The Republic of Exploitation

On this Republic Day, while armoured tanks muscle across Rajpath in New Delhi, little ossified museums of culture called tableaux charm the assembled pass-holding citizenry and the Prime Minister sits like a barely-sentient caricature of himself behind a bullet-proof screen, it may do well to think about the other republic that remains hidden within the bosom of Superpower India – the republic of unfree labour.

This is a world where the laws of the upside world are inverted – where the more you work, the less you are paid, the more your company profits, the poorer you end up and if you find yourself the victim of an injustice and god forbid complain about it, the police put your family in jail. It’s a great irony of our times that we believe the choice before us is between loving the Nation and loving the Corporation, not realising that most of the time its the same person wearing two grotesque masks.  All those who believe that the world begins with their newspapers and television sets and ends at their white picket fences (and all those who don’t), please take a minute to go through the excellent documentation of the war that is raging for workers in this country, put together by the Gurgaon Workers’ Solidarity Group, the Faridabad Mazdoor Sangathan and several other exemplary organisations.

GurgaonWorkersNews – Newsletter 35 (February 2011)

Gurgaon in Haryana is presented as the shining India, a symbol of capitalist success promising a better life for everyone behind the gateway of development. At a first glance the office towers and shopping malls reflect this chimera and even the facades of the garment factories look like three star hotels. Behind the facade, behind the factory walls and in the side streets of the industrial areas thousands of workers keep the rat-race going, producing cars and scooters for the middle-classes which end up in the traffic jam on the new highway between Delhi and Gurgaon. Thousands of young proletarianised middle class people lose time, energy and academic aspirations on night-shifts in call centres, selling loan schemes to working-class people in the US or pre-paid electricity schemes to the poor in the UK. Next door, thousands of rural-migrant workers up-rooted by the rural crisis stitch and sew for export, competing with their angry brothers and sisters
in Bangladesh or Vietnam. And the rat-race will not stop; on the outskirts of Gurgaon, new industrial zones turn soil into over-capacities. The following newsletter documents some of the developments in and around this miserable boom region. If you want to know more about working and struggling in Gurgaon, if you want more info about or even contribute to this project, please do so via:

In the February 2011 issue you can find:

1) Proletarian Experiences –
Daily life stories and reports from a workers’ perspective

*** From Supply-Chains to Radical-Chains: Reports from Local Automobile Workers –
While workers in the global north are with their backs to the wall of crisis – see current dispute at FIAT Mirafiori – the automobile workers in the global south suffer for a pathetic ‘boom’. We document 17 short reports from automobile workers, employed up and down the Delhi supply-chain: from work-shops with a couple of machines and half a dozen (child) labourers to the first-tier suppliers and the assembly plants employing thousands. The wildcat strike at central assembly plant of Honda HMSI on 17th of December 2010 has demonstrated that ‘labour costs’ are not a mere figure in the overall calculation, but an angry soul in a heartless machinery. Any revolutionary effort has to aim at turning the supply-chain into the radical chains, which we will have to lose: re-composing working class from the assembling centres to the labour intensive peripheries.

***  The Empire’s New Clothes: Reports from Local Textile Workers –
Several reports from garment workers in Gurgaon, among others from Modelama, a main factory manufacturing for GAP. “We have started working yesterday, on 27th of November 2010 at 9 am. Some of the guys are still working now, 28th of November at 4 pm, they will go home at 8 pm – after a 35 hours shift. It is ‘urgent shipment’ time and the master said at about 1:30 am last night that ‘crores of Rupees could be lost’, if we don’t meet the deadline. The guys on piece rate work very fast, the company now asks the same output from the workers on monthly wages. There is a chain system (several workers work on one piece of garment in division of labour) even for the piece rate workers. Instead of full piece rate (payment for one piece which is the same for all workers), they have part rate (people are paid different rates, e.g. for sewing a collar, a sleeves etc.), which makes it more difficult for workers to link up for higher rates.”

