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The social and political roots of exploitation in India

What is it that allows severe labour rights abuses to flourish in India? The answer is more complicated than poverty alone.

I'm Ravi Srivastava. I teach development economics in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and I've been working on problems related to labour, labour migration, bonded labour, and forced labour for about four decades.

Neil Howard (oD): Thank you very much Ravi, that makes you particularly well-placed to answer the first question. In your view, what structures are there particularly within Indian society that help perpetuate exploitation? I’m especially curious about how those intersect with global structures of coercive capitalism and nation states.

Ravi: At least during the last four decades, while I've been looking at the situation, there have been forms of unfreedom, forced labour, bonded labour, trafficking etc. This is primarily because the Indian economy has shifted from being more agrarian and rural to more urban. Forms of agrarian bondage have become much less as a result, but forms of non-agrarian bondage in general have increased.

Rice mills, brick kilns, construction, quarries, mines, garments – the forms of recruitment in these and other sectors necessitate bondage or debt bondage. Then, of course, you have a lot of trafficking and other things involving recruitment of workers across state lines, for example for domestic work. Migrant child labour which is involved in a number of sectors, such as embroidery, textiles, cotton seed picking, and so on.

The nature of the problem has changed and this is because the demand for various kinds of unfree labour and cheap labour has also changed. Many of these people are located in the informal sector, and many of these are working within longer value chains. So you must understand, the problem of bonded labour or forced labour has to be located within the nature of the demand for such labour. And the demand for such labour has changed with the nature of the requirement of capital.

Neil (oD): So as capitalism has deepened and neoliberalised the Indian subcontinent over the last many decades, the forms of unfreedom required for labour, if you will, have also changed.

Ravi: Absolutely. We typically think of capitalism, and particularly today's global capitalism, as requiring flexible and in some sense also free labour. But what we find is that capitalism is able to extract more from labour if it is unfree to varying degrees. Unfreedom and flexibility co-exist, going against the classic definition of the kind of labour which capitalism requires.

Neil: So in contrast to the classic liberal and also Marxist understanding of capitalism, actually, what you are saying is that unfreedom can exist within capitalist modes of production.

Ravi: Absolutely. We talk about free labour as being in some sense the requirement of capitalism, but capitalism is able to locate itself much more easily with unfree labour. The nature or form of that unfree labour depends on the way capitalism interacts with local social structures, and how it is able to, for example, make use of child labour, women's labour, or family labour.

Neil (oD): For audiences that are not familiar with the subcontinental context, could you speak a bit more about what these domestic structures look like?

Ravi: Domestic structures are important in the Indian case for two reasons. One, we have a caste structure, and the caste structure means that there's an in-built hierarchy of rights and entitlements. People who are lower in the caste structure are seen as having lower entitlements, lower rights than people who are higher up in the caste structure. Also, women are generally less free, less mobile than men. Now, it is very easy to build a labour structure on the premise of unfree labour if that unfree labour happens to be from lower castes, because automatically they are less visible. And this is how many sectors have evolved.

In some sectors it is much easier to build the labour and recruitment process around families, and to mobilises the whole family for a season with advances or with debt.

Their exploitation, their status of unfreedom is something that has wider social acceptance. It is less questioned. With women, while the movement of single women tends to be more difficult, it becomes easy in certain settings. In some tribal settings, for example, such movement can be negotiated more easily by recruiters. Elsewhere the movement of single women is more of a problem, such as when a labour process involves the composite exploitation of men, women, and children. We see this in brick kilns, quarries, and the construction industry, for example. In such cases it is much easier to build the labour and recruitment process around families, and to mobilises the whole family for a season with advances or with debt.

Neil (oD): And would it be fair to say then that structures like gender, caste, or race help define which category of personhood is ultimately worth less and therefore more exploitable?

Ravi: Absolutely. The thing is that capital is generally able to negotiate and find spaces around these social structures. And it finds it easier to negotiate these degrees of unfreedom around hierarchies which already exists within society, and that is why you see a compatibility between these hierarchies and the ways they evolve into capital-labour relations.

Neil (oD): Thank you, that's very clear. Moving on a little bit, who would you give the blame to, so to speak? Who is responsible for the increase in neo-bondage that we have seen over the past few decades, and for unfreedom to have perpetuated itself even as capitalism has deepened?

Ravi: I think the responsibility has to be fixed at several levels. Globalisation has, in general, involved race to the bottom. Capital finds labour to be more flexible than other imports, and therefore takes the cost of other imports as a given and tries to flexibilise and reduce the cost of labour. Because this operates across country frontiers it becomes more difficult for capital in any one country to renegotiate the price of labour upwards. That's number one.

Number two, development strategies and states are not able to negotiate with global capital. If you want to build capitalism in any particular country there is more than one way of doing it. Improving productivity by moving the technological frontier, for example, is clearly a way which is available to capital.

Most states work with global capitalism by reducing the cost of labour, thereby encouraging these forms of capital-labour relationships. The state comes in the way of any labour mobilisation or labour collectivisation. Labour union bargaining is acted against, and this means that one of the core rights of labourers – the formation of labour associations for negotiation – has become something which is virtually dispensed with in countries like India.

