Engaging With the Idea of ‘Transit Labour’

Samita Sen June 14, 2012

Giorgio Grappi

Samita Sen


How do we conceptualise ‘transit labour’? I would suggest that we see this at the intersection of two major conceptual grids characterising the understanding of labour in the present: first, transitional forms of labour, which are inextricably related to transitions in mode of production, involving change in forms of labour arrangements, shifts in, creation or closures of labour markets, and in types and structures of labour deployment; and, second, transitory labour, which may be considered in chronological/empirical frame to denote changing and shifting patterns of employment or, in a more particularised sense, may address questions of labour mobility, both physical and structural.

Let me address first some of the major historical questions associated with labour in a transitional stage. The context most relevant to our discussion of changing labour regimes in areas brought arbitrarily and rapidly into processes of urbanisation ‑ that we are now discussing ‑ is some of the conceptual issues associated with debates about the transition to capitalism. Traditional pre-capitalist economies are believed to be characterised by settled and stable labour arrangements or at least social and legal processes strive to achieve such forms of stability. Thus, forms of bondage seek to tie peasants to land (serfdom) or the artisan to masters/workshops (guild systems). This is not to say that there are no exceptions. Recent research has shown that in Europe, for instance, journeymen had a great more mobility than was previously imagines (thus named ‘journey’men) and wage labour made an early appearance around the 13th or 14th centuries, especially in the context of sailors and seafarers. Nevertheless, the dominant trope of labour arrangement was to tie labour down and the denial of mobility facilitated the extraction of surplus. Thus, capitalism’s primary slogan was ‘freedom’ ‑ to ‘free’ labour from being tied down in a variety of forms of indenture or servitude. That this ‘freedom’ meant in fact a limited legal freedom allowing labour to contract for its own exploitation is an old and much told story into which we need not go into just now. For our purpose today, what I would like to emphasise is the myriad resonances of this idea of ‘freedom’: in its classical historical (and conceptual) form ‑ legally, it meant individuation of labour, physically it meant the migration from countryside to towns and cities and sectorally it meant a shift from the land to the factory. Such shifts were associated with wider social changes — the transformation of the family, the erosion of religion and ecclesiastical controls, the subversion of existing social hierarchies, including those of gender and generation. In one view, these changes effected a major social transformation, empowering the individual vis-à-vis family and community; in another view, social change was (or had to be) slowed down or managed to preserve social order, thus ensuring that institutions such as the family were not fully incorporated into the regime of contract and exchange; in yet a third view, many of these social changes were more apparent than real, capitalism worked by scripting existing social hierarchies within its fold, thus transforming but neither subverting nor eliminating hierarchical relations of race, caste, gender and community.


Whatever view one may take of the wider meanings and implications of individuation of labour, the mobilisation of labour in its more limited sense was a critical aspect of capitalist development. In colonial India, the advent of capitalism in the mid- to late nineteenth century, signalled a massive mobilisation of labour in the non-agrarian sector. There was short-term and long-term employment in public works such as the railways and in public services such as the army, in small-scale artisan occupations and cottage industries, for large-scale industries such as jute, cotton, and mining, in the urban service sector including municipal works, personal and domestic services and entertainment trades, and for plantations both within the country and overseas, such as tea, coffee, sugar and rubber. Many of these employments involved migration for varying distances and periods, ranging between local week-end commuting to permanent settlement in distant lands. Some 2.5 million people travelled to Assam to work in the tea gardens; about 1.5 people left India to work in sugar and rubber plantations across the world.


The history of early industrial capitalism in colonial India demonstrates one kind of tension between the different understandings of the wider social concerns of labour mobilisation discussed above. The British, even as they managed the millions on the move within and out of India, playing critical roles as regulators, employers and recruiters, persisted with a paradoxical approach to the labour question. On the one hand, a stated commitment to ‘free labour’ remained the watchword of the colonial state, overseas emigration of Indian labour being justified by the abolition of slavery (needless to say this did not prevent their acquiescence and active involvement with forms of labour regulation that involved draconian regimes of indenture). On the other hand, they continued to uphold (and frequently devised labour strategies based on the belief) that Indian society continued to be organised around and was committed to the self-sufficient village economy, bound by family, caste and community. In this imagination, the Indian peasant was immobile, immune to pressures of poverty and incentives of wage; the Indian woman was of course even more circumscribed, imprisoned behind purdah. Suspicious of the evidence generated by their own bureaucracy, the higher reaches of British policy-making continued to believe that Indian labour required inordinate levels of pushing to work at all and complex hierarchical structures of supervision when they did.


