The working class has long been the mirror in which nations see themselves. Their lives, their struggles, have often reflected the state of lofty ideals, whatever they may be, that define nationhood across the world. Popular culture has adored the working man—songs have been sung about his unceasing toil, cinema has immortalised him as the honest man giving his all to live in a world full of exploiters.
Post-liberalisation India has had many success stories; the rise in the economic fortunes of the middle class is its greatest, and glossiest, as we are unfailingly reminded every day by peddlers of consumerism. What we are not reminded of often, if at all, is the fate of the workers—men and women who built the India story, brick by brick, yarn by yarn, keystroke by keystroke. Trickle down has escaped them so far. They’re the glossed-over people: Textile workers, blue-collar IT workers, construction workers, factory hands, and workers who go the Gulf and send remittances.
This issue is a special on labour. We look beyond the popular narrative—the one that says all’s well because the malls are crowded—and find that the lot of workers in various sectors hasn’t really improved over the last two decades.
In Tirupur (“Tailored for tyranny)”, the textile hub which exported garments worth Rs.12,500 crore last year, women employed in spinning mills work virtually as bonded labour. Teenage girls are taken on contracts which include a three-year bond after which a girl may get Rs.35,000-70,000, the money with which she can pay her dowry. This earn-your-dowry scheme results in 12-hour workdays for the girls, living in hostels inside factories with no permission to go beyond its walls, and almost no weekly offs.
The IT sector is our lodestar, an industry that has made middle-class dreams come true like no other. At its lower rungs, it’s a nightmare. Sudesh Pathak, an engineer whose father spent his life’s savings for his education, got his first pay cheque in an IT firm only 18 months after he started working, writes Arpit Parashar. Thousands of others have suffered worse than Pathak in IT companies whose preferred growth model is to cut costs by exploiting employees.
In Kerala, paranoia against migrant workers, primarily from West Bengal and Odisha, has reached obscene levels. Labelled “Bangladeshis”, the media and police blame them for all the crimes of Kerala: from terrorism, counterfeit currency rackets to petty burglaries. This obnoxious discourse results in violence now and then, with the migrants bearing the brunt.
In Mumbai, a people’s movement is demanding that their interests be protected when their homes in slums are demolished in the name of redevelopment. Shorn of political alliances, this is a collective where everyone has a stake—the housemaid, the dabbawala, the tailor.
Don’t miss the essay (“A potful of rice for the future”) on the efforts of a retired teacher and a scientist to save indigenous varieties of rice, working men who have made a difference, and the photo story that profiles the junior artistes of the Telugu film industry.
Saurav Kumar, Editor