Footloose, but not fancy free

Footloose Labour
January 24, 1997

In their 1995 report on the global state of labour, the World Bank's economists oppose formal labour markets which, in their view, stifle job creation in low-income countries. According to the report's authors, the informal sector, with its lack of regulation and labour flexibility, is better attuned to the siren song of capital and is hence in the true interests of workers. Moreover, in their judgement, workers in the informal sector are not as vulnerable to exploitation as may be supposed, for they benefit from the protection afforded by social customs.

It is unlikely that the bank's views would find much support from Kikabhai. Employed as a house servant in Bombay, Kikabhai lives with his wife under the staircase near the entrance to their employer's apartment. The couple are trapped for, though his wages are meagre, he is unable to find another job that would pay him enough to afford alternative accommodation. Although his master-employer does not deduct rent from Kikabhai's miserable wages, he forbids the couple from having a child on pain of eviction. Kikabhai's wife is determined not to become pregnant for then she would be forced to return alone to her native village in south Gujarat, western India.

Kikabhai and his wife are members of the Halpati community, a landless tribal caste now obliged to seek alternatives to their traditional occupation as agricultural labourers. This footloose proletariat is driven by poverty to find work outside their villages, and often outside their state, in the vast and complex Indian informal labour market. Distinctions within this sector are many and fine grained. Women, constrained by child-care and other domestic ties, are commonly unable to leave their villages and must await the return of their men-folk, who may be gone for weeks, months or even years.

Labour migration in Gujarat is, however, two way and the women, young children and the elderly left behind in the villages may witness the substantial influx of labour attracted by the rapidly expanding urban and rural economies in the region. Because employers prefer to hire outsiders, local Gujaratis such as Kikabhai find it hard to benefit from the region's rapid economic growth, which local and national politicians portray as analogous to the Asian tiger model.

Jan Breman has been studying the patterns of economic change in south Gujarat for the past 30 years. During these three decades agricultural employment has declined significantly, but there has not been a simple, streamlined movement of workers from the overwhelmingly informal agricultural sector into a burgeoning urban, formal sector. In practice, the purported duality of the labour market rests on false distinctions for even the nonagricultural sectors are characterised predominantly by informal labour arrangements.

In this latest addition to his impressive corpus of published studies, Breman examines the plight of those on the bottom rung of the employment ladder, who, forced out of local agricultural employment, are driven to follow footloose capital. The book is impressively thorough and readable. While it focuses mainly upon workers and conditions in one district of south Gujarat, Valsad, Breman widens the discussion to include conditions in other areas of labour migration, such as the expanding city of Surat to the north. The detail of the study, for example the working conditions among Surati diamond workers, adds greatly to its appeal.

Clearly, and as Breman recognises, the findings of this focused study cannot be automatically generalised to other areas of India. Nonetheless, south Gujarat is being hailed as a model of industrial expansion and thus the lessons of Breman's investigation may well hold wider validity in the subcontinent. Those economists who penned the World Bank report should heed these lessons: in India today fewer than one in ten of all workers are employed in the formal sector - I suspect that the ratio is somewhat different, and conditions of employment certainly superior, for World Bank economists.

John Mattausch is lecturer in sociology, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Footloose Labour: Working in India's Informal Economy

Author - Jan Breman
ISBN - 0 521 56083 7 and 56824 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00 and £16.95
Pages - 8

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