Poverty, Inequality and a Pay Scale That Depends on Contractors' Whims: Scenes From Narela

The Narela industrial complex is one of the biggest in Asia, packed with booming small-scale industrial units. It runs entirely on the labour of low-income workers who have very little say on their pay and living conditions.

Listen to this article:

In order to start liberalising trade and industrial production capacity through economic policy, the Indian nation-state began implementing a set of Washington Consensus style neo-liberal economic reforms in the early 1990s.

The liberalisation push across a few sectors might have opened doors to foreign capital investment in and out of India for the period post 1991, however, the nation-state was not emancipated from the “capture” of private business interests, across states and provinces.

A closer look at industrial corridors in and around the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi and the pattern of employment opportunities available provides a lucid illustration of the structural weaknesses of the neo-liberal compact between the state and workers. Industrial pockets from Wazirpur (in the north east of Delhi) to Narela-Bawana (further north of Delhi at the Delhi-Haryana border) offer a privatised, yet semi-formal base of ad hoc employment opportunities for both skilled and unskilled labourers.

Besides natural expansion, trends in inter-state and intra-state migration is a significant factor in the growth of Delhi’s worker population, which has expanded as a result of both – increase in multi-skill employment opportunities and access to affordable or easier mobility (facilitated by cheaper public transport). 

As the national capital and a rapidly expanding economic hub, the NCR of Delhi attracts people and draws them in from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and so on. The industrial corridor near the area of Narela was set up after a few industrial centres were displaced from interiors of Delhi after a Supreme Court order in 1996.

Also read: Pressed in Steel: A Tale of Migrant Factory Workers in NCR’s Wazirpur and Badli Areas

This area now employs workers from all across Delhi and its neighbouring states and satellite towns.

The authors, part of O.P. Jindal Global University’s Visual Storyboard team, spent the last three months in mazdoor mandis (centrs of labourers) and small factory workshops – particularly shoe factory workshops – located across the industrial corridor of Narela.

A worker polishes a shoe sole at a shoe manufacturing unit in the Narela industrial area. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

This was undertaken as an effort to expand our previous ethnographic engagement undertaken in areas of Wazirpur (Delhi), Kapashera (Delhi-Gurgaon border), Janta Vasahat (Pune) with industrial workers and low-income migrant communities.

Currently, the Narela industrial complex is one of the biggest in Asia, packed with booming small-scale industrial units. Yet, the human capital-resource network of low-income migrant workers who created Narela’s bustling workforce remains heavily underpaid and have no security when it comes to paid work.

“I left my hometown with my parents at a young age. My father did not find any work other than agriculture. There was also an unpleasant atmosphere back home, which caused many fights. Now that I am earning too, they have returned to UP.”

– Mithilesh, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh.

Rise in inter- or intra- state migration to Delhi from parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and other areas has played a critical role in shaping the fragmented pattern of industrialisation and urbanisation in much of NCR.

At Narela too, low-income migrant workers are the overwhelming majority of labourers working and residing in or near the industrial complex. Most workers enter the market as loaders who learn to transition into long term factory workers while being on the job. If they gain enough skills on the job, they will be offered higher pay and have a greater chance of becoming supervisors.

The few reasons for workers to choose Narela as a destination to work at are due to the nature of industrial work opportunities available to low-skilled migrant workers and the presence of a more organised industrial-worker landscape. As more migrant workers coming to the area are young (aged 16-17 years and above) and have limited experience of industrial work in the past, they are looking for jobs open to low-skilled workers with a scope for scaling up and gaining a longer term position.

Workers at a shoe manufacturing unit in the Narela industrial area. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

Each worker in a typical Narela factory enters the workforce based on a recommendation or trust in the line of work pursued by their fathers or uncles. Finding work requires a social network connection driven by male-dominated patronage. Young male employees have a higher probability of being hired in the same unit where they train as helpers and learn the work in order to (later) work as operators. However, this vicious cycle of learning and promotion on the job is marked with periods of suffering and distress for these semi-formal workers.

“For a long time, I could not find any work here. When I was about to return home, a relative who worked in Narela got me a job in the factory he worked in.”

– Mithilesh, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh.

Most industrial workshops in and around Narela are small and medium scale industries which procure and sell product at a national level. Most of the industries are of plastic goods, cable wires, footwear and food processing industries. Our interviews of roughly 30 workers happened from across footwear-based factory workshops located in the Narela industrial work complex.

There are different dimensions to the pattern of daily wage work which divides the human capital resource network in different categories of work i.e. some workers find daily-wage work, some are on a weekly or monthly basis, and some work on a contract basis, depending on the needs and whims of the factory owner and the contractor through whom the owner talks with the worker community.

From unloading the raw and external material from the carrier trucks, assembly line work, supervisory grunt work, meal supply, sanitation of the unit, intra-industry freight and loading finished goods back into carrier trucks, various patterns of work have various recruitment and wage-structures.

Also read: Migrant Workers in Delhi’s Kapashera Have Been Left to Fend for Themselves

Easily found loitering between industrial units and public parks, in hope of earning a sum between Rs 200-300 a day, are the daily wage loaders and unloaders. Their employment depends on the volume of sacks. These workers often wait to be spotted. In some cases, they become regular, yet non-contractual workers. Measured by the amount of manpower required, their payments are fixed per sack whether loading or unloading.

Light-weight Loaders look for work in the garden area of the Narela Industrial Estate. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

When loading the sacks in floors above the ground level, the price varies from 0.5 paise to Re 1, compared to loading them down to a basement level.

“We get paid on a piece-rate basis. Every bag we load or unload is for a certain rate, and we are only paid for how many we have taken. Moreover, if the machine is not working, we are given an absent mark as we have not done any work that day.”

– Veerpal, a migrant daily-wage worker from Uttar Pradesh.

Subjected to the contractor’s will

Most of the industries have a hierarchical organisation of workers where the owner hires a foreman for various departments. This foreman, locally designated as the labour contractor, is responsible for quality checks, managing and executing the production system. Interestingly, these labour contractors are in charge of personnel resources. They act as middlemen who charge commission for providing labourers and collectivising them for work.

In most cases, the contractor has earlier worked as a labourer for some time and as he learned the work, he gradually proceeded into this contract business by establishing close relationships with workers or using old relationships based on caste and regional ties in villages to bring workers in the city.

The labour contractor has typically worked as a worker for some time before transitioning to this contract business by developing a close relationship with workers or by exploiting established relationships based on caste and regional ties in the village to recruit workers in the city.

Women and men walk to work at the Narela Industrial Complex. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

The very foundation of the worker’s power and welfare is linked to their socio-economic association with the present contractors. Fundamental to wages, work distribution and supervision, contractors are free floaters who also contract workers from one factory to another. They run their business model on the principle that factory owners need workers and workers need to get daily wage jobs. At the heart of this is the commission which is charged from both ends, much like a platform market intermediary like an Amazon or Flipkart.

This instrumental component of the employment structure is totally unaccounted for and under no legal provision. It is because of middlemen or contractors that the factory workers of Narela are exploited for their wages, day in and day out. Workers are paid the remaining sum by contractors who retain a sizeable proportion of commission for themselves.

Since the contractor acts as an intermediary, workers have no direct contact with the employers, minimising the responsibility the employer has for timely payments of wages. This arrangement enables employers and contractors to assume less responsibility at the expense of the livelihood of the workers. Lack of worker-based union groups in the area make collective bargaining to avoid exploitative conditions a difficulty. The overall awareness structure of legal rights for workers remains dismal.

“I never get my salary on time. The contractors always say they would give at a specific date, but it is never done.”

– Veerpal, a migrant daily-wage worker from Uttar Pradesh.

From the employer’s perspective, migrant workers, especially young workers, are eager to put in long hours for meagre remuneration. Six days a week, for at least 12 hours a day, workers toil for a starting salary of Rs 9,000. After employees have worked in the same place for more than six months, employers may give them a contract as a permanent worker, which could result in a better income and the ability to access social benefits like provident fund (PF) or employee state insurance (ESI). Still, few workers enjoy these benefits.

“We can’t directly deal with workers. Because there might be issues from the owner’s side or the worker’s side. The two parties cannot cooperate. Instead, the contractor has a hold over these workers as they are from the same villages or towns as them. There is more contact with the contractors and less with the owners.”

– Krishnalal, small business owner at Narela.

When taking home so little, the ratio of income and expenditure for workers does not sit right. Most new workers make less than Rs 10,000, which continues until they have worked in a unit for a long time. This little sum of salary is supposed to provide for rent, food, conveyance and whatever is left must be sent home for their family in the villages.

