The spectacle of millions of migrant workers locked in their densely packed shantytowns and desperately seeking to escape their lockdown confinement should be the stuff to catalyse revolutions. But it has got scarce attention, not only from our sensation-prone media, but also from the government and the political class in general. In another day and age, the fighters for social justice and the purveyors of class war would have leapt into the fray. Let alone Mahatma Gandhi, they have even forgotten Mao Zedong. Imagine what a Jayaprakash Narayan or a Ram Manohar Lohia would have done in a similar situation?
Sometime in early 2000 I accompanied former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to Khammam in Telangana, where he was the chief guest at a rally of farm workers organized by the Communist Party of India (CPI). Khammam was once the epicentre of the “Telangana Peasants Armed Struggle” (1946-51). Khammam continued to be a red bastion till well into the 1970s. It was a fairly large rally and the audience sat under the noonday sun with stoicism, which is still the hallmark of our informal workers.
The then CPI general secretary, the late A.B. Bardhan, rode back with us to Hyderabad, during which I asked him as to why was the CPI unable to organise the farm and informal sector workers nationally? Bardhan candidly replied that Communist organisers, both in the CPI and the CPI(M), were more interested in organised sector trade unionism for the usual reasons. It was much easier and often far more lucrative.
The working class is nothing without the unorganised workers. In 2019, there were around 510 million workers in India, and of these over 94 per cent (or about 494 million) work at small and individually owned enterprises, ranging from pushcart vendors, home-based diamond polishers, weavers, artisans and construction labourers.
In 2018, the organised sector in all employed about 30 million workers, of which about 23 million worked for the government or government-owned entities. The other seven million were employed by India’s organised sector, where all the trade unionism is concentrated; with the trade unions affiliated to all our political parties fiercely competing for membership and a lucrative revenue stream.
Most of our unionised workforce are middle and upper middle class but have typically arrogated the right to be deemed working class. “Working class” is a socio-economic term used to describe persons in a social class marked by jobs that provide low pay, require limited skills, or physical labour.
This is not so in India any longer, where aggressive trade unionism, coercive collective bargaining and a soft state have resulted in a well-to-do enclave that guarantees lifetime employment and extra-legal benefits such as compulsory minimum bonus, and often with even guaranteed employment for a son or daughter. This sense of security has foisted a degree of indiscipline and a culture of low productivity on the shop floor and office space. This makes organised labour generally high cost and low productivity.
The invulnerability of this “working class” to economic reality has disincentivised industrial expansion and promoted the mushrooming of contract manufacturing, and even flight of capital overseas. It doesn’t take much to form a trade union. In factories with up to 70 workers, seven workers can form a trade union, and in factories with more than 70 workers, at least 10 per cent of workers can file an application to form a trade union. The concentration of the SMEs is hence to keep employment below this level.
Of workers in the unorganised sector, about 270 million are agricultural workers, with the rest -- 220 million -- are in services, construction, and small factories and workshops. After the lockdown, the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) estimated that 122 million of these have since lost their jobs. Of these, 91.3 million were small traders and labourers. Within the non-agricultural labour cohort, it is estimated that almost 100 million are migrant workers. It is estimated that internal remittances by these migrant workers are in excess of Rs 2 lakh crores each year.
The lockdown has brought into focus the plight of these migrant workers. Paradoxically, the migrant labour force operates in a perfect market with wages determined by the law of supply and demand. In a country where anywhere between six to 10 million people enter the working age cohort every year, supply is never a problem and helps to depress wages. Besides fending for themselves, what little the labourers have left goes home to sustain their families in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and of late even as far as Assam and the rest of the Northeast. There can be little money left over for the professional trade unionisers.
Besides, most of them are beholden to labour contractors who have the power to pick and choose from among them. It is also common for them to be bonded to these contractors for money they may have borrowed in the villages. Is it therefore any surprise that no political party jumped into the fray on their behalf when the harshness of the lockdown had descended on them?
Recently a few states, with UP taking the lead, have scrapped the labour laws related to labour unions, settling work disputes, regulations for working conditions, contracts, among others, which shall be suspended for three years in the state under this ordinance. This includes the Minimum Wages Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Equal Remuneration Act, Trade Unions Act, Industrial Employment Act, Industrial Disputes Act and the Factories Act. The UP ordinance includes all existing industries, manufacturing units and even the new ones that are likely to come up in the next few years.
These suspensions have been generally welcomed by businessmen but have come under fire in some other quarters. While it is difficult to shed tears for India’s mollycoddled organised employees, the plight of the migrant workers will only worsen with no legislation to protect them.