Check your privilege

Check your privilege

Who builds our economy today?

Who built the Taj Mahal in Agra? Was it Shah Jahan for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal? Or was it built by the two architects who designed it? Or was it built by the hundreds of workers who worked day and night to put together the most famous piece of architecture in our country?

Let us look at our workplaces today. Who are the invisible hands who make our workplace move? Who do most of the work? How many of us are permanent or regular workers? How many of us enjoy social security benefits? How many of us are protected by a collective bargaining agreement?

In most workplaces today, be it a construction site, a factory, a bank, a school or college, or even a hospital, a large number of our newly recruited colleagues are hired on contracts, directly or indirectly by our employers.

And we have more or less accepted the fact that the wages and the conditions of work of the irregular workers would be different from ours.

Contractualisation of Work

How did we get here?

The Second World War resulted in devastation of the giant economies of England, France, Germany and most of Europe. Unlike after the First World War, when the warring countries could resurrect their economies by overt exploitation of their Asian and African colonies; the post Second World War  period was the time of freedom struggles in the colonies and the consolidation of the Soviet Bloc and trade unions across the world.

Cold War: In July 1944, economic experts, politicians and finance officers of 44 countries met in the now famous Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire, USA to discuss how to stabilise the world economy. The conference lasted 21 days and led to the formation of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (what we know as the World Bank) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The core idea behind the Bretton Woods Conference was the notion of open markets. In his closing remarks at the conference, its president, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, stated that the establishment of the IMF and the IBRD marked the end of economic nationalism. Further, in the spring of 1947, President Truman (USA) unveiled the Marshall Plan to aid reconstruction of Western European economies to contain the influence of the USSR.

In the following years IBRD and IMF lent massive loans to war-torn countries and to developing and newly independent under-developed countries, on conditions that beneficiary countries devise policies encouraging Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs) leading to dilution of import-export duties and regulations related to investment of foreign capital in the country.

Fall of Soviet Union: The Soviet Union was formally dissolved on 26 December 1991. With the Soviet support gone or dwindling, many developing countries faced a serious balance of payments crisis – India was one.

Balance of Payment Crisis of 1990s: Rupee trade (payment for trade made in Rupees) with the Soviet Bloc was an important element of India’s total trade up to the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the soviet bloc led to the termination of several rupee payment agreements in 1990-91. As a consequence, the flow of new rupee trade credits declined abruptly in 1990-91. Further, there was also a decline in exports to Eastern Europe—these exports constituted 22 .1 percent of total exports in 1980 but it declined to 10.9 percent in 1991-92. To make matters worse, with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990, crude oil prices rose from USD 15 per barrel in July 1990 to USD 35 per barrel in October 1990. Iraq and Kuwait were the major sources of India’s oil imports and the war made it necessary to buy oil from the spot market. As a result, the oil import bill increased by about 60 percent in 1990-91.

Political Turmoil of the 1990s: This was also a time of political turmoil in the country. The V P Singh National Front government tried to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations in August 1990 of reservation of 27% quota for OBCs that would result in 49.5% reserved seats in government jobs and public universities. This led to violent protests across the country from upper caste groups led by students.

Riding on this upper caste assertion, the BJP president, LK Advani along with Pramod Mahajan, decided to go on their first Rath Yatra drumming up support for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. They were arrested on the orders of the Prime Minister on the charges of disturbing the peace and fomenting communal tension. The kār-seva (demolition of the Babri Masjid and construction of the Ram Mandir) proposed by Advani on 30 October 1990 was prevented by stationing troops at the site. This led to the BJP’s suspension of support to the National Front government. V P Singh resigned on 7 November 1990.

This was followed by the Chandrashekhar government supported by the Congress party, led by Rajiv Gandhi, which withdrew its support after a few months and fresh election was declared.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991 while on election campaign, which led to a huge comeback for the Congress party with PV Narasimha Rao as the Prime Minister and Manmohan Singh as his finance minister in June 1991.

Response to BoP crisis: The Narasimha Rao government responded to the BoP crisis by seeking an emergency loan of USD 2.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund by pledging 67 tons of India’s gold reserves as collateral. This helped tide over the balance of payment crisis temporarily and kick-started the Rao-Singh economic reform process.

LPG: The Fund loan followed by the World Bank loan came with the condition of implementation of the stabilization programme and the Structural Adjustment Programme. These required India to address its immediate balance of payments crisis and to move towards a broad set of policy reforms aimed at liberalizing the Indian economy and opening it up to more competition both from within and abroad. The immediate moves led to delicensing; limiting the role of the public sector along with disinvestment; liberalization of foreign investment. Thus began the process of LPG (Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation).

Second National Commission on Labour: The second National Commission on Labour (NCL) was set up on 15 October 1999 which submitted its report to Prime Minister Vajpayee in 2002. The key recommendations were as follows:

Rationalisation of labour laws:  A “judicious” consolidation of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, the Trade Unions Act, 1926, the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, and other Acts governing industrial relations into a single law called the Labour Management Relations Law.

Amendment of Chapter V B of ID Act: In the case of closure of establishments employing more than 300 workers, the employer shall apply for permission to the appropriate government 90 days before the closure and also serve a copy of the application to the recognised negotiating agent. If the government does not respond within 60 days of receipt of such an application, permission will be deemed to have been granted.

Contractualisation: Contract labour shall not be engaged in core production or services or activities but employers may engage temporary labour for such activities to meet sporadic seasonal demand. The report said: “Organisations must have the flexibility to adjust the number of this workforce based on economic efficiency.”

Grievance Redressal Committees: Proposed establishment of Grievance Redressal Committees in each establishment with equal number of representatives of workers and employers as an ‘alternative’ to trade unions. It further suggested that a trade union can be a negotiating agent only if it has 66% of the workforce endorsing its authority.

Right to Strike: The report recommended a strike ballot for strike action.

Right to form Trade Unions: The report recommends that only a union that has at least 10 per cent of employees in a unit as its members would have the right to represent the workers in various forums.

The Sponsoring Committee of Trade unions led widespread protests against the Second National Commission on Labour, along with the opposition in the parliament led by the left parties put brakes on the reform process. However labour reform continued stealthily with each successive government till the defeat of the second UPA government in 2014.

Return of the Second National Labour Commission Proposals

As globalization deepened its roots in the country, need for flexible labour magnified manifold. Revolution in Information Technology and transport made it possible to evolve extensive supply chains to minimize costs and maximize profits. As a result, employers wanted to do away with the old unionised workforce to cut down on their labour costs.

Research shows that workers with no work contract earn 60% lower wages than their permanent colleagues, have shorter breaks during work, are not entitled to paid or sick leaves, work for longer hours with no overtime pay and live under the perpetual stress of job loss.

Equal Pay for Equal Work : The Supreme Court in its judgement in the case of Jagjit Singh & Ors. vs. State of Punjab and Ors. in 2016 held that equal pay for equal work is a constitutional right and employers denying equal pay are in contempt of the fundamental rights of the workers. The court stated that if the nature, sensitivity, volume and quality of the work are same then wages have to be equal, irrespective of the nature or tenure of the contract (contract, fixed term etc.) and/or the title or designation of the worker (trainee, badli, contract worker etc.)

