The Life of Labour: Slavery in Modern India, How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks

Latest news updates from the world of work.

Slavery in modern India – the brick-kilns of Rajasthan

Slavery is a word that would seem to have no place in our modern world  – a world which is built on a language of rights and freedoms. Last week, Life of Labour linked to a series by the Guardian on instances of slavery across the modern world – each one a brutal reminder of a feudal world we were supposed to have left behind. In one video, a Russian NGO called Alternativa rescues men and women who work as slaves in brick-kilns and sheep farms. This is not the slavery we expect – slaves with t-shirts and passports sounds oxymoronic. But as with human rights abuses in the Middle East, Russian slavery is built on hidden debts, withheld wages, confiscated documents and, when that isn’t enough, physical violence.

Brick-kilns are the sites of slavery and human rights abuse in India as well. Based on NSSO data, Anti-Slavery International calculated that there might be 100,000 kilns in India employing 23 million (or 2.3 crore) workers. In a letter dated 6th April 2017 to Rajasthan’s labour secretary, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) described the condition of brick-kiln workers – and there were many similarities with the Russian situation.

The letter said, “The vulnerable conditions of the these workers stem from the fact that:

(a) The state government has failed to enforce provisions of labour legislations;
(b) Most of these workers are interstate or intrastate migrants recruited from remote villages of UP, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and part of Rajasthan by illegal contractors on an advance wage during the off-season;
(c) The workers are illiterate or have modicum of education, almost landless, poor with high indebtedness/deficit budgets and belong to backward communities like SC, ST or OBC. Representation of forward castes like Rajputs, Brahmins, Banias is not there; and
(d) The establishments are located in the remote areas therefore the workers remain invisible and get exploited, deprived of social safety net benefits and legal labour rights.”

In a report on the issue, Equal Times described how a man from Uttar Pradesh borrowed money for a wedding and found himself travelling thousands of kilometres to repay his debt. “His wife, three young children under the age of 10 and his ageing father all worked at the kiln, yet Brijesh was the only one officially employed – and paid.” The payment was a sustenance amount as he worked off his debt.

Just like Russia, the kilns tend to be situated in remote areas. So, geography becomes the first hurdle in trying to escape. These kilns are effectively gulags or debtor’s prisons – but with the formal veneer of wage labour. In this instance, mechanisation cannot come fast enough. In an interview with IndiaSpend, Ken Bales, a professor of contemporary slavery at the University of Nottingham, said “The interesting thing is that there are lot of things people do for business – not just in India, but across the world – with slaves that if they didn’t have slaves for it, they wouldn’t do it…There is a belt from Punjab to Uttar Pradesh, below Nepal, where they make bricks because of the kind of soil found there. You can buy Chinese brick-forming machines for not many rupees, and they don’t need to pay for the machines because they have slaves – children and mothers. As soon as you break it (slavery), either they have to shut down or they have to buy those machines.”

But despite knowing about these kilns and the existence of strong central legislation against bonded labour, state governments like Rajasthan are notoriously impotent at dealing with the issue. PUCL has criticised the state for notifying a minimum wage of Rs 227 for 1000 bricks. This wage was absurdly low compared to neighbouring states like Punjab (where it is Rs. 587), Haryana (Rs. 472) and Uttar Pradesh (Rs. 365). Within Rajasthan, areas like Ganganagar, Ajmer and Bhilwara pay more than double of this notified rate. But in places like Jaipur, the minimum wage is what’s paid. And the prices of bricks are much higher in Jaipur than in Ganganagar or Ajmer, so there is no market reason for the wages to be so low.

Pioneering the use of behavioural science at work

In the United States of America, they’ve moved way past slavery and now simply trick people into choosing to work hard by themselves. “Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and non-cash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them…By mastering their workers’ mental circuitry, Uber and the like may be taking the economy back toward a pre-New Deal era when businesses had enormous power over workers and few checks on their ability to exploit it.” Read the fantastic investigation by NYT here.

Caste and Safai Karamcharis

A recent study published in EPW of 360 safai karamcharis employed by the Bombay Municipal Corporation argues that policies aimed at uplifting conservancy work may actually be institutionalising caste-based occupations, “This study reveals that almost 90% of safai karamcharis in the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) belong to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Classes. Castes like the Mahar, Matang, Meghwal, Harijan, Valmiki and Chambhar dominate, whereas others like Kathewadi, Kunbi, Vadar and Devendrakulathan are found in smaller numbers…In our study, we found that more than three-fourths (77.2%) of safai karamcharis are second-or third-generation workers. Nine out of 10 have adopted this occupation after their father’s retirement or death and only 5% took their mother’s place.”

Other News:

  • Shatrughan Prashad, an employee of SPM Autocomp Systems at Manesar, died on April 6 after getting caught in the conveyor belt.
  • Wages of 47% rural job scheme workers delayed, reveals data.
  • A total of 34 permanent workers at Omax Autos have been fired for supporting contract workers in their protests over their retrenchment and over the subsequent suicide of their co-worker, Ajay Pandey.
  • UP bans strikes in Universities and Colleges invoking ESMA: “The UP government on Friday banned all forms of strikes by employees and teachers in state universities and colleges with immediate effect. The ban is put under the stringent Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) and will continue till June 30. It gives police the power to arrest, without a warrant, anybody violating the provisions of the Act.”
  • According to a report released by the NGO Civdep, Samsung contract workers and trainees at the Sungavarchatram factory in Tamil Nadu have to sign a contract agreeing not to join a union.
  • The Delhi governor cleared a proposal for a 37% minimum wage hike across several sectors which will be in effect starting this month.
  • The Madhya Pradesh government has also announced minimum wage hikes in 67 scheduled sectors starting from April 1, 2017. Unskilled workers will be entitled to at least Rs 7,125 per month, semi-skilled workers to Rs 7,982 per month, skilled workers to Rs 9,360 per month, highly skilled workers to Rs. 10,660 a month, and unskilled farm workers to Rs. 5,998 per month.
  • “Maruti Suzuki Workers Union and Maruti Suzuki Provisional Working Committee appealed to workers all over the world to observe 4th/5th April as an International day of protest, against the state-capital nexus which resulted in persecution of 31 Maruti workers. Workers in many countries including Germany, Russia, Sri Lanka and U.S. and workers across India took to the streets and held protests demanding justice for the incarcerated workers of Maruti Suzuki.” Read on for pictures!

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