Return of Company Raj

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Photo: AFP
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 Manesar allegedly 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 alteration in 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.