It is nowadays very difficult, at times even for neo-liberals, to deny that the current phase of globalization and liberalization has resulted in intensified immiseration of the working people. The ranks of informal workers, already the largest component of the workforce, have swollen; marginalized sections have been rendered further marginalized; and the labour of an increasing number of workers (women most of all) has become invisible even as labour processes are marked by greater drudgery. Many of the conventional trade unions, focussed as they usually are on the formal sector, have been finding it difficult to address the host of new issues that the present era of global capital have given rise to. Of course, many of these issues (the presence of a vast informal sector, the coexistence of unfree and free labour—and numerous degrees of unfreedom/freedom, the close connection between pre-capitalist and capitalist forms of exploitation especially in the colonies) are not entirely new in so far as capitalism and imperialism have operated on a global scale right since the early sixteenth century.
Viewing these problems from a historical perspective requires the writing of histories of labour that are not preoccupied with unionized (male) industrial workers of the West. Labour Matters brings together fifteen essays that reflect a shift in historical research on labour. The volume is published in honour of Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya—academic, thinker, humanist. Professor Bhattacharya has, through his close association with the Association of Indian Labour Historians that he helped to establish in 1996, inspired cutting edge research on labour history. The essays assembled in this volume allow us to view the scope, the direction, the sensitivity, and the intellectual commitment of this research. Moving beyond the confines of classical labour history they explore the historical experiences of, among others, the peasant-worker, convict labour, women, and dalits. As van der Linden and Mohapatra observe in their introduction, ‘With the expansion of processes of informalization and feminization of the work force, the centrality of the male unionized worker is no longer tenable’. These are studies of the labouring poor, wherein ‘labouring poor’ is not used as a label for pre-industrial workers but encompasses various sections of the toiling people who have been historically subjected to the exploitative processes of capitalism and imperialism.
Perhaps one of the most degraded and inhuman forms of labour that was utilized in the interests of western capitalism during the nineteenth century was convict labour. The colonial state in India systematically employed convict labour for various projects, belying the notion that such labour was inefficient. Chitra Joshi’s pioneering essay looks at the largely unexplored history of the use of convict labour for public works by the East India Company. In the early decades of the nineteenth century convicts were routinely used for building roads. There was a close link between the development of an infrastructure for the extraction of resources of the colony and the need for cheap coercive labour. Gangs of convicts were often hired out to the military establishment that was entrusted with public works. Joshi notes the problems of surveillance and control of this form of labour—a tribute to their resistance: 300 prisoners might have to be guarded by as many as 90 matchlock-men (barkandaz), as was the case with the gangs engaged in building the Delhi-Allahabad road. By the latter half of the century convict labour seemsto have fallen out of favour in colonial India. Among the various factors responsible for this shift, the availability of more abundant cheap labour due to famines in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was decisive. Yet it is not clear as to why the colonial state in India more or less abandoned a fairly well-developed coercive labour system at a time when, as Joshi herself notes, new ways of using convict labour were being experimented with in colonial South Africa (diamond mines, etc.).
In the British Indian empire too there was one location, albeit isolated and marginal—the Andaman Islands—where convict labour remained an option in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was in fact the most important option here, becoming by an inversion the raison d’etre of the settlement. Aparna Vaidik’s essay on the convict labour regime in colonial Andamans illumines the heart-rending story of this enterprise. The British initially occupied the islands for strategic purposes. Since no labour was to be had locally, convict labour from the mainland was used to create an infrastructure for the settlement. The Andaman Islands never developed a plantation economy, and convict labour remained essential for providing the basic needs of the colonial establishment. Subsequently, the construction of the Cellular Jail made the labour regime more system-atically repressive. Vaidik gives us a nuanced account of the different categories of labour; force was used differentially reflecting attempts by convicts to negotiate their status, keeping notions of efficiency and inefficiency fluid.
In order to comprehend the meanings of unfree labour in the colonial era we have to be attentive to the close connection between the powerful act of ‘naming’ of statuses through hegemonic western discourses and the reshaping of respective statuses. Claudio Costa Pinheiro’s fascinating contribution takes us back to the beginnings of the colonial era when the Portuguese in their attempts to ‘domesticate’ the languages they encountered in Africa and Asia invested certain key wordsterms with meanings that were derived from the European historical experience. Hence Portuguese lexical manipulation reduced different types of servile labour to one term,dasa, translated as ‘slave’. Not only did this imply that substantial dissimilarities were obliterated both in definitions as well as in practice, but that escravidao or slavery was perceived in terms of the contemporary European meaning of the term.Pinheiro might have added that in the European context itself the perception of slavery was undergoing changes in the modern period.
It has often been argued that servile labour (slavery in particular) played a critical role in ensuring the triumph of capitalism. Many of the strategies for controlling labour and appropriating surplus through coercion were perfected in the New World and applied in various ways to colonies in Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The transportation of indentured labour in the nineteenth century, for instance, could draw on the accumulated knowledge of the mass shipment of slaves from Africa to the American continent. Slavers consistently endeavoured to reduce to the lowest possible average the space provided to slaves shipped across the Atlantic in a way that would keep rates of mortality low. Space was calculated on the assumption that the captives would lie on their sides. This was the model that was followed for indentured labour and coolie emigrants from the late 1830s onwards, with some modifications. Anil Persaud’s study examines the measures taken, including medical intervention, to deliver the body of the emigrant in a healthy condition to allow her to engage in work immediately upon arrival. These measures were not born of a concern for the well-being and comfort of the emigrant, but for efficiency interpreted as ‘minimum space, minimum diet, minimum light, minimum air etc.’.
