Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 12, March 14, 2015
Neo-bondage in the Age of ’Make in India’ and Shramev Jayate
Saturday 14 March 2015
by Dustin Robertson
‘Make in India’ is a spirited slogan and initiative coined by India’s new Prime Minister that aims to “Facilitate investment. Foster innovation. Enhance skill development. Protect intellectual property. And build best-in-class manufacturing infrastructure.”1 At the same time, Prime Minister Modi has said that labour issues should be seen through the eyes of the (shramik) worker. However, when one considers the actions and labour reforms proposed, the sincerity of the second statement is doubtful.
Significant legal reforms have recently been announced including important measures on labour. For instance, “archaic labour laws” are to be overhauled to improve ease of business. Despite a few measures directed at workers, such as simplification of employment rules and improved transfer of social security funds while changing jobs, it is difficult to see how ‘Make in India’ will improve the lives and living conditions of Indian workers, especially those in precarious and exploitative work situations.
Large-scale Systematised Informal Work
It is commonly stated that as much as 90 per cent of the Indian workforce and over half of the country’s GDP comes from the unorganised sector (generally used interchangeably with “informal sector”). However, the understanding of what actually constitutes the unorganised sector is generally incomplete and insufficient. Numerous definitions and classifications exist at the international and national levels.2 To the average citizen, unorganised work might evoke a small-scale employment arrangement between indivi-duals (such as domestic work) or someone providing services or selling products on the street (like a barber or chaiwala). These are not incorrect; but they only capture part of the story.
It is high time to recognise another massive element of the Indian economy. A significant portion of the unorganised economy can be characterised as “large-scale systematised informal work”. This type of economic activity is characterised by its sheer magnitude (often millions of workers and billions of dollars) and its complex but identifiable patterns and structure (such as clear hierarchies of power and sophisticated systems of recruitment and trafficking). It is also important to note that in many cases this work contributes directly to the so-called formal sector.
The unfortunate reality is that this type of economic activity creates ideal situations for large scale forced labour or modern slavery. In fact, this type of forced labour makes up a significant portion of the work that has earned India very unenviable rankings in the latest Global Slavery Index. India ranks fifth in terms of percentage of the population in modern slavery conditions (1.14 per cent). This amounts to over 14 million people—the most in the world and more than the next 10 countries in the index combined! 3
Brick Kilns: a Solid Example of Large-scale Systematised Informal Work
With high rates of growth and urbanisation, India is said to be experiencing a construction boom. Bricks are in high demand and their production is a huge business. However, in many cases they are made by highly vulnerable workers recruited in one location (usual rural) to work in isolated and extremely exploitative conditions. These workers are trapped by a web of vulnerability that is social (largely uneducated, illiterate and unskilled, etc.), cultural (many coming from underprivileged sections of society including the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes) and economic (most come from situations of chronic poverty and indebtedness). These three aspects are highly interrelated with each being both a product of and a cause for the other two.
Ensnared in this vicious web of vulnerability, and left with no decent means to secure their livelihoods, individuals and families must accept brick-kiln work as a means of survival. Workers are first engaged in brick-kiln work by middle-men through informal recruitment practices in their own villages. They are offered large cash advances in order to secure their future labour. Workers are uneducated, recruiting agents are unlicensed and exchanges are completely informal and undocumented. These are favourable conditions for deception, coercion and abuse. Workers then must travel long distances (usually out of State) for nine months of work that easily qualifies as bonded/forced labour by national and international definitions.4
Work in brick kilns is gruelling physical labour that usually exceeds 10 and often more than 12 hours. Workers are exposed to adverse conditions especially during peak winter and summer months. A worker’s movement outside of the brick kiln is restricted, sometimes by physical barriers including walls and security guards as well as psychological barriers like fear of abuse. This fear is not unfounded as cases of physical, verbal and sexual abuse are common within brick kilns with almost no action taken against perpetrators.
In addition to the dangerous and demanding work, living conditions within brick kilns are harsh and kilns are usually devoid of systems of water and sanitation. Some brick kilns may have health facilities, but they are largely insufficient and/or too expensive for workers to access.
Work and life in brick kilns is especially difficult for women and children. Gender sensitivity and child rights are unheard of within brick kilns and although entire families often work in brick kilns, payment is usually made only to the male family member. This degrades the already deplorable situation of women and children.
In addition, contracts for workers are completely verbal, and the advanced-then-delayed payment system leaves workers without pay for extended periods of time. When they are paid, workers often receive less than the amount initially agreed upon.