*** Turning a Blind Tired Eye: Security Guards from Gurgaon –
There are tens of thousand security guards employed in Gurgaon. There is security technology and double-locked architecture, there is a system of supervision, but the system is fragile in it’s inner self. Those who are supposed to supervise and secure are too precarious to care. From a conversation: “We are watch men. Our job is – in case of fire – to watch the factory burn. It is not our job to douse the flames. Our job is to guard the ashes, once the factory has burnt down. If someone asks about the whereabouts of the company, we have to provide information: this is where the factory used to stand, it has gone to ashes. This is our job, nothing more. It is our job to guard the factory, not to save it. We don’t manage to save ourselves, how are we supposed to save the factory.”

*** Death of a Worker: Work Kills At Modelama Textile Factory –
On 16th of January, at about 3 am in the morning, a garment worker at Modelama company (supplier for GAP, Marks and Spencer etc.) was killed – he died of electrocution due to a faulty machine. Workers expressed anger and solidarity – the factory is against life and the living.

2) Collective Action –
Reports on proletarian struggles in the area

*** After the Wildcat: Another Report by Honda HMSI Worker –
The short wildcat strike at Honda HMSI on 17th of December 2010 was a spark on a wider background: be it temporary workers at Hyundai in South Korea, Honda supplying workers in China or Mexico or Nokia workers in Chennai – the unrest of casualised workers at the southern global workbench increases. We first document a report by a Honda HMSI temporary assembly line worker who took part in the strike; we then have a short look at recent international conflicts which bear an systemic semblance to the Honda Gurgaon strike and conclude with some preliminary thoughts on ‘What could be done?’ on an immediate and local level.

*** Step Across the Border: Lakhani Workers in Faridabad and in Uttaranchal –
We translated reports from Lakhani workers in both Faridabad and Uttaranchal. Lakhani is a major company engaged in garments, plastic and rubber manufacturing – from sandals, shoes (AllStars, Puma, Adidas) to car parts. Lakhani has recently opened factories in the state of Uttaranchal, in addition to the long-time established and often conflict ridden factories in Faridabad. In some cases a division of labour and mutual dependency has been created between the two industrial centres. The reports from Uttranchal are translated from the Marxist-Leninist journal Nagrik.

3) About the Project –
Updates on Gurgaon Workers News

*** Past Unrest / Present Tense: Faridabad/Delhi Textile Workers’ Struggle 1979 to 1997 –
For the ongoing quarry work of local working class history we added following material to the website:
/// Notes from a short conversation with a worker formerly employed at Gedore Tools about smuggling rice in Bihar in the late 1960s before coming to Faridabad and getting a factory job; he recalls the 1973 general walk-out and riot at Goodyear plant, the police-raids and proletarian retaliations during the Emergency;
/// An old text on the 1979 Delhi textile workers’ strike; the dispute became the necessary lock-out excuse for sacking 3,000 superfluous workers at East India Cotton, one of Faridabad biggest companies at the time;
/// A long report on the 1988 Delhi ‘unorganised’ workers strike, by Indrani Mazumdar;
/// Several articles from Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar covering the restructuring process at East India Cotton from 1989 to 1997

*** Delhi’s Calling: Take Part in Faridabad Mazdoor Talmel –
To abolish the global work/war house will take more than informative exercise! If you live in Delhi area, please be welcomed to take part in Faridabad Mazdoor Talmel – a workers’ coordination. We distribute Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar on ten days each month in various industrial areas around Delhi. You can also participate in the workers’ meeting places which have been opened in various workers’ areas. If you are interested, please get in touch. For more background on Faridabad Mazdoor Talmel see:

News from India’s Special Exploitation Zone –

17 thoughts on “The Republic of Exploitation”

  1. What’s the alternative? Shut down the factories? Don’t you think the workers would be even worse off without jobs?

  2. Jhumpa, I agree anybody would be worse off without jobs. I would like to know who creates the choice between no job and bad job, or let’s say, job in factory vs. being a farmer. You will say farm work is horribly exploitative too, because conditions in agriculture are terrible. I will then ask how come agriculture is in such a state? All I’m saying is conditions (whether factory or farm) do not simply arise overnight. They are put into place by human beings. And workers can, and often have successfully challenged those conditions, or we wouldn’t have laws like the Minimum Wages Act or the 8-hour day. We all need to ask what chain of decisions leads to such exploitative conditions being created, from top (Parliament) to bottom (shopfloor). And now they’re saying in many states that workers can’t even unionise! We the ruling elites want to have our cake and not pay for it too.

