Nos. 70 & 71, April 2018

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

India's Working Class and its Prospects

VI. Stratified, fragmented, dominated labour market

Migration without escape
Studies based on the NSS 2007-08 estimate there are 67-80 million migrant workers. (Mazumdar et. al. 2013; Srivastava 2011) This comes to about one-sixth of the workforce. However, a large proportion of these workers pursue multiple occupations in an effort, as we noted earlier, to keep their heads above water. One study notes that the same workers counted by the NSS as construction workers are counted by the Census 2011 as agricultural workers. As a result the Census shows a rising workforce in agriculture while the NSS shows a declining one. (Thomas and Jayesh 2016) Employment in construction doubled in just seven years during the boom, nearly doubling its share of the workforce as well, and accounting for almost half of the addition to non-farm jobs in this period.25 But so large is the ‘latent reserve army’ of labour in the rural areas that even this expansion did not lead to a rise in the wages of rural construction workers.26

The labourers flowing across such borders are traveling largely to low-paying, insecure jobs – e.g., in construction, seasonal agricultural labour, security services, and sweated manufacturing. Even a small improvement in income from locally available employment can draw migrant labourers back to their native places. Studies indicate that “Rural migrants are finding it increasingly difficult to move permanently to urban areas along with their families. The economic and non-economic costs of moving to cities are prohibitively high, as are the barriers to formal employment markets and avenues of self-employment. But the result is not less migration but more circulatory and seasonal migration to cater to the accumulation needs of high urban growth.” (IHD 2014, 64)

Despite these growing levels of migration, the labour market (in Marxist terms, the market for labour power) is not integrated across caste, community, gender and region. While wages for regular jobs in urban areas are relatively similar across states, wages for rural casual work vary widely across states, since they are determined primarily by local labour market conditions. Moreover, there are wide disparities within states, underlining the fact that labour markets even within states are not integrated.27 For example, Maharashtra and Gujarat, two of the most developed states, have some of the lowest casual rural wages in the country (ranks 17 and 18 out of 20 states).(IHD 2014, 99-100)

Unequal power relations
Caste and community, linked to village life, play a role in keeping labour suppressed, sometimes in a state of semi-bondage. Many migrant workers are brought in gangs, with one or the other form of bondage, or at least village/kinship ties. The circular-migration workers in Bengaluru mentioned above are drawn largely from Scheduled Tribes, and some from Scheduled Castes. (ICN et. al. 2018, 4) Plantation labour relies heavily on Scheduled Castes and Tribes, frequently under some form of debt-bondage. All this has its roots in the colonial era. (Raj, 2010, and Mohan, 2017) The brick kiln workers described in two studies included in this issue are composed overwhelmingly of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, and a smaller number of Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

India’s labour market is perhaps the most stratified in the world, by caste, religion, language, region and gender. Social oppression is often made up of more than one layer. These layers also largely determine access to education, especially higher education. It is thus not an impersonal labour market that decides the incomes of large numbers of workers; social structures of oppression and coercion play a large role. Shah and Lerche observe that “poverty must be understood through social relations, relationally.... [Such a view] puts the historically developed social relations between Adivasis/Dalits and other groups at the centre of the analysis. These relations are... more often than not unequal power relations and it is through them that poverty is produced and persists. This is something which cannot be captured through quantitative measurements alone. In short, we need to move to a qualitative, historically situated analysis of the relationship between inequality and poverty and social discrimination.” (Shah and Lerche 2018; emphasis added)

Eighty per cent of Dalits and 92 per cent of Adivasis live in the rural areas, and they are more dependent on agriculture than are the other communities. The proportion of SCs and STs employed in construction, another low-paid activity, is higher than that of other castes. Upper-caste Hindus have the largest proportion of regular jobs in both private and public sectors, whereas SCs and STs employed in both sectors are tend to remain poor, probably because they have access only to low-paying jobs such as sweepers, peons, etc.(IHD 2014, 79-82) (Indian society effectively ‘reserves’ certain kinds of labour for Dalits, such as garbage collection, manual cleaning of sewers, septic tanks, and so on.— See Salve et. al. 2017.)  Casual labour accounts for nearly half of all employment of SCs/STs in the rural areas.

Muslims are concentrated in low-income self-employment, because avenues to regular wage employment are closed: In urban areas, only 27 per cent of Muslims had regular wage/salaried employment, compared to 42.3 per cent for all Hindus. (GoI 2006, 111-12) Employment in turn determines standard of living: Per capita consumption expenditure for ‘General’ category households is about 80 per cent more than for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Muslims. (Ibid., 153)

Three-fourths of women workers are in agriculture, a low-income employment. Most strikingly, the percentage of working-age women in the labour force (the Labour Force Participation Rate, or LFPR) is less than one-third the percentage of working-age men in the labour force. (GoI 2017, 161) The gap between the LFPR for men and for women is a staggering 50 percentage points. As a result, the overall LFPR for India is among the lowest in the world. Not only is it low, but since 2004-05 it has shown a decling trend.

This is partly because the various types of work carried out by women, which are essential to social reproduction, are socially underrated, not calculated as part of GDP, and not considered ‘employment’; and their labour in subsistence production too is simply not counted. Thus despite the fact that Time-Use studies show that the total number of labour-hours put in by women are more than the corresponding figure for men, their contribution to ‘GDP’ is a fraction of that of men. (GoI 2016, 199-200) Revealingly, in conditions of agrarian distress (such as during the early 2000s), more women enter the ‘workforce’, i.e., they take on agricultural labour in addition to their existing, uncounted, work; when the distress abates, women leave the ‘workforce’. (ILO 2017; Mehrotra 2015)

However, the gender difference in ‘workforce participation’ (i.e., what is officially termed employment) also points to the very paucity of such employment, and the systemic social barriers to women entering such work on equal terms with men. Moreover, the average wages of women are considerably lower than men’s, partly because they have less access to decent employment, but they are also paid less for similar types of work. India has the largest gap between men and women in median earnings of full time employees, again a staggering 56 per cent. (GoI 2018, Vol. II, 172-3; OECD 2017, 155)

This entire complex edifice of stratification, hierarchy and extra-economic coercion serves to depress average wage levels, and thus expand the share of surplus. It also divides the working class into a number of fragments, preventing its members from recognising the commonality of their interests and the need to unite.



25. Construction employment rose from 25.6 million in 2004-05 to 50.3 million in 2011-12. Thus construction accounted for an addition of 24.7 million out of a total 51.8 million addition to non-agricultural employment in this period. (back)

26. “It is notable that even as construction’s share in total employment in India rose sharply, from 5.7 per cent in 2004–5 to 10.6 per cent in 2011–12, its contribution to India’s GDP hardly changed (7.7 per cent and 7.8 per cent respectively in these years).” Thomas and Jayesh, op. cit. (back)

27. The coefficient of variation across states for regular urban work is 21.8 per cent, but for casual rural work it rises to 31.6 per cent. IHD 2014, 99-100. (back)



NEXT: The reserve army of labour


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