Saturday, August 20, 2016

Immanuel Ness on the ‘Super-Exploitation’ of Contractual Workers in India

Immanuel Ness, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, spoke to The Wire on trade unions and labour laws in India, social relations between labour and capital in the global south, merits of spontaneity in workers’ agitations and much more. Ness has studied the working class in India for more than a decade and his observations appear in his book Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class which also has China and South Africa as case studies. The full transcript of the interview is available below the video.

Akhil Kumar: Hello and welcome to this video interview with Immanuel Ness. I am Akhil Kumar from The Wire and today we will discuss trade unions, labour laws, and the concerns of the working class in the global south and India vis-à-vis the developed nations in the West and other places which Immanuel has recently visited for his research. Immanuel Ness is a professor of political science at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. His book, Southern Insurgency: the Coming of the Global Working Class has India as one of the case studies. Welcome, Immanuel. Your research on India has required you to travel across the country a number of times, I’m assuming? Can you begin by commenting on the trade unions in India and the social relations between labour and capital here?

Immanuel Ness: Yes, I think it is well known that the trade unions have declined dramatically over the last 20-30 years since liberalisation took place. The original base of the trade unions were in the old import substitution industries and in the public sector and over the period of neo-liberalism that has gained greater force especially now, the capacity for trade unions to represent workers has declined dramatically. As a consequence, we have seen a growth of production for export promotion and also for internal production to a great extent. Much of this is funded by foreign direct investment and through private capital.

There is a very large amount of private capital in this country that pushes forward the kinds of rapacious production and these are the sectors of the workforce that traditional trade unions have had a very hard time organising in general. Many of the workers are contract workers and many of them work at wages that are 1/5th of what full-time workers have and this represents the major contradiction of trade unions in this country. The official unions have not mobilised nor organised members of the contract sector which represents at least 80% of all the workers in this country. That alone is one of the big questions. However, workers are organising themselves as they always do and always will. That’s part of the aspirations of workers that will always happen to a greater or lesser degree.

Over the last several years, I have seen an extensive growth in the level of self-activity amongst the workers and a greater degree of recognition that this sector of the working class in this country, which represents the mass majority of workers, is highly exploited, are living under the most horrendous slums and shanties around and within cities. They represent the major social force for transformation, not just from an economic perspective but also from a more extensive perspective, one that would perhaps change the society into one that is far more representative.

AK: You have studied working-class organisation in a number of countries. Did you notice anything unique during your research that you found in the methods in which the Indian trade unions organise and the Indian working class is putting up a resistance to global capital?
IN: Yes. Picking up on the point I was making earlier, Indian trade unions do not organise the vast majority of workers. They only organise exclusively amongst those workers who are full-time, permanent labourers, who tend to be better off and earn higher wages. They too are exploited but they are not super exploited in the way that contract workers are. So, in my travels around this country over the last decade or more, I found a number of organising campaigns that have been initiated. Most of them had been around issues of full-time workers. There have been some attempts amongst trade union organisations or NGOs to organise contract workers or at least to represent them in some way, but they have not been sustained in any case.

In India, the main contradiction is between contract workers and permanent workers and so you see various efforts amongst permanent members to organise and unions to organise and mobilise workers who are permanent, but efforts are made on the part on unions to organise contract workers to represent the vast majority. That is the major difference of India and other countries around the world where there is trade union competition. For instance, in a case such as South Africa, you have globalisation efforts that run the spectrum. In other words, there are contract workers in South Africa. 

However, you do not have the kinds of separation that are so distinct between permanent and contract workers. One could, for instance, point to cases where union officials will say, “we have been extremely successful in mobilising these Hyundai workers.” When I ask them about the contract workers, they say they do not organise them at all.

I think we should be happy for the kinds of organisations that do take place but I also think that if we really want to be serious about it, it represents a dividing line and further divides the working class in this country. If you are going to only mobilise full-time, permanent workers who are relatively privileged, and not mobilise the vast majority of workers who are far more impoverished, who live under far more difficult, unsanitary conditions without proper housing, and who work in conditions without even a basic wage package or pension. They go to work places where one can hardly breathe, such as Wazirpur.

This is a major issue in this country, and it is not so much in other countries. This is not to say that this is true and other countries do not have struggles. There are very important struggles that are unfolding and there are contradictions in the labour movements that are somewhat similar to India in the sense that the parties that represent trade unions and trade union centers are fraying and losing their commitment rooted in class struggle unionism. This is something that is almost universal, but in India, the major contradiction and division, is the difference between permanent and contract, and it plays itself out in furthering the super exploitation of the labour force of this country.

AK: You mentioned that you found out that the major trade unions are not interested in working with the unorganised sector. Why do you think that is?
IN: I would say that there are many different possibilities and credible arguments that it is not just a willful neglect of the majority of workers in this country. It has much to do with the setup in general that the structural conditions to organise contract workers are so limited that it makes it almost impossible for official trade unions to engage in that kind of activity. I would also say that the capitalist state of India, major corporations and the laws of this country make it almost impossible to organise contract workers. On the one hand, I would argue that the structures of the state that regulate labour and capital relations through labour commissioners and so forth read down negatively to any kind of possibility to organise within the system. The only way to organise is really outside the system and outside the official labour capital setup, as I would put it.

In that way, for instance, one could file a complaint but even those complaints are very difficult to act on and to affect more than several workers at a time. You can have workers struggles that involve more than a few because most workers are not even considered to be permanent. Due to this lack of permanency, if you go to the labour board or the labour commissioner and they will say “where is this worker? He doesn’t work here”. Workers can be fired at any moment and so in some ways, they are not even seen and this contract sector makes it very difficult for official unions to push it forward. 

One can also argue that there is a high level of corruption. In general, it is easy to just organise the permanent sector and with such a large working class in this country, if you are only just organising permanent workers that is a sizable class of workers and so if 20% of the workforce in this country were organised into a militant workforce, able to contract capital, that would be significant. At the same time, one can just imagine if the vast majority of workers, the other 80% or more, could be organised into unions that would create conditions for social transformation.

This is not something individual leaders of these unions want to do or they do not have the capacity to do it and it would take a huge fight against the state to achieve this. As I said a moment ago with respect to South Africa, the struggle in South Africa is unfurling and will continue to because there is a resistance that is developing amongst the working class and it is willing to fight back hard. There are some sectors of the trade union movement there that is willing to fight back to change the system. As we know, the end of apartheid did not bring about the equalisation of wages in any way. It has not provided labour rights in any significant manner, it has not created any kind of economic democracy, it has created more inequality as a consequence of their subservience to the norms of neo-liberal capitalism.

In this country, there is a longer history.. read more: