Author : Bint Arshad
Author : Archana Aggarwal

Title : Labouring Lives : Industry & Informality in New India

Populist discourses on economic development are often unwilling to move past the “development from above” paradigm. Especially in the run-up to general elections, grandiose government banners, staggering data figures, and impressive reports of how the incumbent government’s policies have been a boon to the country’s economy become a recurring tableau.

Under the dark shadow of this blitzkrieg is the reality of Labouring Lives, the workers themselves, upon whose labour those grand promises of development are predicated.

A vastly ignored topic in mainstream economics is how labour/production reforms adversely affect workers’ rights. Workers bear the brunt of the consequences of flexibilisation and informalisation of labour in the quest for development in the neoliberal model. The author provides several instances throughout the book that give teeth to this contention.

The first chapter, Imagined Futures, begins by giving the readers an overview of how the different sectors of the Indian economy gradually transformed. Initially, being primarily agriculture-driven, the Indian economy then expanded to manufacturing and services sectors. Compared to other world economies, however, India bucked the global trend. The manufacturing and service sectors did not absorb most people who moved out of agriculture. The author summarises various explanations for this phenomenon: how India’s economic development shifted from being state-led to market-driven and how, in the process, the workforce moving out of agriculture got absorbed in the unorganised sector rather than in factories. The author highlights how the ‘labour flexibility’ approach, vociferously advocated for in the wake of LPG reforms, is often just code for dilution of workers’ rights and makes labour a “disposable entity”.

The next chapter, Locating Labouring Lives, tells us how Manesar and Gurgaon, a town and a village, both became global manufacturing hubs. The book focuses on the two main industries in India’s manufacturing sector: garments and automobiles. The author takes us through the world of work in those sectors via the lived experiences of the workers in those factories, their aspirations, their struggles, and descriptions of their workplaces and living conditions.

There is mention of how women’s work, for instance, in the garment sector like embroidery, putting sequins on clothes, etc., is seen as something that can be done between household chores and is a source of supplementing household incomes. Is this a devaluation of women’s labour or is it more complex than that? It discusses in detail how certain methods of labour management, such as the chain system of assembly line, led to garment workers becoming easily replaceable.

The third chapter, Indignity of Labour, discusses the most crucial aspect of being a worker, i.e. the wages they receive. It highlights the disproportionality of how much they get paid compared to the amount of effort they put in and if that money is enough to live a good life. It shows how workers, like trained artisans and skilled tailors in the clothing industry, barely earn enough money to get by. Even in industries like automobile manufacturing, where workers are seen as more successful, many struggle with low-paying jobs and unsure futures, despite their hard work helping the companies make immense profits.

Chapter four, Stop Clocks and Unending Days: The Real Cost-Cutting on Workers’ Lives, delves into what working in factories and workshops is like. It shows how workers don’t have much free time or safety and how they’re deprived of spending time with their families, which, the author emphasises, is a constant theme.

Chapter five, From Protecting to Disciplining Labour: A Short History of Labour Lives, talks about how governments have tried to protect workers from unfair treatment by employers at different times throughout the history of post-independent India. It also explains why these protections diluted over time, leading to more flexible job markets. This flexibility affects how workers live and work.

The final chapter, Looking Ahead, spotlights how the current way industries are growing won’t improve life for most people. So, how can we improve living standards for everyone? The chapter suggests some solutions, but they require a fundamental change in how we see and treat workers. It suggests that we shouldn’t let markets decide everything about jobs, pay, and working conditions.

Two additional annexures at the end of the book give short explanations of ideas from the chapters and some tables with data to support the book’s arguments. Those who have an academic interest in this field might find it useful.

Given the dearth of workers’ lived experiences and perspectives in the literature on economic development, this book plays an important role in covering this gap and spotlights questions and concerns about workers’ rights and the future of work in India.

The unique challenges women workers face (although not specifically addressed in the book) are an important concern that emerges from the questions the author raises.

The lurking anxiety of sexual harassment and violence?

How do women workers, often the primary breadwinners of their families, make do with the inadequate wages? How do they navigate adverse workplace conditions/hostile/unsanitary/health hazardous workplaces?
Most importantly, who advocates for them? Are their concerns considered at the policy tables, let alone being prioritised?

The book’s uniqueness lies in the fact that, despite dealing with a topic that general audiences might find “dry”, it manages to keep the reader engaged through simple language, lucid explanation, and the incorporation of lived experiences of the subjects themselves, i.e. workers.

It compels us to realise the urgency of transforming the existing framework, in which markets are the sole determinants of employment, livelihoods, and working conditions, which inevitably dehumanises workers, towards a more equitable, egalitarian future of work for workers.


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