Migrant worker crisis: Why trade unions are missing in India’s informal sector

If the workers were organised into trade unions, union leaders could have met them, provided food and ensured future employment, and they would have stayed back.
Migrant worker crisis: Why trade unions are missing in India’s informal sector
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The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a grave humanitarian crisis in India. Apart from the public health challenges, the nationwide lockdown has led to the mass exodus of workers from big cities to their faraway villages, risking lives. The harrowing pictures of their hardships still haunt our collective imagination and pose serious questions about how justice is delivered in a democracy. Since the lockdown was announced hastily, thousands of migrant workers were stranded on the streets without food, shelter and money. As a result, many of them died on the roads, under the trains, and the trees. We witnessed the largest human exodus after the partition of the country. Undoubtedly, it was one of the gravest political tragedies that independent India faced.

The systematic assault on informal workers is not a new phenomenon in India. Ever since the waves of neoliberalism began to transform the structure of labour and capital in the country, there have been deliberate attempts to disempower the working class and strip their freedom and dignity. There were continuous efforts from the state to weaken collective bargaining and attack any feeble attempt to articulate their legitimate rights. On the one hand, the state often supported the employers to silence all forms of workers’ democratic resistance, using force and fear. On the other hand, the state always proposed the most inhuman and least empathetic labour policies, rejecting the provision of basic social safety nets to millions of workers. Over the years, this has created an ocean of workers living on basic minimum wage, deprived of freedom, dignity and security. Until the mass exodus of the migrant workers shook the world, our mainstream media, civil society and political parties were evasively silent on the existence of our informal sector workers as a political class.

Why trade unions are unable to represent migrant workers

The fundamental factor behind the ‘silence’ is the helplessness of these workers to assert themselves as an organised political and economic force. Migrant workers were always out of the trade union landscape. There was hardly any trade union to articulate and represent the legitimate rights of the migrant workers. Hence, our workers’ enduring dilemma raises pertinent questions about the ‘realistic capability’ of the trade unions in deepening their sphere of influence among the vast majority of informal workers in the country.

What happened to our trade unions? Why are the trade unions unable to organise the millions of toiling workers? Why are the unions still ‘missing’ from the scene when most of the workers are bereft of leadership? It is easy to blame the unions for their callousness. But, answers to these questions will undoubtedly reveal the structural complexities that the Indian informal sector faces. In other words, the exploitative structure of the Indian labour market is mainly responsible for the disempowerment of trade unions in the country.

India has a large informal economy. The informal or unorganised sector constitutes approximately 96% of the total workforce in the country. These workers include agricultural labourers, street vendors, home-based workers, construction workers, daily wage labourers, etc. Most of them are migrant workers who left their home state in search of regular income and jobs. In terms of GDP, the informal economy accounts for roughly half of the country’s total GDP. Yet, they are primarily unorganised, and often work within an unequal power relationship characterised by sheer exploitation and oppression. The informal workers are far beyond the reach of our labour laws, regulations and social protection mechanisms.

Number of labour unions falling

Although the trade unions in the country often boast of their numerical strength, in effect union membership in India has been witnessing a declining trend for the last two decades. According to the latest estimates of the National Labour Bureau (2016), the total number of registered labour unions in India in 1999 was 64,847. However, by the end of 2016, the number of trade unions has reduced to 12,392. When we analyse the trend, it is evident that a drastic decline in the registration of trade unions and the disappearance of the existing unions began in 2009. Similarly, there were 6.4 million workers who took membership in trade unions in 1999. This has become 8.9 million in 2016. But there is nothing to celebrate in this number. It hardly represents the Indian working class because the total number of workers in India is a huge ‘487 million’! It is quite surprising that only 1.87% of the Indian workforce is organised into different trade unions. Indeed, it is a bafflingly complicated situation. The vast majority of our workers are totally excluded from the organised trade union landscape.

The National Labour Bureau’s report further reflects that 60% of the union members represent the formal sector with a predominance of public sector employees. Hence, only 40% of the trade union members belong to the informal sector, which constitutes 93% of the workforce. In other words, while the total number of informal sector workers is approximately 450 million (as per the government estimates), only 3.5 million workers are organised into different trade unions. This implies that trade union penetration is only up to 0.77% of these workers. Here also, construction, agriculture and transport sectors account for the majority of the workers. The trade union penetration into other industries is limited.

More importantly, the trade union density in India also reflects wider regional disparity. For example, 33.7% of the trade union members in the whole country are from one state: Kerala. This is followed by Assam, which represents 20.6% of the total membership of the unions. Further, 17.26% of the workers are from Uttar Pradesh. Surprisingly, the trade union penetration in Gujarat is only 2% despite the high concentration of industrial and manufacturing units in the state. Data from other industrialised states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are not available. However, it is evident that trade unions are losing their grip over workers in most Indian states except Kerala. In the context of the recent move towards relaxation in labour laws, the future of trade unions seems terribly bleak. The real tragedy is the inability of the trade union leadership in India to acknowledge the depth of the crisis that they are facing.

