- Redefined Labour Spaces: Organising Workers in Post-liberalised India ed. by Sobin George and Shalini Sinha
Sobin George and Shalini Sinha, eds.
Oxon: Routledge, 2018
xxiii + 349 pp., $105.00 (cloth); $49.46 (e-book)
There has been increasing scholarly attention directed to the systemic exploitation and everyday plight of workers in the nonformal sectors of the economy. This is especially pressing for workers in the globalized South, where the transition from agrarian to urban-industrial neoliberal economies over the last two decades rapidly accelerated conditions of alienation, insecurity, and fragmentation of peer solidarity. In the case of India, the market liberalization reform of the 1990s was a historical watershed. Reforms that promoted liberalization, export, and labor market reregulation led to the mushrooming of the informal sector while informalizing the formal. For labor, these policies meant fewer employer responsibilities toward worker welfare; legal elasticity regarding labor compensation; and most importantly, the gradual erosion of collective mobilization—either through formal unions or group action—against managerial oversight. Indeed, the conception and identity of a homogenized laboring "class" in the classic Marxian sense needs rethinking in the wake of such neoliberal economic arrangements.
Redefined Labour Spaces brings together fourteen essays (divided into four parts) on these questions of worker collectivization, unionization, and identity in a liberalized market economy. The authors of this anthology assess these concerns within two broad parameters. The first is to understand the trends, modes, and strategies of collective worker organization in neoliberalized "labourspaces" (4). The essays move beyond formal sectors such as mines, factories, and plantations to include workers from the so-called nonformal sectors—fisheries, street vending, ship breaking, domestic service, brick kilns, sex work, and even information technology (IT). The second overarching aim is to understand these labor collectivization movements not within "grand" structures or political agendas but through localized and issue-based approaches. The editors argue that a shift from employer-based unions to sector-based unions under neoliberal market regimes in India calls for this analytic recalibration (6).
Part 1, "The Contemporary Indian Labour Space," lays out the methodological and empirical focus of this anthology. Though statistically oriented, the three essays in this part help readers understand the labor milieu of postliberalized India. Increased casualization of work in the informal sector, informality of work contracts (they are often nonwritten), lax welfare provisions, minimal social security and health insurance coverage, unavailability of paid leave provisions, and overall tenuous labor rights are structural hallmarks of this new economic climate. Factors such as class, gender, and caste in the making of inter-and intra-labor marginalization, domination, and hierarchy are also noted. The issue that stands out in this introductory segment is the progressive decline of unionization—in both formal and informal sectors—in this neoliberal economic environment in India. This section also highlights the media's role in creating a pervasive societal discourse of unions as "militant, anti industry and anti growth" (35). Consider, [End Page 178] for instance, that out of a 460 million—strong workforce in India, only about 5 million are unionized (36). More importantly, we are told that 97 percent of trade union membership comes from the formal sector, which employs only 35 million workers (36). The second essay in this section provides readers with a good historical overview of labor unionization from its postindependence days, to micro-movements against failed state promises in the late 1960s and 1970s, to its "intense economic and political crises" in the early and later phases of economic liberalization. These "crises of [labor union] legitimacy" and the need to reorient scholarly and theoretical understanding of collective worker action in neoliberal market conditions are discussed in the third essay of part 1. It raises an interesting dichotomy: namely that the challenges posed by globalized workspaces and the fragmentation of formalized, top-down structures of labor control perhaps also provide opportunities for horizontal and localized worker mobilization and resistance. Calling the latter the "cross model" of unionization versus the "pyramid" model of classic industrial relations, this article draws attention to the potential benefits of complementing lateral and localized working-class movements with globalized trade union...