India presents a rich context for research on work and employment, epitomizing the paradox of being the world’s fifth-biggest economy but one where 92.4 percent of the workforce is informal – insecure, unprotected, poor – and women and disadvantaged groups most vulnerable.
The work and employment scenario is characterized by ‘jobless growth’, development rooted in rising informalization of the workforce, low productivity juxtaposed with some niche high-growth sectors, high levels of poverty in agriculture, and low female participation in the workforce. Social relations of gender, caste, ethnicity and religion intersect with material relations, further reinforcing existing inequalities in the labor market and at the workplace. It is in this context of informalization and fragmentation of labor that working lives in India need to be examined.
I argue that broadening and deepening scholarship on work and employment in India, without losing sight of the labor process and the workplace as the primary arena of struggle between capital and labor, is necessary to understand multifarious challenges and opportunities for labor, posed by the wide range of production relations in the formal/informal economy, embedded in diverse social relations, and the related forms of exploitation and resistance.
Existing research on India reflects changing contours of work and employment globally and locally. For example, through a focus on call centers and global value chains. Nevertheless, engagement has been limited relative to the country’s size and heterogeneity. Here, I highlight some growing areas of interest which could inform the future research agenda.
First, migration is a key livelihood strategy for workers in India. Considering 60% of the population is dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly, there is continuous circular migration between urban and rural areas, brought into stark notice as millions of migrant informal workers walked to their villages during the pandemic. While South to North migrant labor has attracted attention, internal as well South-South migration (for example to the Middle East) could yield valuable insights on working lives.
Second, current crises highlight the link between work and home – long argued for by feminist Marxist scholars through ‘social reproduction’ theory. For the majority of workers in India employed outside formal employment – migrants, women – the spheres of ‘work and life’, or production and reproduction, are not separated but form a totality of livelihoods strategies Often, spaces of production and daily reproduction are one and the same and impact on the constitution of workforces, mechanisms of control and the construction of solidarities. Indeed, reproductive capacity of Indian worker is directly incorporated into global capitalism through global chains of commercial surrogacy in which India is a major player.
Third, debates on the future of work, especially impact of new technologies on work, provide a new and topical area of research worthy of deeper investigation in India. Grand narratives on the transformational effects of new technologies need to be countered with solid embedded research especially in view of its implications for persistent inequality in India.
Finally, it is a critical moment for research on India to focus on sustainability and the challenges in achieving ‘Decent Work’. Work is intimately linked with the sustainability – most notably enshrined in United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (in particular ‘Decent Work’ (SDG 8) – through quality of work, health and safety, and wellbeing at work. Sustainability is also integral to worker solidarity through India’s long history of nascent struggles to protect resources in both rural areas and among urban slum dwellers. However, a recent ILO report (2019) suggests progress on SDG 8 is slowing down and most countries have a long way to go towards achieving inclusive and decent work for all. Current attempts to regulate ‘decent work’ often derive from abstract (and northern) presumptions of standard employment relations, withdrawal of the welfare state, and involve a generalizable regulatory fix to protect workers; missing the longer embedded histories, heterogeneity, and politics of work and labor relations in the South. Rich case studies from India could provide valuable insights and inform policy and development interventions.
A focus on working lives in India is timely as decolonization of scholarship and increased focus on the Global South is on the intellectual agenda, challenging established structures of power and knowledge in academia and dominant policy and development discourses. For example, as Breman and van der Linden argue ‘labor informalization is fast becoming a global norm and it is the ‘West’ now following the ‘Rest’ with regard to precarious labor relations’. What is essential is to engage with Indian, indeed Southern, realities and scholarship by western academe.