Will there be workers organizing in neo-liberal times? Yes, workers will be organizing in a new liberal fashion! Rina Agarwala’s book Informal Labour, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India suggests that workers in the informal sector in India are successfully negotiating their livelihood demands taking advantage of intensely competitive politics particularly at the State level. As India ushered in the neo-liberal economic age in 1991, the trade union movement went into self-imposed siege in the formal sector. The formal sector came under intense threat of transforming into informalization as a result of neo-liberal economic policies. Hence, the trade unions have to concentrate most of their time and energies to save their forts.
At the same time, relationship among employer, employee and labour department has undergone a sea change, which got reflected in the judiciary’s judgmental attitude towards weapons of trade unions such as sit-in and strikes. Before the enunciation of economic reforms, labour departments were fairly active in inspecting and regulating the industrial workplaces. This was a minimal protection to workers against inhuman work conditions—excessive working hours, mal-payment of wages and illegal terminations. Similarly, labour courts were interpreting the laws in favour of employees. In fact, India has created a fairly progressive labour law regime in its post-Independence years. However, their interpretations as well as delivery of justice also depended upon the political balance in the country. As the balance tilted towards the Right from the Centre-Left in the last years of the last century, workers began to receive discriminatory treatment in labour departments and labour courts throughout the country. As the formal sectors of the economy came under assault, a number of informal workers grew throughout the country. So questions arise about safe work conditions and welfare of workers in the informal sectors. Since trade unions have not only been deprived of capacities to organize informal workers but also been lacking strategies to this effect, the future of informal workers looked bleak and blank to one and many. Rina Agarwala’s book inquires precisely into this domain and comes out with findings opposed to common beliefs.
With the advent of neo-liberal economic policies, a wisdom has dawned on most of those who dreamt of converting all the informal workers into formal workers. Accordingly, the informal workers’ organizations had redrawn their strategy to seek welfare from the state. Instead of demanding traditional work benefits such as minimum wages, provident fund, employment security etc., from employers, workers are bargaining for education, housing, health care from the state. Thus, the informal workers are getting organized more as voters demanding state responsibility for their social consumption rather than fighting the flexible production structures.
In the introductory chapter, the author provides a framework of the study and research questions addressed including a discussion on the dynamics between trade unions, informal workers and the state. She describes how informal contract workers are organizing to meet their unique interests within the constraints of their unprotected work structure and provides the political and economic characteristics of State governments in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra in the next three chapters respectively. She also outlines the amount and type of material benefits that informal workers receive in these States. The conclusion sums up the findings with emphasis on changing statesociety relations and imperatives for the Left movement to protect the vulnerable sections of the society under the new paradigm.
The author interviewed 200 government officials, employers and labour leaders from the formal and informal workers’ organizations, 140 women contract workers from Bidi and Construction industry in the three States with different political dispensations. As the study was concluded before 2011, Tamil Nadu was chosen as a State with intense political competition between DMK and AIDMK as these parties have been ruling the State for five years alternately since 1987. Maharashtra was chosen as a State divided between the Congress-led alliance and the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance but dominated by the former except from 1995–1999. West Bengal was chosen as a State dominated by CPM led Left front from 1977 onwards.
Agarwala concludes that the intensity of political competitiveness is a key factor in meeting the demands of informal workers’ organizations. What is implicit is a fact that informal workers’ organizations should accept the compromise of working under a neoliberal labour regime. However, the author also argues that informal workers do bargain with the state from the point of view of their importance in economic growth strategy. This has formed the central premise of the book—state-labour relations, like state-society relations, are two way processes rather than uni-directional phenomenon of the state harming/enhancing workers’ interests. The informal workers’ organizations argue that the state must directly compensate through welfare benefits to workers and his/her family for its failure to ensure living wage. Thus, informal workers are formulating their class interest by demanding basic subsistence at home despite their low, insecure wages. Agarwala has shown that informal women workers have played a crucial role in linking the public and private spheres including linkages between productive and reproductive work. In the neoliberal era, the structure of production becomes extremely flexible and so does the relationship between the employer and employee. This has directly affected the public and private spheres of workers. As she has written the home has become the site of production (bidi) and the site of production has become the home (construction). Agarwala rightly points out that in either situations reproductive labour—e.g., child rearing, children’s education, family’s health and marriage—is interconnected with the conditions of productive work. Therefore, women workers are in the forefront to demand that the state should provide welfare benefits to cover the costs of reproductive labour. This is a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the state is said to be retreating in the neoliberal paradigm, on the other hand, informal workers are forcing the state to take responsibility of micro-managing their family by providing assured support to children’s education, health, marriages and funerals. In the process, most importantly, the state is recognizing the informal workers as a category distinct from general citizens; thus, acknowledging their role and contribution in the country’s economic miracle.
This study shows that the success rate of informal workers’ organizations depends on economic miracle level of competitiveness in a particular State. For example, the Left Front in West Bengal was comfortably winning two-third seats in the Assembly with support from agricultural workers, small farmers and unionized workers in the formal sector. Therefore, the Left regime in West Bengal was less responsive, if not insensitive, to demands from the informal workforce in the State. On the contrary, Agarwala cites other studies—the CPM dominated Left Democratic Front in Kerala is sensitive to the needs of informal workers and forms alliances with many organizations representing them. Agarwala’s own study proves that Tamil Nadu’s polity is more responsive towards informal workers than Maharashtra or West Bengal’s politics.
While the book is rich in providing evidences, citations and data, it has not touched upon an important phenomenon of economic development—i.e., large scale migration of rural population into urban and semiurban areas as informal workers. These migrant workers are often deprived of basic civic facilities at the destination places, face exclusion from social security schemes and other benefits provided by the State governments and do not participate by voting in the much celebrated electoral process of Indian democracy. One may argue that migration and labour are an entirely different sphere of inquiry; however, any discussion on citizenship rights of informal workers and state-involved welfare schemes for them is incomplete without taking into account the invisible status of migrant workers. A large migrant workforce in the entire National Capital Region, Mumbai-Greater Mumbai area, Bengaluru, Kochi, Pune, Hyderabad and Ahmadabad cities are treated as secondary citizens due to the informality of their work and domicile from other states. Millions of these workers are nowhere in the process of collective bargaining amongst formal or informal workers’ organizations, state and employers. Apart from that, India is home to the largest number of vulnerable workers under forced and bonded work conditions. Most of them are working in remote places, rural and semi-urban areas.
It is interesting to look at the major finding of this book—pro-poor competitive politics and benefits received by informal workers—from the prism of the results of the general election in India in 2014. The new government at the Centre is changing the labour law regime to support informality of workforce in organized sectors. The book provides clues to both—government and trade unions—to protect workers’ interest under the neoliberal politics. However, a primary condition for ensuring workers’ welfare is strengthening and deepening of the democratic process. This is certainly not guaranteed now!
Parimal Maya Sudhakar is Associate Professor, School of Government, Maharashtra Institute of Technology, Pune.