The present phase of labour reform attempts to wipe out the gains made by workers and trade unions for several decades in ensuring basic rights of workers. It attempts to bring back the proposals of the Second National Commission on Labour which was opposed vehemently by trade unions as anti-labour. It aims to institutionalize the flexibility regime demanded by employers, both national and multinational. The divisions created over the last two decades between regular unionized workers and non-unionised irregular workers in categories such as trainees, apprentices, casual workers, contract workers, etc, has weakened union power to oppose this.  What could be stopped in 2002 through massive mobilization of workers, is facing limited resistance today.

What limits trade union power today?

It is incorrect to say that trade unions in India and across the world do not realize that they need to expand their membership to the irregular workers who do not trust them in most cases. The struggle for trade unions today is how do they expand their membership among irregular workers while protecting the gains won by them through years of struggle and collective bargaining. Employers, in many cases especially in the manufacturing sector, willingly increase the benefits of a small section of permanent workers while keeping the large number of irregular workers at minimum pay and minimum rights. The irregular workers are then used to break the strike power of the small number of regular workers and the small number of permanent workers are used to create an intense hatred and mistrust for unionized workers. Thus it is a win-win situation for employers.

It is thus time for trade unions to find common grounds with the irregular workers to bridge this ever-widening gap. If wage is used by employers to widen the gap between workers, trade unions can use working conditions as the bridging point. The struggle at workplaces need to translate to a struggle for equal conditions at work. The focus of struggle has to change and has to change fast.

Nearly 48,000 workers die on average in India per annum due to occupational accidents, of which the construction sector contributes 24.20 per cent of the fatalities, according to the ILO. The Unchahar incident and the recent report of deaths of sewage workers across the country is just the tip of the iceberg that get reported. In all cases, the workers who die are contract workers, or casual workers, mostly migrant workers, mostly from marginalized castes and communities. This is not a coincidence. It is a problem that needs to be addressed by the trade unions. It is time to think … It is time to act.

Why are our Labour Laws changing?

Why are our Labour Laws changing?

With the intention of simplification of 44 existing labour laws, the Government of India is trying to legislate four codes on labour – on wages, industrial relations, social security and safety, and on health and working conditions. Simultaneously the government is proposing amendments to the Contract Labour Act, the Factories Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, both at the state level and at the centre. But this is not happening just in our country. Elsewhere across the globe, Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected president of France, amidst continuing protests by trade unions, passed executive orders in August to provide greater freedom to employers to hire and fire and put a simultaneous cap on termination dues and also drastically change the collective bargaining structure in the country. The Brazilian Senate too recently approved a labour reform bill that aims to reduce costs for businesses and allow firms to negotiate contracts freely with employees.

Who is the simplification being done for? Why is it being done?

Governments across the world are claiming that stringent labour laws are harming the economy and is the greatest impediment for job creation and thus an overhaul of the legislative framework is long overdue. The proposed changes are aimed to create jobs and boost the economies. But this is far from the truth. Let us take two steps back and try to understand this.

Reorganisation of Production and the Need for Flexibility

Mass production, perfected by the Fordist mode of production in the 20th century, institutionalised the division of labour, both vertically and horizontally, under one roof. Fordism led to standardisation of the end product. This meant making identical products in large quantities for mass consumption.

Russian Revolution: On the other hand, the Russian Revolution in 1917, exactly a hundred years from now, inspired socialists and trade unionists across the world and number of strikes and protests spiked. In 1916, in Britain alone, 276 thousand workers were involved in strikes which increased to 2,591 thousand workers in 1919.

Workers, under the same roof from the start to the end of the production process, were able to come together and unite against a common adversary, their single monolithic employer. They may have been in different factories, departments, divisions, locations but all workers working for Ford Motors or GE, for example, identified themselves as workers of Ford or GE. This gave rise to powerful militant unions across the industrialised world.

With the consolidation of the Soviet Union, intensified union resistance on one hand and the economic crisis of the 1930s on the other, the economic and political dominance of the US came under threat. The threat worsened with the rise of Japan in Asia as a military power.

Rise of Japan: The great devastation of the Japanese economy during the World War II and the need to rebuild it from scratch led in many cases to the introduction of new technology and new management techniques, to recreate these companies.  Much of the militarized industry converted to peacetime activity.  The top 3 automobile companies, Toyota, Nissan, and Isuzu, moved from producing military trucks to passenger cars.

The restructuring of these industries was met with a friendly international environment of trade, cheap technology and cheap raw materials in the first world, to counter the Soviet bloc. During the Cold War years, Japanese markets were allowed to be closed while the US market was opened to Japanese goods. This gave a competitive edge to Japanese industries. The Toyota model of production changed the way corporations looked at shopfloor management and workplace control, at organisation of production processes, at use of advanced technology and communication. They also a found a new way to look at unions.

Introduction of management practices such as Kaizen, 5S, TPM etc. reorganised the shopfloor and reduced ‘waste’ by increasing work intensity of workers on the shopfloor. Identification of ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ activities in a production process created a possibility of outsourcing the non-core activities to other agencies to increase profit.

Companies began to break down the entire production process into different activities or cost centres and perform complex calculations to determine the cost of performing these activities within its own structure and outside it. Companies outsource the cost centres they see as non-core to cut costs and squeeze in the cost of production. These are standalone firms which provide services only for the ancillary activities. What is identified as core activities in reality are those that generate maximum value or revenue. Those functions or activities that are seen as costs to maintain the core function are then outsourced. For example, maintenance of machinery, canteens for workers, janitorial staff etc. are all seen as non-core and hence outsourced. This created a system of production process that has both vertical connections and horizontal connections that link up to produce the final product but not produce the product in its entirety any more.

From Flexibility to Mobility

The reorganisation of the production process using innovations in technology and communication allowed employers the flexibility to outsource non-core activities to other companies to push costs down. This led to new forms of specialisation.

For example, Sodexo, a French food services and facilities management company, runs the canteen in Tata Motors plants.  Sodexo, then hires contractors to supply workers to them.  Thus, Tata Motors only produces the trucks, Sodexo feeds the workers at the truck plant. But the workers who finally work in the canteen of Tata Motors are never sure whether they work for Tata Motors, or Sodexo (whose uniform they wear), or the labour contractor (who disburses their wage). Each tier is created for the sole purpose of camouflaging the employer-employee relation with the principle employer, Tata Motors, in this case, and cutting cost. So as you go down the tiers, less the cost, and hence lower the wages and cost of social security, higher the job insecurity and higher the hazards at work.

Similarly the security services, janitorial staff are also outsourced to different companies in order to cut costs. This process of pushing wages downward continuously has led to a ‘race to the bottom’ across the world with a concurrent demand for labour law reform to ensure a legal framework that allow corporations access to an unprotected and vulnerable workforce.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the opening up of the economies in the global south in the late 1980s and 1990s led to a boost in this predatory expansion of multinational corporations. They soon started shifting their production centres form the global north to the global south in search of cheaper destinations of productions. This search continues – from one country to another (e.g. from France to India, from India to Bangladesh) from one region to another (from Europe or N America to Asia), from industrial centres to non-industrial centres within a country (from Mumbai, Chennai to Baddi in Himachal Pradesh or Pantnagar in Uttarakhand).

Differentiation of Workers within Factories: Workers within even core activities are divided into different categories such as permanent workers, direct contract workers, contract workers through contractors, trainees, associates, apprentices, etc. Permanent workers with a higher wage and social security than the others form a miniscule portion of the workforce.

