Opinions Column: Migrant Workers

By Dr. Annavajhula J.C. Bose, Department of Economics, SRCC (University of Delhi)

You must have seen recently, in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown, heartrending visuals of  migrant workers desperately trying to leave Delhi and even walking towards their far off villages. Thanks to COVID-19, these usually invisible workers have become visible, like groups of animals have started to come out to explore the desolated cities under lockdown. There is an even more sombre picture of their contemporary reality that you must know in historical perspective, which is the concern of this post.

‘Labour relations’ refers to the study of all aspects of people at formal and informal work.  Unconstrained or free-for-all labour relations exist in the urban informal or unregulated sector of mostly rural-urban migrants, where no labour legislation applies. This is a much neglected area. There are two reasons for this. First, the labour relations experts have traditionally focused on the formal or organized wage-earning segment of the working class in large-scale industrial enterprises. Secondly, the informal sector scholars, in their urban labour market analyses, have produced a mountain of literature on its contribution to productivity enhancement, employment creation, poverty alleviation, etc. without saying much on the informal sector labour relations apart from pointing to the generally weak labour-management systems and poor working conditions found in the informal sector. 

The informal sector was once upon a time  seen as a labour buffer zone that absorbs the effects of economic shocks and unemployment in the formal sector. While many workers are found to have moved from the formal to the informal sector due to downsizing as bloodletting of the formal sector—a process known as ‘widened informalization’—at first the indecent informal sector was thought to be a ‘transitory’ activity so that the rural-urban migrant workers would eventually move out of it to the decent formal sector!

But the informal sector has acquired eternal existence and many workers in this sector are underemployed, which means that they do not earn enough in their job to make a living. This situation contributes to a person taking up multiple jobs at the same time and to the participation of all family members out of economic need. Because of non-existent or inadequate social welfare, workers cannot afford not to work, and so unregulated work becomes a common alternative.

A variety of rural to urban migrant informal sector workers are identified as street vendors, domestic workers, own-account workers, casuals, micro-entrepreneurs, workers who earn less than a certain minimum income, urban marginals, etc.. Some researchers have suggested that informalization refers to (a) the status of labour (undeclared, without social benefits, paid under minimum wage); (b) the conditions of work (hazardous health and safety environments, location of work); and (c) the particular form of the management of the firm (systematic fiscal fraud, unrecorded cash transactions). They have also noted that many informal sector employers have earned incomes above the income levels earned by the workers in the formal economy by accumulating profits through the non-registration of businesses, evasion of taxes and use of undeclared labour, thereby avoiding payments for various social security benefits that cover contingencies like medical care, sickness, maternity, employment injury including occupational diseases, old age and invalidity, death, unemployment, maintenance of children, etc.. No wonder such illegal informal firms are the epitome of all the power and glory of every kind of labour flexibility.

Thousands of such illegal firms super-exploiting migrant labour (employed as contract labour) even to the extent of exposing workers to death through hazardous factory conditions, have proliferated and thrived thanks to official patronage through bribery and lethal indifference in cities such as Delhi. These predatory firms can do anything with labour as they prey and get away scot free, so to say. 

These unregistered units are not necessarily tiny and backyard clandestine set ups; employment size of around 35 workers can be found and they are present in rented buildings in industrial estates such as Okhla Industrial Estate, and do subcontract work for medium sized factories. There is no need for official electrical connection. Factories can run on generators. The neoliberal entrepreneurs here as also the ones in the registered sector do not like any government monitoring of their activities. Factory/labour inspectors can be bribed regularly or these days without a bribe thrashed black and blue enough that they dare not come close to these factories. Bribes reach their homes and the police in time and the bribery costs can be recovered by squeezing the workers. The arrogance of the employers here is reflected in the way they, in their own don-language, brag about the different prices at which different government officials are ready to be bought. 

This neo-libertarian permissiveness of live and let live as part and parcel of the “culture of competitiveness” in “entrepreneurial society” and the attendant predatory labour relations are not confined just to the informal sector enterprises but pervades entire production chains, from bottom to top, and top to bottom, in Delhi NCR and elsewhere in India—production chains that connect and subsume firms of all sizes in the formal and informal sectors.

To take stock, the rural to urban migrant workers, with lack of identity, are predominantly the workforce exploited in legal and illegal factories and they are the worst treated lot among the laboring people.  The most exploited people are those who need trade unionism the most, and this applies to migrant contract workers, but organizing these unorganized workers has not been easy even as the organized working class has ignored and even ill-treated them by and large. Life, thus, is indeed most unfair to migrant (contract) workers. Unless industry-wide unionism emerges in place of enterprise unionism or no unionism at all, the current dismal realities are not going to change for the better.

The size of the firm does not make a difference to the nature and character of labour relations on the above lines. This is a hypothesis for further research, a robust hypothesis that has emerged out of my own fieldwork with auto firms in Delhi NCR. Find out if there is any exemplary reality other than this generalized employer behavior in big, medium, small and tiny units in legal and illegal industrial landscapes of India as “industrial republics of fear and super-exploitation”. This low-road employer behavior has been blatantly aided by cannibalistic state machinery as the state has changed  from being a ‘welfare state’ to being a ‘warfare state’ against the working people almost everywhere in the world. 

This is not all. Claims to high-road business modernity are even more hideous.  The examination of how modern business management practices in terms of Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management can be used to control and exploit migrant labour for profit seeking reveals a striking parallel with the business history of profit seeking through controlling commoditized plantation slavery for productivity advantage. Economic growth obtained through profit seeking innovations in these ways in the present and the past has never been without injustice and violence inside and outside workplaces (Rosenthal, 2018a). Modern technologies can be combined with uneducated migrant workforce under a master-slave management regime to produce high quality goods and services at competitive costs. If you read Harvard Business Review that celebrates management, you will miss these truths.  Instead you must read New York Times (2019) apart from Rosenthal (2018b). This will be a springboard for you to do a reality check of the fashionable theories of Human Resource Management that are integral to modern management education. You will surely debunk these theories as you notice the migrants as part and parcel of the disposable jobs regimes of even the most modern factories!

In sum, brutally exploited migrants make economies tick everywhere and as Aajeevika Bureau points out, in India, “The contribution of migrant workers to national income is enormous but there is little done in return for their security and well-being.”

Sources: Aajeevika Bureau. 2014. Labour and Migration in India. http://www.aajeevika.org/labour-and-migration.

Bose, Annavajhula J.C. 2018. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Contemporary Labour Relations. Blue Rose Publishers. New Delhi.

Narain, Sunita. 2020. Covid-19 Has Made the Invisible Visible. DownToEarth. May 4.

New York Times. 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/19/magazine/history-slavery-smithsonian.html

Rosenthal, Caitlin C. 2018a. How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management. Boston Review. August 20.

Rosenthal, Caitlin. 2018b. Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. Harvard University Press.

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