Disinterring Labour in Transit

Byasdeb Dasgupta June 14, 2012

Giorgio Grappi

Byasdeb Dasgupta


Excerpt from (2012) ‘“Disinterring Labour in Transit in Terms of Class Processes’, Policies and Practices, 43, pp23-25.


In any economy, the three essential components are production, distribution and consumption. Following the Althusserian logic of over-determination, these three components as processes are over-determined as they mutually constitute each other to determine the social plane, the very existence of which is effectuated by ever-changing contradictory and conflict-ridden economic, political, cultural and natural processes. This write-up is not meant to theorise such social planes as it is evolving today. Rather, it is an attempt to understand the very process of labour in transit as opposed to the traditional process of labour in situ in production processes and to unfold in its term the very transition of economy and society as it is taking shape against the backdrop of a globalised reality construed by the dictate of global capital. The question of transition is perhaps a never-ending process of evolution and negation and a journey which goes on and on in any social plane. And if one adheres to the logic of a class-focused Marxist approach then, this transition needs be understood in terms of transition of several heterogeneous class processes which do coexist in a social plane at a time. The question of transition if visited in terms of class transition then brings to the fore the very question of different labour processes as they exist today and as they are evolving and influencing the surplus accumulation at the dictate of global capital. Let us begin with the fundamental notion of labour process as it shapes any class process and let us then draw the line between the traditional notion of labour process and emerging notion of labour and work in transit.

The entry point of our analysis will remain surplus labour a la Marx. Production is a process of creating goods and services using labour and means of production. The process of manufacturing goods and services using labour over the means of production is dubbed as labour process. It involves the muscles, nerves and emotions of the owner of the labour power. This labour process in any production remains solely responsible for the generation of surplus (labour) and hence, for the accumulation of capital by the muscles, nerves and emotions of labour(er). And class in this way is a process of performance, appropriation, distribution and receipt of surplus labour.


Given the above notion of labour process and then class process, the image of labour that comes to one’s mind is that of labour in situ – a labour(er) performing surplus labour within the abode of a (manu)factory. But this is not the received image of labour in transit. Labour in transit is not confined to the four walls of a factory. Rather, movement is the primary feature of such a labouring process. This moving labour process can be found in construction work, agricultural field (after Green Revolution where at the time of harvests agricultural workers leave their own places of residence), in the train compartments as vendors hawking various goods produced in small and tiny industries etc. The form of each as labouring process is different from each other, and so is their association with surplus production. One can, in this regard, distinguish between two forms of the labouring process – (a) one which it directly performs surplus labour and hence, is directly responsible for capital accumulation, and (b) the other which does not perform surplus labour directly but helps to procreate it by providing necessary conditions of existence of the very performance and appropriation of surplus labour with which they are related. And as provider of these necessary conditions, they receive part of the surplus. This is also the feature of labour in situ in today’s globalised economy. But what distinguishes labour in transit from that in situ is the fact that chances of occupying several class positions in eking out a (socially) minimum living is more for labour in transit than for a labour in situ. This is derived from the acute livelihood risks which confront such labour as the onslaught of global capital rises day by day. And this is where the relation between global capital and local labour in transit requires some elaboration.


The livelihood risks confronting an individual labour in transit stem primarily from the ever-expanding network of global capital which is continuously dispossessing farming communities from its means of production – the land – and hence, disturbing his self-sustaining livelihood (as in the New Town Project of Rajarhat near Kolkata). One can identify at least three processes effecting the transformation and hence, current transition from a self-sustained (and self-sufficient) livelihood to a mobile livelihood in the form of transit labour where transition does not signify moving from one state/plight to another definitely, rather it signifies a never-ending journey which makes the “temporary”, “casual”, “irregular”, “mobile”, “seasonal” or “temporal” the regular, permanent feature of a man’s labouring life be it for the purpose of producing more and more surplus or for the purpose of garnering fundamental conditions of existence and reproduction of such surplus on ever-increasing scale. These three processes include (a) processes of urbanisation, (b) processes of industrialisation including setting up of SEZs, and (c) natural processes. The link between global capital and labour process is direct and immanent in the first two processes and there is plethora of instances by this time which do not warrant further exploration. But natural processes are equally endangering established and self-sustaining livelihood of a great milieu in agriculture and allied activities. For example, one can cite the case of Padma river erosion in the district of Murshidabad in West Bengal which has uprooted thousands of families from the erstwhile livelihood pattern and compelled their earning members (including child labour) to take to alternatives with mobile working activities. In fact, men in this area are hired by agents to sell goods in other parts of the country – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa as vendors or hawkers – in the local parlance known as “Harek Maaler Karbar” (activities of selling variety goods on foot).


With the growing informalisation of the economic space – the informalisation which is visible even within a formal space (say within a jute mill) – and with the demand being created for newer forms of logistic services, labour has become more and more mobile – the mobility which goes on and on in future. In this context there is a need to think afresh about the livelihood risks of these forms of labour; there is a need to re-examine the role of the labour organizations – the traditional trade unions; there is a need to think about their well-being – a well-being which would signify a real humane transition in their life-forms. Labour in transit is much more disaggregated, de-centred and de-politicised than labour in situ. A true resistance has to address these disaggregations and de-politicisations of a heterogeneous working class. The agenda is no doubt political. It is that political which would take care of a true transition of class processes and also, would address the “need” of these labouring masses at the micro level. In other words, the political struggle has to combine both class and need for the betterment of live-forms of this vast working milieu.


Borrowing from Jan Breman we would like to portray labour in transit as footloose labour in the true sense of the term. It is from nowhere to nowhere the journey, the mobility, the transition is shaping the live-forms and livelihood risks of these men and women. The real transition at the micro level – in our rendition which class as well as need-based transition – should be understood in the broader perspective of resistance to global capital and the current waves of globalisation.