscience of a hardened society.

Next we turn to the leather and leather goods industry, which, according to one official report, employs 2.5 million workers in India.(GoI 2008) Manali Chakrabarti and Rahul Varman present a multi-layered study of the leather goods industry of Kanpur. This is a predominantly export-oriented industry, hence integrated with global capital. Yet the industry itself 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 associated with such work, which is associated with Muslims and dalits. Kasais slaughter the animal; chikaras skin and shave it; bisatis are Muslim traders. Considerable skill levels are then 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. Instead, these skills are passed down through informal apprentice systems within the family and community. However, these skill levels are not recognised as such because they are available in plenty, given the large labour reserves in India.

Most footwear is consumed in the developed world, but is produced in the underdeveloped world. This is despite the very low levels of output per labour hour prevailing in the latter. The reasons are that (i) wages are so low in countries like India that they more than compensate for low output per hour, and (ii) 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 world importing firms and the exporting countries and firms: There is an abundance of the latter, catering to the lower end of the developed world market. As a result, the exporting countries and firms can compete only on price, 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 they can turn only to squeezing wages. This squeezing becomes so acute that it eventually imperils the sustenance of the very skills on which the industry has been built.

In terms of Marx’s theory, the surplus value in this chain is generated in countries like India, but only a small portion accrues to the capitalists here; the bulk of it flows to capitalists abroad. Further, the manner in which pollution is part of the industry’s ‘business model’ illustrates the manner in which capitalism ignores all harm to nature which can be externalised from its own short-term costs; here imperialism is able to displace this damage to other countries.

In an update of this earlier paper, Chakrabarti and Varman address the present crisis faced by the industry. Threats emanate mainly from two spheres: first, the Kanpur cluster’s dependence on uncertain global demand, and its lack of ties to a domestic market; and second, the retrogressive political life of the country, in the form of gau rakshaks and their political patrons. Indeed these threats emanate from two aspects of India’s political economy. As can be seen from this narration, one cannot assume that capitalist rationality will overcome obstacles to the development of the industry.

Archana Aggarwal’s piece, based on direct investigations, looks at the labour process in the manufacture of readymade garments in Gurgaon, a suburb of the nation’s capital. A supplementary note by RUPE, summarising secondary material, provides a picture of the readymade garment industry in Bengaluru. In many ways, these pieces are almost textbook illustrations of the description of the labour process in modern industry given in Capital. The processes of extraction of absolute surplus value and relative surplus value can both be seen in the garment industry, i.e., with the forced lengthening of the working day and the increasing intensity of work. Both pieces bring out how the employers attempt to drive down wages below the level of subsistence (‘necessary labour’), and how the workers use different methods in order to bridge the gap between their wages and their subsistence needs.

Similar to the study of the leather industry above, Aggarwal shows that the link to global demand actually compels downward pressure on wages (even a reduction in the real wage), growing informalisation of labour, and suppression of trade union organisation. The RUPE piece describes how garment unit owners of Bengaluru, in an effort to keep wages at very low levels, actively tap the reserve army in the villages (Marx’s ‘stagnant reserve army’). While these strategies of global and domestic capital are indeed successful in suppressing wages, the “simmering rage” of workers periodically explodes in various ways, reminding us of Marx’s assertion that capitalist exploitation so degrades the workers that it compels them to revolt.

Next we turn to large capitalist firms that represent relatively advanced productive forces. Alok Laddha and T. Venkat show how,  during the period of ‘liberalisation’, 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. One form of this has been the massive spread of informal labour arrangements, such as contract, casual, apprentice, ‘temp’, etc. in organised sector industry, till they now constitute the majority of the workers there. Two industrial ‘castes’, as it were, work within a single establishment, often doing the same work, but paid different wages and accorded different 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, has thrown the trade union movement itself into a crisis. The authors highlight some initiatives which have attempted to overcome this crisis by including informal workers in the struggle against exploitation.

The failure of the trade union movement to combat the strategy of fragmentation is not a technical or tactical lapse as such. Rather, it is one manifestation of the separation of the trade union movement from the cause of the proletariat as Marx defined it. Reversing this process requires reintegrating a struggle-oriented working class movement with the broader struggle-movement for the emancipation of all working people, both workers and others. 

It is from this perspective that Sudha Bharadwaj presents some experiences of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha in organising workers in Chhattisgarh. The recent victory of contract workers of the Bhilai plant of Swiss cement multinational giant Holcim is presented against a broader canvas of struggle – by workers of small industry, basti dwellers, working women, oppressed castes, and the peasantry. In this, the integration of different sections of workers, and the 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.

We had hoped we would be able to publish a contribution on the heroic, ongoing struggle of the Maruti Suzuki workers. Sadly, it did not materialise, and there thus remains a gap of which we are conscious. Further, we regret the delay in publishing this issue, despite the efforts of the contributors to meet the deadline. This is partly the result of over-ambitiousness on our part. Nevertheless, we feel the contributions present significant glimpses into the working class reality of India.

And in this way, we pay our homage to the two, Marx and Engels, who grasped the objective potential of the working class, who “saw in misery not merely the misery... but the germ of a higher form of society which it bore in its bosom”. At the same time, they saw the very varied historical conditions and constraints within which that potential is to be realised, dictating widely diverging paths to a common future for the workers of the world.



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38. By comparison, China developed the superior, less land-intensive and environmentally friendlier vertical shaft brick kiln technology in the early 1970s, which is now widely disseminated in that country. (back)

39. Kamyotra, op. cit., puts the figure at 9 million; Yadav 2016 gives a figure of 10 million. It appears both figures are derived from broad estimates of total brick production in India and output per worker. (back)

40. See, for example, the description of brick-making in England in Marx 1990, 593-4.(back)

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