By B. Sivaraman
The Centre for Sustainable Management of the Azim Premji University, Bangalore has brought out a unique report titled State of Working India 2018, the first of an intended annual series. At first sight, it might look paradoxical and surprising that when we get very little quality research output from thousands of state-run universities and other research centres, a corporate university should take the lead in coming out with an excellent report throwing light on contemporary labour conditions and the state of labour rights.
Especially so, when the nature of work itself is undergoing far-reaching changes and the Modi regime has turned topsy-turvey the hitherto existing 70-year-old Nehruvian industrial relations regime in the country with a spate of labour reforms. This pioneering venture has come as a pleasant surprise, thanks mainly to the professional caliber of the research team the Azim Premji University has put together and the kind of academic autonomy they obviously enjoy.
The 170-page main report might look slim but it is barely a summary of 19 other background research papers commissioned exclusively for this annual summary. These reports range from a detailed study of Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera-Bawal-Tapukara-Neemrana belt to studies on handloom and rural workers in West Bengal, on Bangalore garment workers to Rajasthanquarry workers, and on domestic and craft workers. There is also a very good study on women workers, bringing out the gender bias dimension. Also included are theoretical studies on informalisation, changes in the organised manufacturing, on the unemployment crisis, the relative decline of workers’ share in the total capital outlay, the dominance of small industries structurally and the problems of labour organising in them, the emergence of a skilled labour pool for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and even a policy proposal for green jobs in India.
To cite one example there is very good study of the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera-Bawal-Tapukara-Neemrana industrial belt spread across Haryana and Rajasthan. The authors Amit Akash, an independent researcher and trade union activist, and Nayanjyoti, a PhD research scholar in DU, call this industrial cluster a major destination of capital and a model of integration of Indian economy with the global production networks across a wide spectrum of industries ranging from high-tech IT/ITES to tech-intensive automobile multinationals to labour-intensive garment units. They also add: “But along with industrial growth, this development story has its own underbelly – labour – with crises of jobs, poor working conditions, informalization of regular work, capital-labour conflicts (sometimes of irreconcilable nature) and dismantling of collective bargaining mechanism, pro-capital mediating institutions and labour law enforcement processes”.
Based on primary survey work of qualitative nature of over 6 months from September 2017 to March 2018 with the respondents mainly being workers of different segments of industries and plant-level TU leaders and activists of the belt, the researchers explore the challenges before the collective bargaining mechanism due to structural changes in production and labour process andchanges at the level of policy and institutions. The meticulous and unprecedented case studies are listed in separate sections for Maruti Suzuki Manesar plant, Honda Motorcycles and Scooters plant in Tapukara, Omax Auto and Rico Auto plants in Daruhera, Automax plant in Binola, and four others.
They also trace the history of capital-labour conflict and the consequent restructuring of production and labour process over 2011 to 2018. We get a very rare and minute empirical account of the workplace changes plant by plant in press shop, welding section and assembly line etc., based on which the authors track the changes in the production regime, especially in the labour process, adoption of new technologies and the increasing disposability of workers as a result.
The main report and all the background papers are available freely on the Internet, and the readers should treat them as an integral set as some of the background studies are far richer in data and analysis not all of which could obviously be accommodated in the main report.
Can they sustain and improve upon the high quality research year after year? When queried about this the Chief of the Centre for Sustainable Employment and lead author of the report Prof.Amit Basole admits that it is an onerous challenge. But he is quite hopeful pointing to the high commitment and enthusiasm of a big pool of researchers scattered across numerous research centres, some 30 of whom have already been roped in for the first report.
Any maiden venture is bound to have its gaps. The greater stress on workers’ composition, especially on under-representation of Dalits, tribals and women in the workforce, in the main report, unlike the background papers which devoted greater space for industrial disputes, labour organising and other movemental dimensions, made one wonder whether this centre, like TISS, would emerge as a think tank for corporate NGO and CSR work.
Though a private university, any academic centre might have its limitations in coming out openly against the government policies. Still, absence of any scrutiny of last five years of labour reforms of Modi is a big disappointment. When asked about this, Prof. Amit Basole reassured that they have plans in the coming years to cover these, and greater focus would be there on labour relations and movements. He also hinted that they are timing a shorter 2019 report to come out before elections, which probably would outline the labour agenda, and a more elaborate volume covering these issues has been planned for 2020.
When it was pointed to him that one would have expected a section on IT workers and other tech workers in this report, especially as it was coming from a labour research think tank based in Bangalore, and also an analysis of the distinct category of gig economy, despite its greater focus on informal economy, Mr.Basole lamented the absence of data in both cases but expected to come up with good results in the coming years, as they have commissioned some qualitative case studies.
Similarly, though many grassroots labour activists and local TU leaders like Amit Aakash have been involved in the preparation, formal inputs from the trade unions—which could have documented their thinking and experiences on contemporary challenges, is missing. Mr.Basole again reassured that they would develop a more interactive and productive interface with the organised labour movement.(IPA Service)