Employers adopted different, sometimes contrasting labour strategies, depending on the scale of labour mobilisation. In the case of the Assam tea plantations, for example, employers failed in their attempt to mobilise local labour. Not only because population was itself sparse in the remote locations of the gardens, but because local labour could not be disciplined into the cheap labour regime desired by planters. The solution ‑ the import of workers from the plains of Bengal and Bihar, the hills of Chota Nagpur (and later, the forests of Chhattisgarh) ‑ was an expensive one. The cost of transportation was enormous, and added to that was attrition ‑ desertion and mortality undercut planters’ long-term plans of stability and settlement, reaching unprecedented peaks at times with employers losing four out of 10 recruits. The response to such difficulties was to legislatively produce stability ‑ the Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act (1859) allowed for ‘contract’, even assuming that the process of recruitment allowed for ‘free’ entry into the labour contract, the Act closed the possibility of voluntary exit, thus simultaneously proletarianising and de-proletarianising plantation labour. The dracocian indenture regime produced in the tea ‘gardens’ required an elaborate regulative machinery in which employers and the colonial state colluded. By contrast, urban industries, such as jute and cotton mills, benefited from existing streams of migration. Millowners were not required to undertake recruitment and transportation of labour and the primary thrust of their strategy was to pass on the costs of migration and reproduction on to the workers. To this end, they produced a highly casualised labour force operating within an economy of surplus, best represented by the institution of ‘badli’, which allowed for a highly replaceable workforce, a significant proportion of hiring being by day and at the factory gates. These represented two ends of a spectrum of labour strategies: one aimed at locally self-reproducing settled communities of labour and the other a highly casualised labour force, which allowed short-term adjustments to the vagaries of the market.


Over time, both these kinds of labour were formalised. If early capitalism undercut the stability of pre-capitalist labour regimes, in the period after the First World War and in India the Second, concerted efforts were made towards new kinds of stabilisation of labour and the rhetoric was of ‘protection’ and ‘rights’. In the Indian case, early attempts at this began in the 1920s and 30s, as factories, mines and plantations were brought under regulatory regimes with minimum welfare measures, monitoring of wage and working conditions. These processes speeded up after Independence. In these three decades, some enclaves of labour had been unionised. As federated trade unions became affiliated to political parties, they were able to influence policy sufficiently to win much greater protection in terms of wage, working conditions, influence over hiring, and employment security. This process reversed the process of casualisation in some enclaves, but of course, left the vast majority in the same situation as before. In the plantations, the indenture system was gradually dismantled beginning from 1915 and after Independence, legislation brought new kinds of regulative control over employment exit. In these enclaves, which came to be known as the ‘formal’ or the ‘organised’ sector, comprising about 10 per cent of the working population of the country, an increasingly male workforce found some measure of social welfare and protection, could aspire to the single male breadwinner family and upward social mobility. This provided for a more stable regime of labour upheld by powerful strategies of collective bargaining and reflecting new political confidence on part of certain segments of labour. This political settlement, one could expansively hold it to encompass six decades between 1920 and 1980 may be termed the ‘Age of Regulation’.


Our immediate context begins in the 1980s, which quickened in the 1990s, with the advent of New Economic Policy in India, but is related to wider global trends which dismantled Fordist regimes of industry, ushered in a new international division of labour and witnessed a hunt for cheap labour across the world by an unprecedented mobile industrial and finance capital. In the age of multi- or trans-national corporations, the dismantling of stable labour regimes (which had complemented Fordist industry) has become the key to profit-making. In this economic environment, organised labour has seen the erosion of its hard-won political stake and an assault on precisely those regulative mechanisms which was productive of (or desired to produce) an enclave of a stable labour regime. In the last three decades, thus, we have witnessed the slow dismantling of regulative regimes, more direct and violent confrontations between labour and capital and the undercutting of organised labour. A major aspect of the changing labour scenario is the expansion of the ‘informal’, which is now appearing as appendages within the erstwhile ‘formal’ sector as well as reaching higher and lower within the economic spectrum. Thus, even government supplements administrative staff by ‘contract’ workers; while in the upper reaches of the informal sector, lucrative wages/salaries offset the disadvantages of impermanency. How do we understand these new processes of a new kind of casualisation of labour? It is my contention that placing the process of casualisation we are witnessing today in the historical context I have sketched briefly and in skeletal outline here will help us understand better both the process itself as well as its wider social ramifications.