Contractors supplying workers of different categories usually bid for this work contract. The company gives the contract to the lowest bidder. The lowest bidder will also pay its workers the lowest wages and other benefits compared to the other bidders. Thus in the same factory two workers performing the same function, can be paid differently and most importantly, can be divided on the shopfloor along these lines.

What is the Global Supply Chain?

A global supply chain refers to the network created among different companies producing, handling, and distributing specific products. The buying/sourcing practices determine the conditions of work in the entire supply chain, be it for pharmaceuticals, garments or cars or the even the chocolates that our children eat.

The final seller who buys the products they sell from across the world controls the entire chain. In many sectors today the final seller no longer produces the product. They only buy it from different manufacturers and sell it to the consumers. Thereby the product sold has increasingly got alienated from the manufacturers. The final seller, who buys from the manufacturers, constantly tries to lower the buying price to both lower the cost of the commodity in many cases, especially garments, electronics, and also to increase their profit margin, by squeezing the different layers in the chain. This squeezing ultimately affects the workers at every level in the chain. Thus the global supply chain constantly pushes for irregularisation to lower buying prices.

This push for low costs has created a demand for low cost workers – women, migrant workers, and other vulnerable workers are being hired to replace unionised protected workers, creating condition of unfair competition between suppliers who end up violating basic labour regulations and international labour standards. The need for survival and competition between workers pushes vulnerable workers to accept this race to the bottom. The existing legislative protections won by through trade union struggles and legal battles over the last century today stand as barriers to this competitive race for insecure and low paid jobs, but jobs nonetheless. Employers across the world therefore are using this vulnerability of workers in the face of rising unemployment and pushing for removal of these barriers.

Supply chain

International Guiding Principles: The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UN Guiding Principles) acknowledges this increasing push by corporations for flexibility and right to mobility and has stated that “business has a responsibility to respect labour rights in their operations and governments have the duty to implement and enforce national laws and regulations”; the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also includes Decent Work across global supply chain as its goal. The ILO resolution on decent work in the global supply chains also urges governments to strengthen the tripartite process through collective agreements, international framework agreements; to ensure stricter measures in the labour monitoring system; and calls for strengthening the rights of all workers to organise and form unions across the supply chain.

But these principles are narrow in their scope and can be reduced to paper promises if we change the very structure of labour protection within national legislative framework. In a classic instance of bypassing international convention, India recently ratified the Child Labour convention of the ILO after changing the definition of child labour that allowed for child labour in family enterprises, however hazardous it may be.

Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old journalist at Japan’s public broadcasting company, NHK, working at its headquarters in Tokyo, died of heart failure in July 2013. This month Labour inspectors finally ruled that the death had been caused by overwork. She had worked 159 hours of overtime and had taken only two days off in the month leading up to her death. According to government, more than 2,000 workers killed themselves due to work-related stress while have died of heart attacks, strokes and other conditions brought on by overworking in the year ending March 2016. This is so common in Japan that they even have a name for it – Karoshi (death from overwork)!

The divisions among workers are not real. They have been created to break unity among workers. They have been created to lower standards at work. They have been created to lower wages, make workers work longer hours, make them sick, burnout before their time. Thus the struggle against labour law reform has to go simultaneously with the effort to build strong unions of all workers along the supply chain.

Should Teams at Workplaces replace Unions?

Should Teams at Workplaces replace Unions?

Team Work Posters WorkersConnect

But why are Teams created by the Employers?

If we believe that employers are here to make profit, we must also believe that all they do is to ensure they continue earning this profit and growing it. Creating Teams is also one way to do just this. The posters mentioned also say so:

Anything is possible if we work as a Team = More productivity is possible if we can get workers to work together and not as individuals

Teamwork means never having to take all the blame yourself = This says the blame for errors will be with the workers. While this statement to a worker usually means a sense of security that they will not bear the blame individually but in reality it justifies the shifting of accountability for the quality and output from the employers to workers.

And finally, Together Everyone Achieves More = simply means getting the workers to work together as a team will ensure higher productivity and hence higher profits.

How do Teams produce More?

With the success of the new Toyota production system that introduced just-in-time (JIT) production and continuous improvement (Kaizen), work control practices rapidly changed. With lean production, organization of work got restructured to increase productivity and efficiency of workers to out-compete the Fordist production.

Teamwork was one Post Fordist management innovation that used the basic principle of Together Everyone Achieves More. This simple logic was used to:

  • create teams that will compete with each other;
  • create competition between team members to increase productivity of the team
  • create animosity and suspicion between members of a team and between teams within a workplace to break old production targets and achieve new ones

Mutual Mistrust: As a result members of these teams constantly scrutinise the work of other team members and push each other beyond their limits, in order to achieve higher and higher productivity targets to win the ‘carrots’ on offer. These carrots often come in the form of bonuses, sometimes as ‘best team’ prizes, sometimes as promotions. This scrutiny often makes co-workers emotionless – older workers, workers with illnesses, or disabilities, or even women are pushed equally by young able men to contribute equally to the achievement of the target. Differential abilities are not taken into consideration. This creates mutual animosity and lack of comradeship.

Increased Stress: Further, these teams are often not permanent. Workers are shuffled across such that they do not settle down and develop sustainable relationships with their co-workers. This shuffling also puts the workers in additional stress, as they need to learn the rhythm of working in the new team all over again. Further, a worker who is above average in a team may in the next team be below the average ability to achieve the new target and hence would be put under additional pressure in this new team. This means shuffling leads to higher overall productivity while simultaneously increasing the stress, both physical and mental, among workers to achieve these ever changing targets.

Co-workers as Adversaries: With this competition between workers defining their behaviour with one another on the shop floor, workers end up cutting corners constantly to achieve these unachievable targets. Workers often cut on their break time, their safety concerns, their health and their family responsibilities to ensure they meet the targets. Attendance bonus for teams are given if no member of the team takes any leave in a month. Team members pressurise each other to come to work even if one of them is ill, or if a member of a family is ill or needs attention at home and cannot come to work so that they all can earn the attendance bonus. Thus, management no longer needs to pressurise workers not to take leave or time off, it is the workers who pressurise each other. Similarly, workers give up their tea break to achieve targets, keep working on a machine to achieve targets despite a safety threat leading in many cases to accidents, keep working even when they are severely unwell to not miss the promised bonus. Thus, on one hand this method pushes workers to cross their physical limits to achieve these unachievable targets, and on the other hand, management is able to push workers without looking like villains. Workers start seeing each other as adversaries and fail to see the underlying management practice.

Digging the gold in Workers’ Minds: The ‘innovations’ within the teams that constantly increases efficiency and hence productivity is like gold to the management. Productivity increases with these ‘innovations’, hence profit but at no cost to the management. If this innovation had to come from any one other than the workers themselves, the management would have to hire consultants and pay for these idea, the unions would have opposed the idea but with the workers innovating, there is neither cost nor opposition. It is a win-win game.

And finally we come to a simple story:

There are two friends A and B in a class. In an exam the teacher finds their answers to be identical. The teacher is convinced they cheated but she has no evidence and she knows if she asks them together, they will stand by each other and deny. She decides to find out using a strategy. She places A and B in separate rooms where they cannot talk to each other. The teacher makes the following proposal to A and B separately:

If both of you confess, you will both have to repeat the class.

If you deny, and the other confesses, you will be rusticated from school for cheating and lying and the confessor will write the exam again.

But to both A and B, there is also a third option of:

If both deny, they will go scot free with a warning because the teacher will not be able to prove anything.

The teacher thus pitches the two friends against each other to extract the truth.

Let us see how these kids would react. Both A and B as rational beings will think that if they deny, there is no guarantee that the other will deny as well. However, they also know if one of them confesses, and the other does not, she will be rusticated, which is not desirable. Thus, though they both know that if they deny the teacher cannot prove anything and hence cannot punish them, they are not sure about the choice that their friend would make. Thus both of them will decide to confess and agree to take the exam again. This choice is in economics called the Nash Equilibrium after the famous game theorist John Nash, who won a Nobel prize for his theorization of this.

This outcome has nothing to do with reality. The two kids may not have cheated at all but they made a ‘rational’ choice to avoid being rusticated.

Fear of punitive action is used to push rational individuals to make choices that may not be best for them, may not be even anywhere near the truth. Managements across the world use this theory to pitch workers against each other, one team of workers against another. Lack of information and supposed ‘rational’ behaviour then pushes workers to make choices that are not best for them, but best for the management. This also breaks the foundation of trust between friends and colleagues. Teams are made to look like alternatives to unions. This confuses many workers and makes it more and more difficult to unionise workers. Thus management no longer has to adopt the ‘stick’ to break unions, they merely need to build teams.

Teams cannot replace unions. Build strong Unions, not Teams!!!

Read the september issue here

Lean Production – how to extract more with less?

Lean Production – how to extract more with less?

20th century industrialisation was characterised by mass production of standardized goods on a moving assembly line using dedicated machinery and semiskilled labour. Institutionalised by the Ford Motor Company it led to an unprecedented increase in production and thereby intensity of work for workers. This process was soon copied by other factories in the USA and across the globe. Under Fordism, as it came to be known, the industrial worker had to work at a pace dictated by the speed of the assembly line. Work was repetitive and exhausting. Large and vertically integrated firms were the epitome of Fordism. The model shaped both production relations and employment in post-war Europe as well. This required rigid supervision of the workers on the shopfloor.

The Fordist model of growth became dominant during the post-world war reconstruction period and is often credited with facilitating the long post war boom.

But in the 1960s, the US got into trouble as it tried to finance the Cold War and the War in Vietnam. The world economy had to be re-invented in the 1970s, with the newly industrialising countries, especially in East Asia, gaining greater economic significance.

The growth potential of mass production began to gradually exhaust, with intensified working-class resistance to its alienating working conditions; the market for mass consumer durables becoming saturated; a declining profit rate coincided with stagflation creating a fiscal crisis along with simultaneous European and East Asian expansion threatening the economic and political dominance of the US. The rise of computer technology and improved international telecommunications meant that mass production could be completely reorganised and broken down into specialised production centres brought together through a supply chain.

Production no longer required:

  • centralisation in a few key manufacturing centres – it could be dispersed all over the world.
  • to be large scale as computer-controlled manufacturing techniques could customise production.
  • vast stockpiles of raw material and supplies because computerised logistics could ensure the just-in-time delivery of components custom manufactured.

Instead of being producer driven, production became more consumer-oriented, with consumer driven production chains.

Thus the post-Fordist models of lean production came to exist and can be characterised by:

  • shift from the global north to the global south for lower cost of production and newer markets.
  • the rise of lean, and networked firms that focus on their core competences, build strategic alliances, and outsource other activities;
  • flexible production of differentiated goods based on flexible systems and a ‘flexible’ workforce;
  • increased profits based on permanent innovation and the full utilization of flexible capacity;
  • growing economic polarisation between regular and irregular workers, together with a decline in collective bargaining.

The post Fordist lean method developed at Toyota in Japan devised the just-in-time (JIT) system that allowed automation to be used in a new way: that focuses on continuous improvements by elimination of ‘waste’ (Kaizen).

Kai = change and Zen = good, simply means ‘change for the better’. Kaizen activity can be defined as: Plan → Do → Check → Act. Kaizen is a daily process, the purpose of which goes beyond productivity improvement. This philosophy differs from the “command and control” method in the Fordist model. This includes making changes continuously to improve productivity, monitoring results and then adjusting. Kaizen is used to eliminate what management considers ‘waste’.

Several models have emerged, across countries, to achieve this goal of reducing ‘waste’ which are essentially common in their underlying principles, originating from 3M principle of the Toyota Automobile.

3M – Muda – Mura – Muri

Muda refers to ‘waste’, defined as any activity not directly adding any value to the product.

Muri relates to unevenness. The goal of operations design is to generate a steady, even flow of production. In order to reduce unevenness, the objective is to reduce buffers between processes and, where possible, to eliminate them. Mura translates as overburden of the production process.

To deal with the 3M, a five step process has been formulated which is known as the 5S:

Seiri (Sort): Make work easier by eliminating obstacles.

Seiton (Set in order): Prevent loss and ‘waste’ of time by arranging work spaces in such a way that all equipment is in close proximity. Making workflow easier.

Seise (Sanitation): Clean the workplace.

Seiketsu (Standardize): Standardise the best practices in the work area.

Shitsuke (Sustain): Self-discipline, regular audits, ‘do without being told’

The Japanese model of lean production marks a major shift from the way factories have operated under the Fordist model. Kaizen relies on the self-exploitation by workers.

Fordist ModelToyota Model
1.To increase production, the company would have to either hire more workers and/or install more machines or make the existing workers work longer hours.Kaizen requires every worker to scrutinise their own work and increase their productivity by eliminating ‘waste’. So, the same number of workers work harder in the same time, increasing production. This saves the company monies that it would have otherwise spent on hiring more workers and/or installing machines or paying the workers overtime wages.
2.Productivity is increased through centralised planning for target setting and monitoring of productivity of workers that meant high supervisory costs.Individual productivity is increased in the given limited time by workers by compromising on their leisure and break times.

Workers are pitched against each other and even against their own self to increase productivity.

3.Workplaces were organised by management to ensure productivity and efficient use of space, which too involved cost of specialists.Workers arrange their own workspaces in such a fashion that their movements are restricted to their workstations and breaks between multiple tasks are shorter.
4.Work was organised in such a way that workers could come together, form unions, to question the supervisor or unachievable targets and collectively bargain for improvement of working conditions.This model eliminates the ‘enemy’ on the shopfloor. It transforms the worker herself into the supervisor of herself and her peers, thereby pitching one against the other and destroying the collective identity of workers.

We have seen this kind of a wall in a factory, in a retail outlet in a shopping mall, in a restaurant, in a hotel, even in a hospital or a school. One worker is declared the best worker every cycle e.g., weekly, monthly or quarterly.

The other workers are then competing against the target set by their peer to become the best worker of the next cycle in order to be recognised. Even the worker who holds the ‘best worker of the month’ title has to work harder to retain her position thereby increasing her own workload. For instance, a worker at McDonald’s who served 100 orders in a given week was awarded the best worker of the week. Now, to beat her and be the best worker her peers need to serve more than 100 orders, at the same time she has to outperform her competitors to retain her position and hence has to serve more than 100.

This competition is real today in every workplace given the precarity of the job each worker holds. This breaks trust among workers making it next to impossible to self-organise or even to unionise them. Every worker is desperately seeking recognition from the employer in the belief that in future this could be a reason for regularisation, permanency, promotion or at least a wage increase. Thus, employers now use vulnerabilities and insecurities of precarious workers to extract the most out of them and even pitch them against the regular workers to create insecurity among them. Thus precarity in all forms of employment is not incidental but absolutely essential for this model of production to expand its power.

Do we need a new law to protect Zohra Bibi?

The recent Zohra Bibi incident in Noida on 12 July led to the unfolding of a series of events, exposing the fault lines of class that characterise urban India. This was an incident that yet again exposed the power of the middle and upper middle class over the working class and how this defines public opinion.

The 2015 Draft National Policy for Domestic Workers places the number of domestic workers in the country at 30 million. With two thirds of the workers in urban areas, Tier I and Tier II cities have the highest demand for domestic workers.

India’s largest cities in the past several decades have expanded exponentially, in many cases have merged with satellite cities, like Noida and Gurgaon around Delhi, with multi-storied apartments in gated colonies to accommodate the influx of the growing middle class and industrial working class in these cities. On the other hand, a large section of the rural landless are migrating in search of work in these growing cities and constituting a reserve army that creates conditions for low wage and poor working conditions.

Domestic work: Workplace control by Employers

We all know it is difficult to unionise domestic workers and much has been written on why.

Workplaces of domestic workers can be classified into three broad categories in order to understand strategic unionising:

  • Live-in workers in standalone residences or in flats in gated apartments/ apartment blocks
  • Live-out workers in standalone residences/ flats in un-gated areas
  • Live-out workers in flats in gated apartments/ apartment blocks

Live-in workers in Tier-I and II cities, are mostly workers brought in or trafficked from the poorer states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, and states in the North east through organised networks of agents. They are bound to their agents through complex relations of debt and family complicity and are placed by these agents across a city and hence are difficult to access for organising.

Live-out workers in un-gated areas live near these areas or in cases where cities have been ‘cleaned’ of slums, they are forced to come to these areas from the resettlement colonies where they live. Their workplaces are disconnected and scattered with each contract of work being negotiated individually with no interface with any collective body of residents. Even monitoring of work and worker is done individually by the employers. Here access to workers may be easier but effort required to organise would be higher and negotiations would have to be with individual employers.

However, with a growing number of workers being employed in gated apartments/ apartment blocks in the large cities, it may be seen as a strategic point of entry for unionising live-out workers in these gated apartments.

The gated apartments, as we saw in the infamous Mahagun Moderne apartment in Noida where Zohra bibi was accused of theft, confined and then the issue was communalised when her family and neighbours gate crashed to find her and finally their slum razed to the ground, have the following characteristics:

  • Administered by powerful Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs)
  • RWAs are empowered to hire security services to ensure security of residents; entry and exit from gates are monitored by security personnel; security guards frisk all workers and check their belongings at entry and exit; CCTVs are installed to ensure security of residents
  • RWAs issue identity cards to domestic workers who are allowed to work in the apartment/ apartment complex after police verification
  • Many RWAs also fix rates of wage of domestic workers working in the apartment complex
  • Many RWAs allocate separate toilets and drinking water facilities for domestic workers within the apartment
  • RWAs act as dispute resolution bodies in case of dispute between residents and between residents and non-residents.

Thus the RWAs are representatives of residents and hence in the case of domestic workers, representatives of employers within a defined geographical boundary with power to appoint and dismiss, fix wages and working conditions, control and monitor. If employers’ interest can be protected and represented through the RWAs, the gated apartment complex represented by the RWA should be treated as an integrated employer that provides employment to the several domestic workers. This would ensure employer accountability and responsibility. It therefore should be the responsibility of RWAs to ensure basic rights of domestic workers within their premises to:

  • Minimum wages: Many states have already notified hourly minimum wage for domestic workers.
  • Equal wages for equal work
  • Payment of wages by 7th of every month
  • Weekly off
  • Medical leave and Annual leave
  • Bonus
  • Protection under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act: RWAs should set up an Internal Complaints Committee within the apartment complex.

If the RWA employs 20 or more workers, not just domestic workers, the workers should also be covered under:

  • Employees State Insurance including paid Maternity leave: The government has already proposed that domestic workers will soon be included in ESI scheme with employers contributing Rs. 200 as a pilot scheme in Delhi and Hyderabad. (This proposal though is in violation of the ESI Act, where employers’ contribution must be linked to wage and not some absolute amount.)
  • Provident Fund: There is also a proposal to extend PF to unorganised sector workers.

The possible reactions to such a proposition would be:

 Reactions of EmployersPossible response
1Each domestic worker is employed individually by the household that hires herThat may be true but the RWA conducts security checks on her, issues identity cards to her, monitors her entry and exit, fixes her wage in some cases and ensures her dismissal from the apartment in case of gross misconduct.
2RWAs do not have the mandate to hire any worker. They do not have employer-employee relation with anybody.RWAs hire agencies in most apartments that provide workers, such as cleaning workers, maintenance workers, security workers, including estate managers.
3RWA cannot take responsibility for workplace conditions.Since many employers deny access to toilets and drinking water to the workers working within the apartment complex, the RWAs allocate toilets and drinking water facilities for service providers.
4RWAs do not have the right to dismiss workers.If a worker commits a grave act of misconduct, the individual employer fires her, but in case of serious misconduct, the employer also ensures that she is not given access to the apartment complex. Thus RWAs exercise power to deny access to employment to serve their interest.
5RWAs do not monitor the domestic workersCCTVs are installed and checked by representatives of the RWA. Security personnel hired by RWAs frisk domestic workers. Text, Whatsapp messages are used to monitor movement of domestic workers within an apartment.
6PF, ESI apply to factories, shops and not to residential apartmentsTrue in the strict sense of the law but the law can also be opened for interpretation on establishing existing clear employer-employee relation.

 Looking beyond and Stretching the existing laws

 In April 2013, Brazil passed a constitutional amendment that placed domestic workers among the other categories of workers mentioned in article 7 of chapter II of the Brazilian Constitution, which provides for social rights. Only in 2015, after enactment of the Enabling Law of 1 June, was it possible to state that the occupational activities of domestic workers were fully defined and regulated.

Constitution of South Africa too guarantees rights of domestic workers as universal rights.

RightsBrazilS Africa
Compensation in the event of dismissal without just cause××
Unemployment insurance×
Time of Service Guarantee Fund (FGTS)×
Wages not less than the minimum××
Bonus for night work20%
Wage protection×
8 hour workday and 44 hours a week×– 45 hours per week

– 9 hours for a 5 day work week

-8 hours for a 6 day work week


OvertimeAt least 1.5 times1.5 times
Work in a place where standards of hygiene, health and safety are met×
Right to collective bargaining×
Insurance against work-related accidents×
Equal remuneration×
Night workAt least 10% of the ordinary daily wage
Annual Leave3 weeks leave per year
Sick leave1 day for every 26 days worked
Maternity leave4 months
Prohibition of wage discrimination against workers with disabilities×
Prohibition of employment of minors of less than 16 yearsAt night, dangerous, or unhealthy work Less than 15 years

Why is this important for India?

