Value For Work


After the Devyani Khobragade incident, the question of ‘the minimum wage’ spread like wildfire in many circles for work. A prominent Indian foreign diplomat was investigated (and according to some ‘mistreated’) because of accusations of exploiting her domestic help. However, interestingly, retaliatory voices were raised by us in her favour to do away with the embarrassment of rule-breaking by an Indian in another country. Rarely anyone focused on the condition of her maid. Similar cases of NRIs harassing gullible Indian servants into working for them below the radar of foreign laws have been revealed, with some of them including brutal treatment and abuse. What I’d like to draw attention to from this argument, is the principle of human dignity in economic terms. The consumerist-capitalist system has helped us develop the unique vision of weighing human lives as dispensable items of specifiable value in the market of exchange. Hence, when applied to people, terms like ‘objectification’ and ‘commodification’ produce a jarring sense of ‘wrongness’. Many would still wish to justify this process of selective progress with glorified exclamations, but the uneven, unequal, opportunistic manner of its development must be questioned by all socially conscientious members of all groups. This dignity of human life also rests in the ‘dignity of labour’, which opens a can of worms when applied to the Indian scenario.

86% of India’s working population works in the unorganized sector (NCEUS Report, 2005) and generates 50.6% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. One possible way to read these figures is that, half of the country’s GDP is built on varied forms and levels of oppression and injustice. This is a disputable formulation, but the severe lack of effective implementation of laws that guarantee our rights as citizens validates this statement. One might argue that the unorganized sector is defined on the basis of the number of workers, due to which the cottage industry run by families, for example, may be counted in it. Or that it implies formal and professional standards of relationship apart from objective dispute settlement mechanisms, which small-scale businesses might not guarantee. Lease-based work is temporary in nature due to which offering benefits like sick-leave or maternity leave, is not practical. Matching all the standards of organised sector work is taxing, and requires a lot of resources: something most of us are starved of. And finally, that numbers are not always true. We are a developing country initiating new and hopeful economic policies that will ensure jobs (or handouts), to catapult us into success. But I’d like to emphasize the human element of these transactions. It can be said that the worker in question may undergo a vicious cycle- lack of opportunities in education, lack of opportunities after education, desperation, frustration, compromise, resignation to whatever helps to maintain survival, and finally apathy. The unorganised sector is a powerful force precisely because the welfare state has failed to look after the welfare of its citizens. Its policies and their implementation have been efficiently applied only in a few areas; it has not extended or expanded to accommodate everyone in its ambit. The umbrella has broken down.

The cynicism of these evaluations connotes a sense of determinism: abstract human dignity is an elusive construct. However, simple examples can teach us how concrete it is. Dalits have been forced to inherit degrading professions- manual scavenging, drainage plumbing and sanitation, sewage treatment, sweeping, disposing off corpses etc., for example. Even today, the persistence of the caste system casts them into these roles unflinchingly. The irony of the matter is that the most ‘unlcean’ untouchable people work for cleanliness (their cleanliness is never next to godliness). By performing the least valued tasks, their exploitation becomes holistic- economically, socially, politically, religiously, and ethically. Western ‘developed’ countries guarantee dignified treatment of labour, strict adherence to the minimum wage to give everyone the basic standard of living, and a robust judicial system to safeguard rights. Upper caste Indians have been known to commonly express disdain when being asked to perform ‘menial’ jobs within the country. But, they have no qualms doing so when they migrate to say USA, Canada or UK. Ergo, this violence is structural and unique to the varied combinations of ‘Indian’ factors.

Displacement and homelessness, physical or sexual abuse, and barely making ends meet, are some fallout’s of our refusal to have dignity for labour. The unorganized sector employees are not even offered the option of sitting at the same level as us, or sharing our food and water. Therefore, the problem of the unorganized working class is intensely personal in nature, and invades the most ‘progressive’ minds as well.

– Contributed by Tript

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