  3. In India, unionisation has helped only a miniscule number of workers in the organised sector. It has achieved nothing for the unorganised sector which consists the vast majority of Indian workers. And because of the really restrictive labour laws (related to hiring and firing), many industries have mechanised instead of employing labour. It would be better for everyone concerned if employers had more flexibility to hire and fire, pay market determined wages while workers would benefit because more of them would get employed and come into the ambit of organised labour (which entails more benefits). This would also ensure more bargaining power for the labourers, which would help them negotiate better deals with the employers. I hope you do realise that workers need the jobs as much as (if not more) the employers need the workers.

  4. Jhumpa,
    All the things you are saying are the standard, uninterrogated fare dished out by zealous economist and neo-liberal reformers.They seemed to make some sense in the early 1990s when we had not yet seen this so-called panacea work themselves out – at least in India. Close observers would have told you even then that this was nonsense. Hire and fire and so-called free-market wages have no where led to the increase in wages or improvement of workers’ conditions. These proposals are in fact the mirror image of what you criticize. If unionism of certain kinds has led to extreme inflexibility and been harmful in terms of freezing workers’ own development, the statement you make above is just too sweeping. Unionism alone can ensure better bargaining power for workers but it need not be only of the kind that you talk of. Surely, it is time to gather more textured evidence than just fall for either of the ready-made panaceas presented to us by ideologues of different hues.

  5. Jhumpa, I hope you realise you are contradicting yourself. You say unionisation has helped only a miniscule number of workers – those who are in the organised sector. Yet you say one should encourage hire and fire, which would apparently bring more workers into the organised sector. Even if we accept for a moment that this is true, then once they come into the organised sector would they not resort to unionisation to improve their conditions? But unionisation is no good according to you, since unionisation would oppose hire and fire. If there is hire and fire, wages can be set by employers, which in a labour excess economy like India can only mean flouting minimum wage acts left right and centre. Wow, I get it. You want workers to enter Bluebeard’s castle, and sit there prettily like his new brides, waiting to be fed or executed depending on his fancy, all the time considering themselves lucky they aren’t outside in the fields and forests..

  6. Err no I am not contradicting myself. The restrictive labour laws has ensured that the jobs of about 2-3% of “organised” labour is protected, leaving out 98% of workers in the unorganised sector. The reason is industries which could have used the surplus labour available have mechanised because they would not be able to make any profit (this is a fact not theory). A country can get out of poverty if there is job creation, which can happen if you allow entrepreneurs to flourish. And they will not start businesses unless they can make profits. Forcing them to pay wages disproportionate to what the market determines, forcing them to keep on employees whether they are performing or not is going to ensure that businesses don’t start (or will shut down because they will make losses) which in turn ensures that jobs are not created and people do not come out of poverty! That’s the bottomline. All the developed western countries have legislated labour laws much after industrialisation and anyways their laws are hardly as restrictive as India’s laws. Do you want India to follow the failed economic models of Communist countries such as Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea or do you want India to be really economically developed like the US?