  • India has not ratified the Domestic Workers Convention (C189) which among its other provisions requires ratifying countries to ensure minimum wage protection for domestic workers, regulations for occupational health and safety and social security of workers.
  • India has only managed a put together a National Domestic Workers Policy that is only a guiding document for states and not legally binding.
  • All organisations/ unions of domestic workers and working with them have been demanding a robust legislation specific to the domestic workers that encapsulates the specificity of the employment.

The concern for the specificity of the employment and the belief that it requires a special law comes from the underlying principle of protecting the right of employers to privacy. It is time to think of laws for workers that protect the interest of the workers and not their employers. This was never a problem in any other employment and in the demand for laws in these areas of work as there was no underlying need to protect employer interest in the mind of those demanding the law. With all policy makers, those advocating for the law, almost without exception, being employers of domestic workers, there is always a conflict of interest that has been the greatest barrier to the regulation of this sector.

There is no reason why the domestic workers cannot be brought under the ambit of all labour laws, like in Brazil, that relate to them.

There is no reason for unions to wait for a new law to regulate employment conditions of domestic workers.

There is no reason for unions to wait to negotiate with employers for better wages and workplace protection.

ExChains: Building solidarity along the Global Garment Supply Chain

When we from the global south meet workers and their representatives from the global north, the first thought that come to our mind: How will they support us in our work given their position of advantage? and to the minds of those from the global north: How do we help our colleagues in the global south? Their working and living conditions are abysmal and we can help them. This notion of inequality has troubled solidarity efforts for years even where there is political commitment. Thus, this has also been translated into the strategies adopted by organisations to extend solidarity. Further, in most cases, the solidarity efforts have been a one-way street with the global south being the receiver.

The global supply chain of the garment industry has been written about at length by many. The discussion has in most cases focused on the miserable conditions of the workers at the production centres which are in the global south, with Bangladesh being the focus, especially following the Rana Plaza incident. However, the condition of workers all along the supply chain is as miserable if we assess the conditions relative to other workers in their country and not in absolute terms. The workers, in the stores of brands such as H&M, Zara, Primark, GAP, etc, who sell the garments that are produced in the global south is as precarious as those who produce these. Most jobs are not permanent, with very little social security, no guaranteed hours of work, low wages, harassment at work and most importantly, with limited union rights and very little bargaining capacity. There is no reason or indication to believe that the condition of the workers in between the two ends of the chain would be any better.

Buyer-driven Global Value Chain

Garments is a “buyer-driven” global value chain unlike a producer-driven one, where profits come from scale, volume and technological advances. In the global garment value chain, profits come from combinations of research, design, marketing, and financial services that allow retailers, designers and marketers to act as a strategic link between factories in the global south with their main consumer markets in the global north (Gereffi & Memedovic, 2003). The corporates that develop and sell brands thus have considerable control over how, when, and where manufacturing will take place, and how much profit accrues at each stage (Fernandez-Stark, Frederick and Gereffi, 2011). The main aim of the supply chain is to maximize and concentrate profit.

As the above figure will show if we divide the value along the supply chain, 99% of it is appropriated as profit share, with the retailer taking 50% of the total value, the brand taking another 25%. In cases where the brands are retailers themselves as H&M, Zara, Primark, GAP, etc, 75% of the total value is appropriated by them as profit. 13% of the total value is appropriated by the manufacturers, usually in the global south and 11% by transporters etc. The remaining 1% of the total value is the wage share. The inequality in profit sharing between the global north and south is also evident in this figure. 75% of the total value goes to the global north and 13% remains with the global south. This value extraction by the brands/ retailers in the global north is made from every level of the supply chain, starting with the production to the process of selling it. Thus this appropriation affects workers both in the production process and those engaged in selling these. This thereby makes it essential for workers and their organisations along the supply chain to build united struggles in order to expand the wage share.

Can we increase the share of wages without increasing price?

Campaigns in the past and present have always focused on the misery of workers in the production of garments and hence have appealed to consumers, workers and non-workers, to not perpetuate this exploitation of garment workers in the supply chain and therefore to buy responsibly. Responsible buying has meant the expression of willingness of consumers to pay more for the same garment. This unfortunately, even if well-meant, cannot translate to changing the conditions at work either for those producing the garments or those selling these. This usually means an increase in the size of the cake, i.e. the value created, for the brands to make larger profits and at best may increase the wage share marginally. But, this never can alter the nature of the distribution of the profit as it does not even aim to change it. Thus, price increase cannot be a solution, given the extreme inequality of control over profit distribution along the supply chain. Neither wage nor conditions of work can change without changing this inequality.

Can Auditing and CSR change this?

Not possible. The reason is very simple. Audit is commissioned by the brands/ retailers, paid by them, and controlled by them. The audits are useful tools to fool consumers and make them feel less guilty about buying the products and often more willing to pay more. Thus audits legitimise the existing practices and help increase ‘brand value’ and hence higher profits. The same holds true for all CSR initiatives.

Further, audits inherently incorporate conflict of interest with the audit being paid for by the company commissioning it. There is no reason to believe that in a capitalist society, a company will invest its resources in an exercise that will not generate more profits. It would be eliminated as ‘waste’ if it did not generate higher profits.

Shopfloor Unions as Negotiating agents

To change this, new strategies must evolve that aim to change the inequity along the supply chain.

Wage share can change. Conditions of work can change. It can change by changing relations of control. And relations of control can change by building union power at every level along the supply chain. Unions can increase the wage share through struggle.

Will this increase cost of production and lead to production relocation?

Possible, but not necessarily true. Sourcing decisions of brands/ retailers are not merely decided by labour cost. It is more often decided through a detailed analysis of advantages, including of skills of workers, technological investment. This is clear from brand decisions to continue to produce in Bangalore with a higher minimum wage and not shift to Chennai with a lower minimum wage. Also internationally, this is evident from the decision of brands to continue to source from China and not shift to Bangladesh despite significant increase in the wage gap between China and Bangladesh.

How will shopfloor unions reach Retailers/ brands?

The understanding of solidarity that has existed within the trade union movement also needs to change.

Solidarity has to be a two-way street with garment workers in the global south standing up for the retail workers in the global north and the reverse.

As sourcing practice of brands determine the conditions of work and wages along the supply chain, it is critical to build negotiation strategies to change these practices. These negotiation strategies need to be coordinated along the supply chain. New links need to be built to connect workers. And these strategies need to be rooted in the workers where the change should happen.

The union and organisations/ platforms in the global north supporting unions in the global south have often replaced them as bargaining agents and negotiated for them. This has created a relation of unequal power between the unions in the north and in the south and in many cases even undermined the unions in the south. This too needs to change.

ExChains Network of Garment and Retail workers

The ExChains network is one initiative to bridge this gap and build solidarity both among garment workers and their unions in South Asia and with retail workers and their works councils and union in Germany.

In a series of meetings with Works Councils and with Ver.di, the union of the retail workers in Germany, the leadership of garment workers’ unions in India and Bangladesh developed a joint charter of demands for negotiation with the managements of H&M and Primark. This was the first concrete step towards building joint strategies of negotiation and organizing. The network aims to build a strategy of mutual support and solidarity along the supply chain based on shop floor actions and negotiations. This encompasses common demands, cross-border learning about organizing strategies as well as joint activities to support struggles of each other.

