Perils of the Unorganized sector: Field Experiences

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Kalyani Subbiah's picture

On a pleasant December afternoon, a team consisting of two seniors and I head out to conduct a pilot survey for a research project on migrant workers. I talk to them, being the only one of the three familiar with the native tongue. I was coached to conduct easy conversation rather than encourage suspicion by asking pointed questions. My conversations with them provided me with a deeper understanding on life in the unorganized sector.

India’s unorganized sector employs 93% of its labour force. Apart from a small proportion of well-off entrepreneurs, agriculturalists, and a few other professions, almost all of these people are financially insecure. As its name suggests, the unorganized sector is not monitored by government regulation and hence commands virtually no rule of law. There are no set and monitored working and living conditions and wages.

On a pavement across a ditch, we spot a long row of makeshift settlements composed of flimsy plastic sheets lying on sticks, each forming a rectangular area of less than four square metres for a family. Almost all the inhabitants are out to work, except for a few middle-aged and old women. An old lady in one of the settlements informs us that her sons and daughters left for work at five in the morning and will be back at ten in the night. They work at a construction site for a contractor. Often, they take their young children along, and older children typically go to school, (though we spot a couple at the site on a school day). They hail from south of the state and had come to the city to earn a living.

We visit the construction site of a government medical college covertly, and manage to take a look at some of the living amenities provided by the contractor. The migrant workers live in metal sheds that would prove tortuous in summer, and for a sprawling settlement, there are exactly four open toilets. We spot workers, but they are busy. Men typically carry out masonry work because they possess the skills and command higher wages. Women, often burdened with young children, lift and carry materials. A female worker earns anywhere between Rs. 150-300 a day, and work is seasonal, and harder to find for women.

Earning very little, most respondents said they had no savings, despite the government’s new compulsory banking scheme. (However, admittedly, they may have been hesitant to divulge financial information). Many complain of being heavily hit by high food inflation and claimed to live on free rice and pulses provided by the government. Water comes from tankers, packets and ground-pumps that entail high female labour. One elderly respondent said she spends most of her mornings looking for water. While some houses have a gas connection, many rely on firewood and coal for cooking, with the associated respiratory health risks.

Possessing virtually no savings or insurance, unorganized workers are highly susceptible to utter financial ruin from health and medical problems. Many cited medical costs as a huge burden, ranging from foot and hip problems to diabetes. For manual workers, an injury that denies the ability to work can prove disastrous. Others cited financial insecurity due to lack of work or income. Some women complained of their husband’s drinking habits draining their financial resources. Unorganized workers typically take loans from loan sharks at times of emergencies, at high interest rates, or pawn their jewels for an interest rate. This leads to debt traps. Many respondents asserted that they lived only on free ‘ration’ items and praised the ruling party for the same.

Lacking a common voice due to the absence of unionization and a recognition of the need to campaign for their fundamental rights, unorganized workers are misled to believe that the current state of affairs cannot change. Many in society mistakenly associate this with ‘laziness’. However, unorganized workers feel there is a barrier between them and the newfound middle class that cannot be broken. This denies them the incentive to work hard. Through popular TV societal debates, these workers express hatred for the white-collar office-going knowledge workers or ‘IT’ workers and the new culture of pizzas and malls that they have spawned.

While much of this may sound ‘Marxist’, the condition of most unorganized workers is so abysmal in India, that many would gladly go for a mundane factory job with a stable income. Unfortunately, taking an odd path, the Indian economy has entirely bypassed industrialization and jumped directly into the service sector, creating a mix of agriculture and services. This has denied the populace of the fairly equalizing effects of an industrial revolution through an organized sector and spawned the frenzied growth of the unregulated informal sector.

But, things are changing between the generations. Most of the respondents have children in school, and some even in college. They realize the importance of education in breaking income barriers, with one plaintively remarking to me: “I didn’t study like you, so I don’t have a good life.” Whether the millions of engineering graduates find work appropriate to their studies or not (due to the high supply of engineering graduates, and their poor quality), their parents hope that it will be better than the professions they pursue. And they keep hoping.