    1. As per the latest economic report….China is likely to overtake US soon (size of GDP).

  7. Jhumpa, I do wonder where you’re getting your information from; certainly not from the ground. Let me quote a readers’ response to the first article you quoted by Kaushik Basu, which in fact states my case better than I can…”It seems Kaushik Basu does not have any familiarity with how things are done in India. These days, in India, 88% of the manufacturing takes place in the informal sector. Run on the basis of caste and kinship or village ties, this sector is hardly influenced by legal reforms. Multinational and big businesses outsource their operations to the informal sector, which flouts all regulations, environmental or labour to keep the cost of production low. Basu must come down from his academic ivory tower to take note of the ground reality.”
    Sarasij Majumder, United States

    Another reader writes, “I look forward eagerly to Prof. Basu’s advocacy of the repeal of laws against slavery, and accompanying explanation of how slavery is actually in the best interests of the slaves.”
    Nick, Scotland

    Ok, even if I agree for a moment that India has some of the most rigid labour laws in the world (a ‘fact’ that can be easily disputed, given say the Indian government’s reluctance to sign the Dunkel Draft and the GATT) the more relevant fact is that firms in India do not particularly care about laws on paper. In practice, liberalisation has meant the proliferation of the informal sector and subcontracting, an area which is bound by no rules and laws, except the law of the jungle. Most companies now have labour contractors who bring in and fire labour keeping with the elasticity of demand for work. Plus, the reason for mechanisation is not high labour costs – companies welcome mechanisation since machines don’t normally have a tendency to organise for their rights. In reality, ‘permanent’ and ‘non-permanent’ mean nothing to the average worker. You know what the pay of a permanent ITI-qualified machine operator in an automobile MNC is? 3,000 rupees per month, which can go up to 6,000 if he/she puts in overtime, something workers don’t have a choice of anyway. If they refuse work on Sundays they can be fired without delay.

    And you know Jhumpa, it’s high time you questioned the idea of a ‘profit’ without which an industry cannot run. How much profit is required to keep a firm in business? Enough for the CEO to buy five houses in the city and travel in a BMW? Or just three houses and a Honda City? What you think is ‘fact’ is in fact full of theory, the first theory being that certain kinds of labour are less ‘valuable’ than others.

    In sum, you want the formalisation of the highly exploitative economic system so that what employers are doing clandestinely can be legalised. For somebody who is so familiar with economics, please tell me where in the absence of education and training, can the supply glut in the Indian labour market work to the worker’s advantage. Demand and supply, first rule of microeconomics. But wait, the pro-liberalisation walas will not allow the government to invest in infrastructure and social security either, because apparently that too should be left to the market. So basically, we should allow the subsistence level employment of millions of semi and unskilled labour for hundreds of years, until the market corrects itself. No thank you, really. We’ll fight for what income and dignity we can get, now.

  8. The reason contract jobs have increased after liberalisation is because jobs per se in the private sector have increased! Pre-liberalisation, there were hardly any private jobs to speak of. It was primarily government jobs. If you allow more job creation the workers would have more choice increasing their chance of getting better pay. However, if you stifle the sector but want high salaries for whatever few workers are employed you would be back to the pre-liberalisation period of low job creation and high unemployment. On how much profit should be allowed: The primary responsibility of a company is to make profit for its shareholders! That’s how success of a company is measured. Why should the government be dictating how much profit a company should make or what salaries should be given to any of the employees, including the CEO?? It has absolutely no business doing so. No one has objection to the government spending on education, public health etc. However, the government has been spending tax payers money on scheme after scheme from 1950 onwards! Has it really been successful in either providing primary education or public health?? Whatever success has come has mostly been from the private sector. Given a choice, every parent wants to send his kid to a private school even if government schools are free. Have you ever asked why that is so? Let me ask you, have you studied in a government school or a private school? Do your children go to a government school? Do you go to a government hospital or a private hospital when ill? I personally would go with Kaushik Basu’s assessments given his credentials rather than Sarasij Mazumdar, United States and Nick, Scotland. Can you please give me one example of a country which has really prospered even after following Communist ideology and no China is for all practical purposes a capitalist country economically-:)

  9. It would indeed have been non-controversial, had Kaushik Basu been cited in an argument for labour law reform. But he was cited in an argument for doing away with labour laws altogether, an argument for no government, an argument for no regulation. As it happens, the argument itself comes in the wake of years of experience where regulation merely served to line the pockets of men in charge of regulation and gave no substantial benefits for millions of workers. Sure, both employers and employees suffered because of this, but that does not mean that they should be in agreement on how to dismantle the older regimes and construct new ones. This is because, the workers did not merely suffer the consequences of what regulation did to employers. They suffered from bad regulation directly. Period. They have an independent stake in how to regulatory regimes should be reworked. Kaushik Basu makes no mention of this. That is why, an argument in which employees are told to keep quiet and wait for the goodies could so smoothly cite him. And now it seems to cause surprise that people think that is unfair. The truth is, denying an independent stake to employees in reregulating (reform) is eventually bad even for employers in the long run. The only people who can gain from such a scenario are fly by night operators and speculative investors.

  10. The debate has of course, inevitably moved once again into the false choices posed by 20th century economics: either state regulation or free market. As we have often said in the course on many occasions on Kafila, these choices are false because they simply assume that what has not happened so far, or thought so far cannot in principle happen.

    This is a fallacious argument that is based on the assumption that capital and the private sector can be the only possible employer – everybody else from university teachers to journalists and factory workers must be paid employees of capital. It is based on the assumption that all common property must be relentlessly destroyed and privatized as must be all public property. And once all other forms of ownership are done away with (never through the principles of free market ever, please note!), and everyone is made dependent on the whims of capital, then step in the pious economists to tell us that only capital can save us. Interestingly circular logic, this! It is an argument that is basically premised on the fundamentally unethical idea of privatizing our common heritage. And the discipline of economics is the front paw of this ideological assault of capitalism, especially in its neo-liberal avatar. It is from this supposedly self-evident ‘truth’ that Jhumpa’s comments in particular spin this yarn about the improvement of the workers’ conditions. It is this that is now increasingly being challenged and is urgently in need of being challenged. Simply because alternative forms of ownership have not been thought through and economics and dominant currents of marxism have colluded to put in place the fiction of productivism, it does not follow that no other form is possible.

    But there is another, more compelling reason, why the choices imposed by the 20th century are completely obsolete today – a reason that the creatures of 19th and 20th century economics like Kaushik Basu and Bibek Debroy can hardly understand. This is the overall scenario of climate change and the impending ecological catastrophe that confronts us today, which simply does not allow any possibility of the predatory exploitation of nature (as resources) for fuelling the chimera of 10 percent (or whatever) growth rate. Our overheated planet cannot be subordinated any more, to the greed of capital, in whatever name. In fact, capital has to be made to pay for not just its own free lunches (which it accuses workers of demanding) but of the endless, long, free party it has had for the last two hundred years. Only when the hidden costs are revealed will we be able to see that capitalist systems are not in fact more profitable in comparison to the ‘suboptimal’ peasant economies of the global south, for example. After all, capital and its apologists themselves acknowledge the ‘profit squeeze’ that simply paying decent wages imposes on them. Once ecological costs are imposed they cannot even bear to remain in the US or Europe – they must immediately head for the poorer countries where simply because they get access to cheap labour and can loot ecological resources for free!
    Only when corporations are made to pay for everything from polluted air and water to the depleted stock of ‘natural resources’ and proper wages, will it become possible to even properly pose the question that is sought to be so easily passed off by the likes of some of the commentators here.

  11. Aditya, wow, thank you! I enjoyed reading Sunalini’s article, as her earlier ones too. Always nice to see people writing with a fire in their belly, all the more so when there’s so much by way of entertainment to douse it!

    I was somewhat disturbed to hear the tenor of the comments that followed, and was getting properly riled up. I think you said it all!

    “The overall scenario of climate change and the impending ecological catastrophe that confronts us today, which simply does not allow any possibility of the predatory exploitation of nature (as resources) for fuelling the chimera of 10 percent (or whatever) growth rate. Our overheated planet cannot be subordinated any more, to the greed of capital, in whatever name”.

    Good for you and thanks again! Now perhaps to that new paradigm we (and Mother Earth) need so desperately!

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