The regularisation battle of Contract Safai Workers

The Supreme Court on 7 April 2017 upheld a Bombay High Court order of 22 December 2016, regularising 2,700 contract workers employed by the solid waste management department of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

In 2007, the Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh had filed a case for permanency with the Industrial Tribunal on behalf of 2,700 BMC contract safai workers. The tribunal ruled in favour of these workers after seven years on 13 October 2014 and ordered the BMC to regularize all 2700 workers with arrears from 2007. The BMC challenged this order in the Bombay High Court.

The High Court, on 22 December 2016, after two years ruled in favour of the workers and declared the BMC contract as “sham and bogus”. The BMC challenged the High Court order in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, while upholding the Bombay High Court ruling stated, that BMC engaged in such a paper arrangement only to avoid giving permanency to the workers and hired them through labour contractors. The SC further noted that the work performed by these workers is integral to the services of the municipality, is done round the year,  and is directly supervised and controlled by the BMC, the principal employer in this case.

By the order, all 2,700 contract safai workers have been declared permanent employees of the BMC, with retrospective effect from 2014. This means the workers should be paid their arrears from the date of the Industrial Tribunal order.
A permanent BMC safai worker earns around Rs 22,000 a month against Rs 10,000 of a contract worker. The arrears (difference in salaries paid to permanent and contractual workers) would work out to about Rs 3.6 lakh per worker if calculated from October 2014 and to about Rs 7 lakh if calculated from 2007.

Apart from the 2,700 workers who have just won permanency, 3,000 contract workers of BMC wait in line in three separate similar industrial disputes.

State of Safai workers in some other cities

Bhopal: Contract safai workers work for 9 hours every day, with 1 hour of mandatory unpaid overtime. There are two shifts of work – the first shift begins at 6:00 am and ends at 3:00 pm and the second shift begins at 5:00 pm and ends at 2:00 am.

The wages are paid according to 2 different kinds of work contracts: (1) a 25 day contract and (2) a 89 day contract. Though the workers are always paid at the end of a month and each worker works for 30 days every month, their contracts differ and their payments too, based on the contracts. The workers on 25 day contracts work for 30 days but are paid for only 25 days in the month. These workers are hired through contractors and these contracts were first floated in 2003. 5 days of wage are lost by the workers every month.

But why do they accept this deduction when wages are so low? The choice and the number of jobs available to a dalit (SC) worker continue to be extremely limited and this employment option, since independence, has been one of the largest absorber of dalit workers in regular government employment with job security and dignity. Their hope is to move to the 89 day contract and then to be regularised as a permanent safai worker with retiral benefits.

The 89 day contract is, as the name suggests, a contract that spreads over 3 months in which the wage loss is for 1 day in 3 months as against 15 days in the 25 day contract. However, even in the 89 day contract, a worker has to work 30/31 days every month for full wages. The 89 day contract workers are workers who were on the rolls of the municipal corporation as casual workers in 2003 when the first contract was floated. They are, today, contract workers directly employed under the Municipal Corporation, while the 25 day workers are employed by contractors. The one day in their 3 month contract is treated as a break in employment or a layoff and then they are rehired. This is to ensure discontinuity in service in order to ensure no claim can be made for regularisation under the Contract labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and subsequent Supreme Court orders.

In Bhopal Municipal Corporation, the Statutory Minimum Wage for unskilled workers in local authority work in August 2015 was Rs. 239.95 per day. But the safai workers were paid as per the “collectorate rate” (a rate fixed by the collector of the city) which was fixed at Rs. 197 with no paid weekly off.

Rajkot: The contract workers in Rajkot are provided work for 4 hours daily. There are three systems of contract in Rajkot: (1) Mitra Mandal – Self help groups of men; (2) Sakhi Mandal – Self help groups of women; and (3) Contract workers under Contractors. Their shift begins at 6:30 am and ends at 10:30 am, except for the Sakhi Mandal for whom the shift starts at 6 am.

Sakhi Mandals: According to the contract of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation with the Sakhi Mandals, each unit of a Sakhi Mandal must complete a door to door garbage collection from 300 households/shops. Each unit of a Sakhi Mandal comprises of 8+1 members who should be paid Rs.13 per month from each door they collect the garbage from.  


Over and above this payment, the Sakhi Mandal is paid an additional Rs. 2000 by the Municipal Corporation for their services. This means, each unit of a Sakhi mandal is paid a total of Rs. 3900 + 2000 = Rs 5900 per month for their 4 hour service every day of the month. This further means that each member of the Sakhi Mandal earns a maximum of Rs. 655.55 per month, which is nowhere near the minimum wage. In fact, it is less than 2 days of minimum wage for safai work in the city the Rajkot.

The monthly fund earned by the members of the Sakhi Mandal is kept in a bank and the members can borrow from this fund at times of economic exigency at a nominal interest rate which again becomes an earning for the Mandal. Thus, the members of the Mandal are not paid a wage on a monthly basis at all.

Kanpur: In Kanpur Municipal Corporation, the statutory minimum monthly wage for a Safai worker in August 2015 was Rs. 8741 (Rs. 7500 monthly pay + 885 PF + 365 ESI). But, the contract awarded to the contractor was signed at a rate of only Rs. 5969 per worker, inclusive of all government taxes. There was no additional provision of PF or ESI specified in the contract.

Delhi: The erstwhile unified Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was trifurcated in 2012 into NDMC, SDMC and EDMC. There are around 60,000 safai karamcharis working in the 3 Delhi Municipal corporations.

There have been several strikes since 2015 of the municipal safai workers. The reason for the strikes have primarily been – non-payment of wages and arrears due to lack of funds.

Workers hired through private contractor are the worst off. They are paid about Rs.5,000 a month and have no protective equipment and are made to perform the most hazardous tasks. More than 3,500 sewerage workers have died between 1996 and 2015 in Delhi alone. The 2008 Delhi High Court order on a public interest litigation petition directed the civic bodies to provide adequate protective gear and free medical care, compensate for occupational diseases, and create separate funds for statutory provisions like provident fund and gratuity. The civic authorities have hardly followed any of these judicial instructions properly.

The East Delhi Municipal Corporation where the longest strikes have taken place employs around 25,000 sanitation workers out of which around 17,000 are permanent. The EDMC has renamed the municipal contract sanitation workers as ‘paryavaran sahayaks’ but the payment of wages has not regularised.

Where have all our women gone?

This Women’s Day let us not talk of women and how they work but let us talk of why they do not work? Why they leave the labour market? Why is the participation of women in the labour force in India one of the lowest?

India: Labour force participation of women is about 24% generating about 17% of the GDP according to a recent estimate.

The National Sample Survey data show that labour force participation rates of women aged 25-54 have stagnated at about 26-28% in urban areas, and fallen substantially from 57% to 44% in rural areas, between 1987 and 2011.

Several reasons have been given for this decline: (i) increased school enrollment of girls; (ii) lack of employment opportunities for women; (iii) increase in household income leading to change in preference; and (iv) invisibility of women workers and hence mis-measurement of female labor force participation. (ILO, 2014)

In 2014 the ILO adopted a new definition, based on the recommendations of the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (October 2013), to include all the activities that constitute the unpaid care economy and household chores.