It's a very serious situation. You now have a lot of disorganised labour outbursts. It's like putting a lid onto a pressure cooker and then when the pressure builds up, you have this whole thing popping up. But you don't have sustained and much more organised labour movements that can bargain with capital and get a better deal for themselves.

Mary Crandall/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Neil (oD): Then is the India context, you would very much place considerable burden of blame on the state.

Ravi: On the state and of course on capital itself. What capitalists are doing is looking at it very short term – aiming at the bottom is really looking at the short term. The way out is to pay labour its due and build up the productivity of the firm itself. And that is something which capital does not try to do.

Neil (oD): So it's a particularly predatory form of capitalism.

Ravi: Absolutely it's a predatory form of capitalism. A form of primitive capital accumulation, which one didn't expect to see in the twenty-first century.

Neil (oD): In terms of potential responses, you mentioned the importance of collective organisation. What are your thoughts on the prospects of new unions forming, or older unions adopting non-traditional approaches?

Ravi: It is incumbent on all forms of labour organisations to grow into new forms of communication and organisation, building up solidarities not just within nation states but across nation states. This is not something which only new trade union organisations or collectives should do, but also old unions. Unless they adapt and look at new forms of organisation, I don't think we'll be able to achieve very much.

Neil (oD): In terms of potential responses, I’d like to also ask you about basic income. This is a particularly pertinent and, at time, tense debate in India. I'm wondering what your views are on basic income as a potential pillar for the deocommodification of labour.

Ravi: So you have to look at basic income either as a concept or as an instrument. As a concept, basic income is very important for countries like India, but as a tool of cash transfer, it's not so important. The reason is if you have something like this in an economy like that found in India, it will quickly be devalued. It would be intentionally devalued. And it would replace all the existing forms of social protection that currently exist.

Universal targeting is something which is absolutely fine as a concept, but as an operational issue you have to basically target those who require a floor level of income. How does the principle of universalism coexist with operational constraints? I think these are the kinds of debates that have to take place, otherwise in India there's a risk of misappropriation.

If you look at the debates around UBI in the last four months, it has been grasped very rapidly by exactly those same constituencies who oppose social protections and social security over the last several years. They are very eager to grasp this as a way of abandoning existing social protection systems. That is a great danger and one has to look at this very carefully. But as a concept, remember, to say that everybody is entitled to a level of basic income is very important.

Neil (oD): If I am understanding you correctly, there seems to be a polarisation in the debate in India, as there has been in countries like Switzerland, between the idea of some form of universality that is rights based and acknowledges the equality of human personhood, and the fear that ultimately the right will capture this idea like a Trojan horse for destroying what little already exists.

Ravi: Absolutely. Very hard-earned levels of social protections which have been achieved through decades of struggle are at risk.

Neil (oD): Can I ask you a final question with regards to these struggle-won protections. In an ideal world, so with a different government – a much more redistributive government – what would you like to see form the basis of a universal protection floor in India?

Ravi: I’ve written about this quite extensively, and I argue the approach needs to be built up on the concept of rights. And we have a concept of rights which is well accepted: the right to housing, the right to food, the right to health, the right to education. So what you are looking at is basic entitlements to people, who cannot otherwise afford such entitlements through the market.

Basic income has been grasped very rapidly by exactly those same constituencies who oppose social protections and social security.

This is why in different areas you would have to have different approaches. The problem with UBI as it is, is that many of these entitlements, for example housing, cannot be reduced to an income stream. Housing is an asset. Now, all countries in the West developed systems of social housing in the 60, 70s, and 80s. So the concept of UBI perhaps has more relevance in Western countries, where there are large formal economies and systems exist to provide things like social housing. The debate becomes different there than it becomes here. And here we still have to look at specific kinds of rights and entitlements and we have to look at social protection of UBI within the gamut of these rights.

Neil (oD): So things like housing would have to be provided outside of and alongside UBI?

Ravi: The moment you put health, education and housing within this complex of UBI, without assumptions of how they would be provided for, there would actually be no UBI. Health, for example, can be huge in relation to any level of UBI. Private education can be multiple times the cost of public education, so if education is not publicly provided, no notion of UBI will be able to deal with it, and so on.

So you have to look at it as a broad concept. And you have to look at all these levels of provision.

Neil (oD): That makes sense. One last question then, with regards to the international efforts around the ‘decent work agenda’ and the framing of SDG 8 and SDG 8.7. What are your views on the prospect of achieving SDG 8, or on the push towards it over the next 12-13 years?

Ravi: The useful thing about the sustainable development goals generally, as compared to the millennium development goals, is that the focus is on equitable and sustainable growth. If we look globally at the prerequisites for sustainable and equitable growth, we would also be looking at employment-led growth. And if we could actually achieve employment-led growth and more equitable growth, we would provide the basis for dealing with SDG 8.7.

SDG 8.7 cannot be dealt with as a goal in itself. It is linked with the broader social and economic growth that the SDGs actually set upon themselves. We have to work recursively. In the short-term, what are the regulatory mechanisms we can have for 8.7? What are the ways that we can advance the battle against exploited workers? But at the same time, we must recognise that these goals can only be met if longer-term goals of equitable development are achieved.

Neil (oD): So if I can paraphrase, we can't solve the problem of severely indecent work outside of the problem of work more broadly.

Ravi: Absolutely. At the same time recognising that we need to focus on these forms of exploitation.

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