The majority of the workers in the industrial estate are migrant workers who are renting housing in adjacent villages and migrant workers who were forcibly relocated to Narela from the city centre as a result of slum resettlement drives. To save money, three to four young bachelor workers stay together in one small apartment. These divides rent and electricity bills in smaller amounts and basic amounts and basic amenities like ration are also paid for together.

“I earn Rs 14-15,000 a month. I send back Rs 7-8,000 so I am only able to save Rs 2,000.”

Veerpal, a migrant daily-wage worker from Uttar Pradesh.

For the workers who live with their families, in most cases more than one family member needs to work. They, too, take up small apartments built by native residents of Narela especially for the purpose of accommodation of labourers. However, much too often, these workers are harassed for rents which they pay late as they do not receive their wages on time.

Living quarters of workers of the Narela Industrial Complex. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

The majority of employees start off as helpers and, after learning the job, are promoted to kaarigar (craftsman) positions. The ratio of men and women workers in the industries differ from unit to unit. In workshops where grunt work is more than machine operation, women are awarded more work. 

Also read: Anchored in the Barren: The Case of Pune’s Janata Vasahat

Patriarchy at play

The gendered division of work within the industrial workplace is rigidly upheld, and women are only allowed to work as ‘helpers’ in the cleaning, packaging and sewing departments. 

In isolated cases, our team also found that few women are trained to operate machines when their spouses or an elderly man is working alongside them in the same factories. Even then, women workers are significantly paid less (often by half) than their male counterparts, for the exact same work hour and same unit of production.

“I work with my husband for the same 12 hours, on the same machine. But I’m  given a salary of only Rs 7,000 while he earns Rs 9,000.”

– A low-income industry worker in Narela.

Men frequently conduct the physically demanding task of loading and unloading items, but women are either not hired or not preferred to do this work. Even beyond the wage difference, the workplace continues to remain unsafe for most women, unless accompanied by their male relatives. 

Workers from Tikri Khrud village walk towards the DSIDC Industrial area, Narela. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

After their 10-12-hour work shifts, women also perform unpaid and unaccounted for domestic work, while their husbands either rest or consume alcohol. From cleaning their modest spaces, to cooking meals to looking after their children, women spend considerably more time doing household work, both in and outside of the work space. The pattern of intra household work load and disproportionate expectations from women on care responsibilities was consistent with our previous observations from the Wazirpur study.

“The environment in the complex is very bad. Whenever I go there for work, the men make it worse by making it uncomfortable for the women. It is not at all safe for women, as we cannot return late (7 or 8 pm), or even walk alone.”

–  A low-income industry worker in Narela.

The cost of education and healthcare is little and only incidental in a family household. Most households are accustomed to setting aside a portion of their money for their daughter’s wedding as well as other celebrations and events that would be held in their families. The state policy of ESI is meant to cover the medical expenses of workers and their families. 

However, these policies are only available to workers who suffer unfortunate accidents in the factories. Many workers replied with discontent when we asked them questions about receiving government-supported social benefits through existing worker-based schemes or through a direct intervention by the state-officiated representative. 

In multiple incidents of accidents where workers’ fingers and hands are cut off during work, the owners or contractors barely offer anything to help. Even if some initial medical assistance is provided, there is no social protection, pension, availability of substitute jobs, or long-term welfare or care programmes. Often, not even salaries are offered for the rehabilitation period.

A worker shows a serious hand injury. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

Most workers living in and around the industrial complex have lost faith in the government. Promises made for worker-centric benefits are hardly kept and the responsibility to maintain basic public amenities such as toilets, sewage and clean water facilities falls on the owners of factories or the slum-dwellers themselves.

Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University.

Jignesh Mistry is a photojournalist, senior research analyst and the Visual Storyboards team lead with CNES.

Tavleen Kaur and Hima Trisha are research assistants with CNES.

Sriniket Bandaru is a research intern with CNES’s Visual Storyboard team.

Names of all respondents have been changed to protect their identity. All photo credits belong to Jignesh Mistry.

This story is produced by the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) Visual Storyboard Team, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University. 

The authors would like to thank all the members from the Narela industrial complex, its Chambers of Commerce, and the entire worker community for helping us in learning about their life-stories. For any inputs/comments on the story, please write to CNES team at [email protected].