Despite their dissatisfaction, workers have very little power to affect change in the brick kilns. In addition to being generally unaware of workers’ rights, they constitute the lowest level of the hierarchy of power and have no unions or organisations for collective bargaining. Instead they must submit and continue returning to brick kilns year after year.
Unfortunately, the extremely exploitative situation of brick kilns resists change for reasons that are:
• Economic: Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but conservative estimates say that the sector employs millions of workers 5 and revenues run into billions of US dollars.
• Legal: Two significant, but incorrect myths exist about brick kilns that have important legal consequences.
* Brick kiln work is considered seasonal work: While not operating year round, they are working for the majority (usually at least nine months). The kiln remains in the same location, with the same owners and contractors.
* Brick kilns are not factories, but instead are considered cottage industries: This classification is also erroneous. Most ‘employ more than 20 workers in the manufacturing process without the aid of power’ and also have a specified premise of function, which should qualify them as ‘factories’ according to the Factories Act, 1948. 6 As factories, they would be required to register with the Industries Department, provide workers with improved health, safety and welfare. Other regulations regarding employment of women and children, working hours and provisions for rest and leave would also be applicable.
• Political: There is a huge imbalance of political power within the brick kiln sector. Workers are almost completely non-unionised, have very little political engagement in their home villages, and none in the communities to which they travel for work. In contrast, brick kiln owners are organised in employers’ organisations, politically active, and are closely affiliated with political parties. It is not surprising that there is little political will to pay serious attention to workers’ needs and rights.
Despite its classification as ‘unorganised/informal’, the brick kiln sector is enormous (in terms of finances and people employed), highly systematised and extremely exploitative. It plays a crucial role in the India’s construction boom, and is likely only to grow in the coming years. Based on the current situation, it appears that rather than producing a trickledown effect which benefits all members of society, economic development is actually propagating bonded labour.
Each day, bricks are used to construct the buildings and structures which represent a sustainable, prosperous future for India, but the workers who create them toil laboriously in unstable, inhumane conditions with almost no prospects for improvement.
Unfortunately, there are many other examples of unfair large-scale systematised informal work in the country. The textile industry, stone quarries and bidi-making factories, are other sectors where this type of vulnerability producing situation prevails.
What Can be Done?
How can we ensure that India’s economic growth and development do not come at the cost of exploitation and abuse? How do we guarantee that the path to prosperity is paved through decent and fair labour? The answer is that we all have a role to play.
i. Government in the context of important labour reforms, the perspective of the worker deserves not only attention, but action. The PM himself has voiced this concern, but little action has resulted. This means enacting new laws and measures to protect India’s workforce. It also means reconsidering large-scale systematised industries like brick kilns and taking special measures to formalise them.
ii. Business must become more accountable. However, responsibility goes beyond those businesses that employ exploited workers directly. Those in the formal sector must be accountable for their entire value chains. By purchasing and using products and materials created in exploitative conditions, they create the market and demand for such practices. Value chain reporting is one practice that can greatly improve accountability in business. For example, large scale realty firms must clearly specify under what working conditions their bricks are being made.
iii. Civil society organisations should take up these issues in a vigorous and systematic manner. Amongst other areas of intervention, they can make important contributions from identifying instances and patterns of forced labour to the rescue, relief and rehabilitation of bonded labourers. In all activities and actions, CSOs should focus on evidence creation. A lack of proof and statistics on these issues often serves as an excuse to not act. But when issues are clearly understood, going beyond the ‘rights perspective’ to include all aspects such as economics and stakes of different parties, inactivity becomes less excusable and the path forward more clear.
iv. Everyone should raise the debate about these issues. Currently the discussion on economic growth and development is largely one-sided and concerns mostly attracting foreign investment and making India a better place for business. However, the discourse must be completed with a serious look at the workers’ perspectives. While India is becoming a good place for business, it should also become a good place to work.
2. http://dcmsme.gov.in/Report_Statistical_Issues_Informal_ Economy.pdf
4. In the context of India we can refer to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976. The ILO lays out indicators in Indicators or Forced Labour: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_203832.pdf
The author is a researcher from the US. For the past one year, he has been working for Kaarak Enterprise Development Services Pvt. Ltd., an advisory and professional organisation operating in the domain of social and economic development. He has written this article on informal labour in India with special focus on its contribution to bonded labour. He can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org