This astonishingly low level of union penetration in the informal sector is one of the underlying reasons for the deep emotional violence that the migrant workers had to undergo during the lockdown. During this period, the migrant workers required emotional and financial support. If they were organised into trade unions, this exodus wouldn’t have happened. If the union leaders could meet the workers, provide food and ensure future employment, they would have stayed back. The civil society offered them sympathy, and sometimes packets of food. That was far short of a guarantee about their uncertain future. They were searching for reassuring voices of solidarity and empathy from employers, trade unions, state and civil society. They were silently requesting justice. Unfortunately, we failed to acknowledge the problem as a denial of justice. Instead, our collective imagination perceived it as an ‘interim problem’ that can be addressed through immediate ‘cash-transfer’ or free ration. We refused to identify the state’s continuous efforts to de-politicise and de-class them. Thus, sadly, the bargaining power of the working class crumbled beyond repair.

How trade unions started to decline

The disempowerment and de-politicisation of the workers date back to the post-reform era. Since liberalisation, governments have built up convincing narratives about the positive relationship between trade unionism and low level of investment in India. Trade unions were often perceived as the ‘real villains’ that obstruct India’s march towards rapid economic growth. Although there was no substantial evidence about the direct linkage between trade union membership and lower productivity, the ‘carefully planted narratives’ unleashed apathy towards unions. The public perception of trade unions as a ‘reactionary element’ is mainly responsible for the declining trend in the number of trade unions.

Secondly, the state wholeheartedly supported employers through a series of reforms that further weakened the bargaining power of labour. The employers began to hire workers through multiple layers of contractors for a limited period. This practice has ended the direct relationship between employers and employees, cleverly shifting the employer’s accountability to the contractors. The workers are often retrenched. Since the workers are brought by contractors from far away villages, they do not enjoy the freedom to choose their employment or relinquish the job whenever desired. When the states encouraged SEZs, labour laws were not recognised and respected in these SEZs. The basic labour laws related to minimum wage, maternity benefits, bonus and freedom to form unions were blatantly violated in the SEZs. The workers who joined unions were dismissed in many places. The ‘temporary’ nature of employment that was deliberately practised by the employers posed serious challenges to trade union organising. As a result, an ‘ecosystem of oppression’ characterised by low wages, long working hours and denial of fundamental rights emerged within the Indian labour sphere. The systematic effort to uproot trade unions over the years further strengthened this exploitative ecosystem, making the workers more vulnerable under capital.

Before the lockdown, I visited many construction sites in the suburbs of different cities in the country. The precarious nature of their employment was clearly visible. In the road construction sector, the contractors bring the workers from far away villages. Sometimes, they are forced to work for 12 to 13 hours without any overtime wages. This practice is non-voluntary overtime. Working conditions related to their job is miserable. They leave their families in their home villages and spend much of their income to support their families. The workers live in crowded, makeshift neighbourhoods outside the site, seven to eight workers sharing each small rented room. The contractor can dismiss the workers anytime and recruit new workers. This happens very often. If the workers complain about the wages or protest against harassment, it will result in them losing their job. The percentage of permanent workers is always less than 5%. Therefore, the union can’t organise them due to the temporary nature of the job.

Although India’s constitution recognises the right to form associations and unions as a fundamental right, this is absolutely denied in the informal sector. In many sectors, trade unions are not recognised, and efforts to organise workers into unions were met with blackmail, apathy, fabricated cases, suspension, dismissal, social exclusion of workers and direct physical assault. The union leaders are not respected, and they often feel humiliated when they try to intervene in labour right violations practised by the companies. One can clearly understand that the employers amassed wealth over the deep emotions, vulnerabilities, sweat, tears and lives of thousands of poor workers. Many of our corporate giants emerged as ‘business conglomerates’ through the unscrupulous exploitation of human labour and ruthless silencing of trade union movements.

“Who will take the risk of their life and job to join the union? If you’re forced to select an option between job and trade union, which one would you select? So, this is not the fault of the workers or the weakness of the unions. It shows the power that capital exercises within our political and law enforcement system,” a senior trade union leader said.

Now, the mass exodus of migrant workers has reactivated the discussion on the potential role of trade unions in the post-COVID era.  Even trade unions themselves have realised their limitations and expressed their willingness to adopt new strategies to deepen their constituency among millions of informal workers.

There are some silver linings as well. Earlier, it was difficult to cultivate the spirit of collective bargaining and class consciousness among the workers. After the prolonged hardships, the workers are in an enlightened position to understand their precarious condition. They are conscious of the ‘exploitative spider web’ created by predatory capitalism. Now, most of them are aware of the importance of breaking this powerful web around them. They have also realised that without the backing of massive ‘organisational strength,’ the institutional and political system will not act in their favour.

Hence, this is a period of retrospection for the trade unions in India. The pervasive influence of employers can end only through the centrality of collective bargaining. The pandemic crisis necessitates the need for solidarity among the working class. A revival of trade unions, focusing on new strategies that can fully adapt to the dynamics of India’s informal economy, is vital for building up this solidarity. 

Sudha Menon works as a Senior Labour Research Consultant for the South Asian region at Profundo, a Netherlands-based international labour research and consultancy firm.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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