NSSO data on employment however does not still include the categories of workers who “attend to domestic duties only” and who “attend to domestic duties and were also engaged in free collection of goods (vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed), sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc for household use”. As a result a large section of working women remains undocumented. If such women are counted among workers, women’s workforce participation rate in 1999-2000 would increase from 35% to 89% in rural areas and 17% to 81% in urban areas while in 2011-12, the participation rate would be 85% in rural areas and 80% in urban areas (Jayati Gosh, 2016). In this case the decline in participation rate is not significant and can be attributed to many factors including the agricultural crisis in the rural areas. So what has actually happened is not a decline in women’s participation in work, but a shift from paid or recognised work (in most cases in rural areas from agriculture and in urban areas from low wage sectors) to unpaid care work.

But some other key facts that explain the shift or the reason for this shift:

  1. Most women are employed in low wage – low value added sectors, mostly in informal employments.
  2. Most care work, of children, aged, differently-abled, both paid and unpaid, are performed by women;
  3. Average life expectancy is increasing leading to increasing number of dependents in need of care.
  4. Public expenditure on social sector has remained at best stagnant, with expenditure on health at 0.3%, and on education at 0.47% of GDP.
Research shows that job losses and public spending cuts in social benefits and services are typically offset by the additional time and effort devoted by women to care giving and other unpaid work, with women acting as a “safety net of last resort” in economic downturns (Elson, 2014; UNRISD, 2010).

With limited public provision and disappearing social provision of care, the burden of care for children, old and ill continue to be the responsibility of women. This is, however, not just because women are seen as care givers in a patriarchal society. Most women work in low wage sectors. But this is not skill related. The institutional framework of wage setting, the tripartite mechanism, is male dominated which views women’s work at best as supplemental to family income. As a result, sectors which primarily employ women workers have low wages. In times of exigency, it thus makes perfect economic logic in a family unit, that the woman with a low wage withdraws from the labour force to cut the loss of income of the family. Thus, in every occasion of illness or any other need, it is the woman who takes a day off to take care.

Labour force participation of women is critically linked to three main issues:

  • Sharing of Care work by Men to make the necessary shift from viewing women as the ‘safety net of the last resort’. To do this it is essential to:
  • Ensure Wage parity across sectors to make it as costly to withdraw women from the workforce as men – ensuring wages in sectors dominated by women are at par with sectors dominated by men.
  • Paid Parental leave for care giving – Except for the time needed for recovering from childbirth and exclusive breastfeeding, much of the care work that a small infant needs is not directly related to women’s biological role and can be divided between both parents. High childcare costs can be a further disincentive to start or return to work for a second earner in a dual earning couple
  • Care credits – Many – mostly developed –countries have introduced policies to recognize and reward periods of caregiving through pension credits. France extended pension credits to fathers (Fultz, 2011).
  • Increasing Public Social Spending to shift the burden of care from women to the public care system
    • Increased public spending on health and improvement of services, through regular employment of healthcare service providers.
    • Increased public spending on child care facilities (Increased budget for ICDS and regularized work and increased wages for Anganwadi workers) for quality child care.
    • Increased public spending on and improved quality of school education and mid day meal through regularization of services of teachers and support staff to prevent school drop outs, especially of girl children to take care of household responsibilities in order to ensure their mothers can work
    • To ensure pension pegged to the last drawn wage or the minimum wage, whichever is higher, for informal workers through progressive taxation (Arjun Sengupta Committee recommendation, Unorganised Sector Social Security Act)
    • Unpaid volunteer work in public services (honorarium work) to be recognized as waged work and paid at government pay scales.

Why use OECD Guidelines for the Garment Supply Chain

The pursuit of higher profits and low cost centres led to a fragmentation of the supply chain of garment with the producers being located in the global south and the consumers, mostly in the global north.  The global garment brands, mostly companies in the US or in European countries, source their products from suppliers in the global south. These suppliers are divided into multiple layers, with regulation declining as we go down the different tiers of production. The global brands do not disclose their complete list of suppliers or their sourcing price as both these are used by the brands to push competing suppliers in the global south towards a race to the bottom, thereby squeezing the producers in the south for a greater share of profits for the brands.

While for the workers, most of them are first generation women from rural areas with no or very little idea about wages and rights at work. To complicate matters, most workers live in fear of losing their jobs and hence unionisation is very difficult.

Trade Unions have used and continue to use:

  1. Shop floor or/and street protests to put pressure on employers to negotiate with them. This has become increasingly difficult as workers employed in precarious jobs find it tough to both join and sustain struggles in fear of losing their jobs;
  2. Legal strategy but in most cases, cases drag on and once again it becomes difficult for workers to sustain this. Further, in recent years, the judiciary too has delivered, if at all, very little and late; and
  3. international campaigns of ‘naming and shaming’ to exert pressure on global brands, especially in the garment industry. These campaigns have yielded results in denting the image of the brands to their consumers. But, these campaigns simultaneously blame consumers in the global north for buying low cost garments. Low cost garments are bought by working people of the global north who with declining wages and increasing cuts in social security cannot be made to feel guilty for buying low cost garments. The problem lies in how the profit from these garments is distributed along the supply chain and what proportion of it is lopped up by the brands. Thus increasing cost of garments would not get translated into higher wages and better working conditions for workers. It would only mean higher profits for the global brands. Thus it is time to shift the blame from the consumers to those who take production decisions along the supply chain.

But these strategies together and severally have 2 problems: (1) they may not work at all; or (2) they deal with a case in isolation and do not address the systemic problem. Thus, it is critical to supplement the ongoing struggles with new parallel strategies. One such strategy to exert direct pressure on multinational enterprises is to use the complaints mechanism available within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD is an intergovernmental economic organisation providing a platform to identify good practices and coordinate domestic and international policies of its members. Most European countries, Australia, Japan, South Korea and the USA are members of the OECD. The OECD, in 1976, adopted Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises that are recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises. They provide voluntary principles and standards for responsible business conduct consistent with applicable laws. Each OECD country should set up a National Contact Point (NCP) that will be responsible for the promotion of the Guidelines at the national level,  handle all enquiries related to the Guidelines in that specific country, including investigating complaints about a company operating in, or headquartered in that country. The NCPs should dispose a complaint within 12 months from the date of filing of the complaint. This time bound remedy can help unions in resolving industrial disputes and even to put pressure on multinational companies. The OECD guidelines allow unions to negotiate with the principle producers – the MNEs and make them accountable for their conduct along their supply chain.

Most global garment brands like Zara, H&M, Gap, PVH, Nike, Adidas, Walmart, A&F, C&A, etc are all companies operating in, or headquartered in OECD countries, and thus violations of labour rights along their supply chain can be reported at the relevant NCP. This could be used as a strategy to pressurize the global brands to be accountable for the working conditions in their supply chain and negotiate with the workers and their organisations at their suppliers. In 2016, the Pragatisheel Cement Sangharsh Samiti, a union of contract worker at Holcim, a Swiss Multinational cement company, with its plant in Chattisgarh, was able to use the complaint mechanism successfully to regularise employment for its membership.

On 8 February, the OECD released a new due diligence guidance for supply chains in the garment and footwear sector.  The guidance is meant to provide practical support to MNEs on their implementation of the due diligence recommendations and associated provisions in the Guidelines. Thus this could also be used by garment workers and their organisations to file complaints against brands in cases of violation of local labour laws and other international labour standards as recommended under the Guidelines.