May Day, 2021: The long road home

May Day of 2021 is unique in its context at least for Indian workers, if not for those around the world. Never in the history of independent India have we had such a large scale pauperisation, destruction of livelihoods and repeated displacement under distress. This was triggered by the two waves of Covid-19 pandemic. But it was also brought to the level of severity and distress as seen, by the governments at the Centre and States. 

May Day of 2020 quietly slipped by as the nation held itself indoors living the unknown depths of the first wave. The country and most of the world was about 5-6 weeks into this global crisis at that point of time.

As I write this today, the world has been unimaginably altered. It has brought upon a whole variety of effects at the core of which lies the state of workers across all classes and sectors. 

Vulnerability to the pandemic has been primarily a function of people’s economic status. The necessity of decent jobs is felt now more than ever. 

Here are a few observations on the future of workers’ rights, labour policy and our understanding of labour issues, in the context of the pandemic.

  1. It must be recognised that labour is now firmly located in the age of information. This means that information technology now drives work and workers in ways that were never possible before. Think of a worker being assigned tasks, supervised, paid and managed by an algorithm. And that all of these processes are constantly self improving and seeking optimisation by recording every move of the worker on and off work.
  2. A worker is for all practical purposes isolated and individualized. There are no groups and collectives at work any more. Therefore, conventional ways of organizing and collective action through  workers union and trade unions are ineffective. Amazon’s warehouse workers vote in Alabama recently is an epitaph to this idea.
  3. In India, we must resolve this informal – formal binary at which every conversation about the condition of workers and forms of employment seems to take a fall. With universalized social security, this categorization should lose relevance unless it is also used to mean stable, secure employment as well. There again, as soon as that too gets standardized, this binary should rest in peace. 
  4. Structural transformation of Indian labour (and Indian economy by extension) is a (very) distant dream. This country is so far away from that situation where our labour force has transitioned to manufacturing from agriculture work and onward to even higher productivity sectors like services. In Covid-19 affected India, Kuznets ratio is screwed beyond recognition. If anything, labour data shows an increase in agricultural labour! And this doesn’t look temporary. See PLFS Report of 2018-19.
  5. Transnational solidarity among workers is a nice idea. That is it. Workers struggle will find a common cause to rally against and come together only when international trade (and corporations) stops being driven by comparative advantage. Which is to say, never! As long as there are poor Indians willing to sew a few dozen garment pieces per hour for a fraction of wage than a richer economy, it is their own fight and more importantly, with their own government in the first instance.
  6. Future of work will unfold differently for workers across the world. For instance, a gig worker on a delivery and mobility platform in India is basically a non-farm casual worker underneath the fancy labels of ‘delivery partner’, ‘delivery executive’ and ‘captain’. 
  7. Low productivity is a big and serious reality that labour researchers must think hard about. India has already missed the manufacturing stage of transformation which has affected productivity gains. The workforce entering the services sector is poorly skilled and economically weak. Together, this is a debilitating combination that is likely to keep workers and India’s productivity in a low growth trap.

Finally, I’d argue that the fight for the cause of labour needs a massive renewal in terms of research direction, articulation of causes and policy goals. In the gig economy, ‘wage’ for a work has already changed to ‘payout’ for a task. It cannot be about more trade unions and more tripartite. It is a language that big tech has made nearly extinct.

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