Nagrik Dialogue

Towards new hope in the world of work and workers

The world of work for majorities of Indians is full of fragility and vulnerability. Ever-increasing flexibilities in the labour markets push workers into further vulnerabilities with regard to wages, “working conditions” and “bargaining ability”. The ascendancy of “global value chains” further creates conditions of wealth accumulation at the higher end of the value chain and further expropriation from labour. Contract based out-grower schemes make matters worse for the labouring millions. The vast majorities of our workers in India, over 93% of them, fall in the category of the “informal sector” – with no regularity of wages, measly, if any, forms of social security and rights, and little prospect of joining the ranks of regular wage workers.

Women make a disproportionately large segment of the informal sector, in marked contrast to the falling figures of labour force participation of women in India. Trends indicate that the displacement of women from formalized workspaces will continue and their presence at the lower ends of the value chain will increase due to historical denials in access to education and technology. Women workers are forced to perform more labour-intensive tasks, often without remuneration, remaining unseen and unrecognized.

Sandeep Chachra
is currently the Executive Director, ActionAid Association India, Managing Editor of Agrarian South Journal and also Co-Chairs the World Urban Campaign of UN-HABITAT

This century has seen the rise of the spectre of further constriction in labour absorption, particularly at the lower ends of the value chain, on account of industrial developments such as artificial intelligence and Industry 4.0. It would be useful to look back at history to see the path that has led us to this bleak scenario and see what are the paths that could lead us away towards a brighter future for the world of work.  

In the aftermath of liberation from colonial conditions, newly independent countries of the Global South managed to create varying degrees of economic transformation. Hinging on public sector driven industrialization, their economic transformation was predicated on growth in the economy through attempts to develop industry, create employment in the public sector and an effort to modernize peasant agriculture. Under the “nation-building” challenges of the second half of the last century, this transformation could be considered as fairly respectable and hopeful.

In East Asian countries, and among them those considered as the “East Asian Miracle Cases”, emphasis on export-oriented industrialization (and in some others on import-substituting industrialism) created a variety of jobs in the non-farming sector. In countries where this was coupled with land reforms in rural sector such as in South Korea and Taiwan, it led to significant growth and employment outcomes. In India, the seriousness of planned development led to a well-diversified industrial structure within a short period. Together with attempts to modernize agriculture, albeit the latter without a serious basis in land reforms, it created a sovereign national momentum, and a base for economic revival.

On the other hand, several countries of the Global North, aided by plunder of wealth and territorial control during the centuries of colonial rule, were able to generate significant productive employment opportunities together with shifts in their employment structure. In these countries, the share of agriculture in total economic output and labour force in agriculture reduced dramatically. Accumulation, based on colonial loot, provided ample capital in the hands of the State for investment in public industrialization, and territorial control provided “empty” lands for out-migration and labour movement afforded by settler colonialism for European populations dependent on agriculture to move to. In the 19th century alone, it is estimated that 50 million people left from Europe to Americas.

Ironically the experience of the economic transition of the countries of the North has become the dominant model for development thinking on economic transition possibilities in the South.  It is often hypothesized that the countries of the North are the final destination for economic transformation in the countries of the South.

We need to recognize that the labour question is deeply linked to the question of agriculture and therefore solutions to the question of labour, need equally a resolution of agrarian question too. Answer to one depends on the solution of the other. Under conditions of limited abilities of current industrial trajectories to absorb surplus labour released from agriculture, not only is this an impossibility, it is also not a desired destination for progress given an emergent ecological crisis.

For countries of the South to pursue the same path taken by the countries of the North is both a historical impossibility and an ecological dead end.

Experience of most countries in the Global South – in the continents of Asia, the Americas and Africa, demonstrated that despite relatively respectable economic outcomes in the period of planned economic development, a vast majority of the population continued to derive its livelihood from agriculture. And under conditions of lack of attention on land and agrarian reform, they continued to live precariously in what has now been lately labelled as conditions of “agrarian crisis”.

Failures to address historical inequalities in land ownership – strongly structured by issues of caste, gender, class and ethnicity, and to provision adequate investments and technology to the agriculture sector meant that distress in agriculture continued, exacerbating every passing decade with population growth, and creating an outflow from agriculture; and a large corresponding inflow to swelling reserve pools of labour.

Continued distress in agrarian sector, and industrial developments which don’t promise a future of labour-intensive industrialisation will to add to the already long queues of wage labour searching for work, under conditions of great precariousness.

We need to revive policy solutions that are built on multiple trajectories, as no one single model works given the diverse aspirations and needs of a youthful India, or more generally for the countries in the South. On the one hand, to answer the labour question, we will need to keep our agricultures and rural communities alive and thriving, making it a choice for people to aspire for. That is possible to do through giving new life to the unfinished agenda of land reforms, distribution of land to landless and promotion of small holder farming – what I would call the never-to-die dream of  “Do Bigha Zameen”. We need substantial agriculture investments into a range of support structures for small farmers, including credit, research, infrastructure for diverse “agricultures” that we have on our land and an income assurance plan. We need to build on the base of “peasant agriculture” a future of ecological and sustainable agriculture as a path of food sovereignty and autonomy.

On the other hand, a fair and just world needs construction for millions of wage workers. On the base of a constitutionally enshrined and justiciable “right to work”, a decent wage promise of no less than  Rs 18,000 per month needs to be made with provisions of indexation. The labour laws regime should unequivocally ensure equal wages for equal work; the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work of women; and a universal social security cover with social security and right to food, education, health, shelter, decent work, pensions, maternity benefits, life and disability cover.

The responsibility for preparing and embracing the future also needs a transformational investment and work on education and skilling on high end jobs to prepare our youth for a decent future in the world of work.

Policy choices made now, at this historical conjecture, will determine the levels of equality and progress our society will achieve in this century.  Importantly this would help in building national happiness for workers in the world of work!

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Nagrik Dialogue is the face of Nagrik Foundation’s communication skills that comes in the form of a monthly magazine. It will work as a bridge for those working at the grass roots level and those who support them in any form and manner.