In the specific historical conditions of the Indian subcontinent servile status has been intimately linked with caste oppression. Dalits have traditionally constituted a huge reservoir of unfree labour. Shashi Bhushan Upadhyay’s rich survey traces the history of the ideology of work in India and the terrible consequences it has had for the dalits. This was an ideology that, in its contempt for manual labour, sustained the caste system for several centuries. Contempt for manual work, reinforced by abhorrence of tasks related to disposal of waste that were declared ritually impure, was already established in the later Vedic age, intensified in the post-Mauryan period, and acquired a rigidity and ruthlessness in the Gupta period that has survived almost down to the present day. Class differentiation and social hierarchy among Muslim communities in the subcontinent also conformed to caste divisions that placed those who performed manual labour at lower levels and virtuallyexcluded the untouchables. Upadhyay points out that colonial policies led to the emergence of a ‘dual labour regime’, whereby the low status of the dalits was further reinforced in the rural areas (where the bulk of the dalits lived and toiled), while providing limited opportunities to escape utter degradation in urban areas. This dual regime was the outcome of the inherent contradictions of the colonial project as well as of the divergent requirements of dominant classes in the two locations. Nevertheless contemporary dalit critiques of the brahmanical ideology of work are articulated in terms of a rejection of all labour that is considered to be degrading. This cannot but be so in a situation where caste inequalities continue to be perpetuated, and manual labour is further degraded by global capitalism. Yet, as Rafiul Ahmed’s essay on the Musahars of Bihar shows, resistance to upper caste oppression by dalits in the twentieth century was not necessarily an escape from backbreaking work, but flight from bondage. Ahmed’s account, based on extensive fieldwork, is a poignant story of the struggle by Musahars in a village in Gaya to repudiate their traditional status and form a new settlement named, symbolically, Azad Bigha on barren hillocks that offered little more than the freedom to live in poverty. It is sheer hard work that has allowed the community to survive and uphold the dignity of labour.
The contributions by Prashant Kidambi and Aditya Sarkar focus on Bombay, the pre-eminent industrial city of the British Indian empire. Both probe issues that have been inadequately researched, concentrating on the era prior to the rise of the trade unionism of the 1920s. Kidambi dispels the notion that industrial labour in turn of the century Bombay was incapable of coherent working class action. This is to be seen in the success that strikes and various forms of subversive activity had in increasing their bargaining power. This formative phase (c.1898–1919) was crucial for the confrontation between capital and labour in the subsequent period in that the balance of class forces was not wholly unfavourable for the industrial proletariat of Bombay during the 1920s. That the balance of forces which obtained in the second quarter of the twentieth century was the result of a longer historical process, ‘the unfolding of certain constitutive tensions in the triangulated structure [state–capital–labour] of industrial relations’, is vividly brought out by Sarkar’s study of the actualization of the Factory Act of 1881. Although it is generally recognized that the Act was a rather weak piece of legislation, intervention by the state in the implementation of the law had a logic of its own. The colonial state might have been keen to maintain a cordial relationship with capital, but the Act had the potential of undermining and even altering that relationship.
Contributions dealing with the ‘double’ marginalization of women and children, pushed by colonial factory legislation into the informal sector, and left with no protection whatsoever (Emma Alexander-Mudaliar); the disruption of the household economy of Jharia coal miners by measures that disallowed women workers to be employed for underground mining (Dhiraj Kumar Nite); strikes of 1919 and 1928 in the Jamalpur railway workshop (Nitin Sinha); and the rural-urban nexus in the history of labour in Russia/Soviet Union, c.1860–1930s (Gijs Kessler) offer significant insights for understanding the world of the labouring poor. Together with other contributions they set out an agenda for further research. Histories that are global in their perspective, that take into account the ways in which capitalism operates (and has operated) internationally, can, if they are empirically-grounded as the studies in this volume are, help us to make sense of the relationship between the exploitative essence of capital in the abstract and the concreteness of this exploitation determined by local conditions. Thus, there is the possibility of discussing the commonalities between the experiences pertaining to drink of workers in the colonial tea gardens of Assam in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (essay by Nitin Varma in the volume) and the working class in distant Chile in the same period (Marcos Fernandez Labbe) as a single theme that is not bound by geography. There is indeed an unexpected gem in this volume: Li Minghuan’s study of Chinese (Fujianese) migrant labour in Israel which has much to tell us—in India—not so much about ‘making a living at the interface of legality and illegality’ (that one could easily learn from families of migrants in, say, Punjab or Kerala), but about conditions of the labouring poor in present-day China and Israel.
One would like to conclude by thanking the editors for providing a list of the major writings of Professor Bhattacharya. The list, spanning a period of over four decades, is perhaps the best introduction to the range of his scholarship. This is a volume that anyone interested in the history of colonial India, and more specifically in contemporary issues in labour history, might profitably read.