The other India

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

An International Labour Organisation report on the unorganised sector in northern India examines the abysmal working conditions in this sector and the absence of social security for its workers.

THEY contribute nearly 45 per cent of the national income. They work in all sorts of trades, whole families together. They work in the fields; they work as artisans, head-loaders, construction workers, brick kiln and quarry workers, and glassware or brassware workers. They work the year round with no regular employment and are not entitled to any social security benefits. They toil for more than eight hours a day, without the luxury of weekend holidays. They number around 30 crores, yet they are not part of any organised system of work. They are not on any list, register or muster roll. Anonymous contributors to the national income, they form the other India at work, invisible to the glitzy, high-tech environs of the India on the move.

They constitute the unorganised sector: they are also called the "ultimate entrepreneurs", by none other than the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for their ability to sustain livelihoods with very little capital. They comprise over 90 per cent of the country's workforce, yet they do not have any protection from retrenchment or any social security to see them through in their old age.

A 2005 report of the ILO, titled "The Other India at Work", captures vignettes of the unorganised sector in northern India. The focus is on the manufacturing and artisan clusters, which were the "original manufacturing hubs" but later got diversified into non-farm work in small towns and semi-urban and rural areas. There is every reason to believe that their number is increasing.

While globalisation may have been taken advantage of by the new manufacturing and service clusters such as that of knitwear in Tirupur or automotive components in Delhi and Tamil Nadu, and the Information Technology sector and back-office work in Bangalore and Gurgaon, the bulk of the informal sector languishes in abysmal working conditions, as the ILO report shows. Here business relationships do not "necessarily provide fair share of return based on value addition". The sub-contractual nature of most of the work and the lack of an "employer-employee" relationship denies the worker the right to collective bargaining. It is a paradox that these millions, who manufacture more than 7,500 products ranging from metalware to precision industrial fasteners, exotic glassware, carpets and ethnic garments, have no legislative protection, not even the guarantee of a minimum wage.

The ILO report, which includes photographic images of the working conditions of organised work, says that the elements of job quality - job security, good working conditions, remuneration commensurate with the work, adherence to workers' rights, social protection and conducive human resource management - are missing in the informal sector. What is striking is that the manufacturing units themselves have remained unchanged for ages, in terms of bettering the work environment or the wages, despite their growing contribution to exports and the international supply chain.

One dimension of the informal nature of work is the gender division of labour. Women, who may not be seen on the factory floor, work in household units along with their children. Home-based work is considered more productive as it paves the way for the term "flexible work responsibilities". The ILO study was conducted in 74 small and micro enterprises in 10 clusters spread over several States of northern India. Six of the 10 clusters were located in Uttar Pradesh: engineering workshops in Ghaziabad, ceramic products in Khurja, chikan work in Lucknow, carpet weaving in Mirzapur, brassware in Moradabad, bone and hoof products in Saraitareen.

Other units surveyed included metal work in Hazaribagh (Jharkhand), hand block printing in Jaipur, handlooms in Kullu (Himachal Pradesh) and nuts and bolts in Rohtak (Haryana). Nearly two-thirds of the respondents were from micro enterprises employing workers numbering between one and five, and over half of these enterprises had a system of sub-contracting work. The quality of employment was found to be poor in terms of wages, social protection, conditions of employment and work environment and the level of skills and technology low.

Most workers and employers appeared unaware of the adverse impact of poor work environment and occupational safety, though, surprisingly, both employer and employee showed a keenness to improve the working conditions. No employer reported child labour, though the ILO publication revealed cases of many child workers being engaged in activities as hazardous as those of the bone and hoof manufacturing units.

WHAT the ILO report has not explored is the experience of organised workers vis-a-vis that of unorganised workers. The study reports an ignorance of occupational safety measures among unorganised workers. However, when Frontline met a cross-section of workers employed in the glassware and bangle industries of Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh, health problems and hazards faced at the workplace were articulated clearly, though their employers were nonchalant about such problems.

Around half the units surveyed were found to be registered, but employers preferred to remain unregistered in order to avoid government interference (such as labour inspection) and tax liabilities. In fact, 75 per cent of the owners of unregistered units stated that they expected higher incomes by operating in an informal economy. There were no formal and legal contracts between employer and employee.

The survey reveals that a good part of the work subcontracted to the micro enterprises comes from larger enterprises. Whether this is meant to cut production costs or to escape labour legislation is not clear. But it is evident that the larger enterprises consider the smaller units to be a pool of cheap labour. Workers are expected to put in more than 40 hours of work a week with no paid holidays. Under the Factories Act, for every 20 days of work, a worker is entitled to one day of paid leave. Over 80 per cent of the workers surveyed had no paid or annual leave.

Employers cannot be unaware of these laws. Instead of three shifts of eight hours each, employers in the survey preferred two shifts with fewer workers, working longer hours. In fact, if each worker puts in 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the number of working hours in a week added up to between 70 and 84. Though night work was not compulsory, it was found that erratic power supply often resulted in workers working at odd hours.

The employers, rather than the workers, expressed a keenness to organise themselves. The ILO survey does not analyse why the workers were reluctant to organise or even demand legal contracts.

The survey found that very few workers had access to any kind of protective gear. Potential hazards were found in the matter of ventilation, electrical wiring, storage and use of materials such as gas and hazardous chemicals, protective gear and disposal of waste. Workers in the unorganised sector, the ILO report shows, have no access to compensation in the event of disability caused by accidents at work. They are not paid on days that they are unable to work because of sickness, and they bear all medical expenses for themselves and their families. Only 4 per cent are covered by the Employees State Insurance Scheme. None of the workers surveyed expected unemployment benefits in the event of joblessness.

Employers seemed to be aware of the need for improvement in the work area, while the workers were not. Almost a third of the workers suffered injuries at work and there was no ready mechanism at the workplace to treat them. Most of the work-related health problems resulted from poor postures, apart from problems of respiration and vision. Most of the workers interviewed said that there was no provision for first aid kits at the workplace.

Another dimension was that of gender. Women were found working as hard as men, perhaps even more, considering the burden of household duties and rearing children. They were found working mainly in the textile, garments and carpet clusters. More women than men reported injuries at work. Two-thirds of the women surveyed said the average duration of maternity leave was 90 days, but without remuneration. Surprisingly, the survey found that over 90 per cent of the women did not report sexual harassment, though "verbal comments and remarks" were reported. In the case of the Firozabad bangle workers, it was only after the formation of the union that matters of sexual harassment came to light. Women workers told Frontline that they had to keep a "smiling face" constantly in order to hold on to their jobs.

The survey concludes that eventually the role of the government is important in formulating an overall policy.

More stories from this issue


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment