Comment | Bonded labourers of Bengaluru

A file picture of bonded labourers from Balangir district in Odisha being rescued at a brick kiln in Bengaluru.

A file picture of bonded labourers from Balangir district in Odisha being rescued at a brick kiln in Bengaluru.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What is common for H-1B workers in the U.S., bonded labourers in brick kilns, and migrant workers in Singapore’s multi-storey slums? They share experiences of exploitative, extractive, and inhuman treatment that keeps business models profitable. The pandemic has stripped the moral fig-leaf that tenuously covered this.

In February, a non-profit organisation based in Bangalore, International Justice Mission (IJM), issued a press release in which it detailed the rescue of 204 bonded labourers in the suburbs of the city. These workers from Odisha and Chhattisgarh were held against their will at two brick kilns in Bylakere Village, Yelahanka, Bengaluru Urban District. The rescue was led by government officials.

Also read | Breaking free from the shackles of bonded labour

These people were brought from from Balangir, Naupada and Subarnapur districts in Odisha and Gariaband District in Chhattisgarh, by four different traffickers by train two to six months earlier. They were given advances ranging from ₹15,000 to ₹30,000; were promised good wages, good accommodation and only eight hours of work per day. They ended up working for 16 to 18 hours a day for ₹35. The legally mandated wage is495 for eight hours of work.

Recalling this incident is relevant in the context of Karnataka State government’s decision to hold back migrant workers who are desperate to return to their homes after the lockdown rendered them jobless and starving. This was after eight trains from Bengaluru ferried around 10,000 to Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha over three days. Congratulating the State government for the decision, a BJP MP in Bengaluru said it helped the migrants live their dream and allowed the economy to kickstart; a win-win apparently. Karnataka has now reversed the decision, after the move came in for much criticism.

The legality of the government’s decision to stop migrant workers from moving at free will or the restrictions put on the brick kiln workers by their employers is marginal to this debate, because rules change all the time. What is worthwhile, however, is to re-examine the moral arguments underpinning labour relations in the light of current experiences. There is an argument that India’s rise as a capitalist paradise is stopped by policies that indulge the labour. Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy has said Indians must work for 60 hours a week in the coming days. Laws may be made to enforce such things, in the future.

The labour from U.P., Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal is to India’s economic centres of Pune, Surat, Mumbai and Delhi what the Indian, Malaysian, Philippine and Bangladeshi labour is to the world’s economic centres of Singapore, the U.S., and the GCC region. It is the same structural relations that take multiple forms in different settings, between workers and the larger economy. As globalisation deepened a lot of work moved to places of cheap labour, but in some sectors such as construction, hospitality, healthcare and farming workers had to come where the work is. Work cannot move. The H1- B visa programme and the Indian IT outsourcing industry combined is a hybrid of exporting work and importing labour — an IT company takes dozens of workers to the U.S., and simultaneously shifts several times more American jobs to its Indian locations, in a typical business model.

Social distancing to social culling

Singapore has also been in focus, initially for its storied counter-corona strategy, and now for its collapse in its multi-storey slums, dormitories where it packs workers up to 20 people in a room. These complexes are self-contained, and sites of extreme social distancing, much before that became a thing. When the outbreak was noted in these camps, the government did two things — it locked up those infected and whose labour could temporarily dispensed with, and moved the healthy ones to different locations. Of Singapore’s 56 lakh population, 14 lakh are migrant workers. Nearly 12 lakh of them are in this bottom of the heap, earning $500 on average a month, less than one sixth the national average.

The story is no different for the majority of the 80 lakh Indians who are in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 80% of them unskilled or semi-skilled. Most GCC governments adopted an approach similar to Singapore — lock up the infected and make the rest work. The most vulnerable of them are now being ferried back to India. If Karnataka wants to protect its economy by not letting migrants leave, the GCC countries are trying to protect theirs by ejecting the fallen. Holding on to them has no purpose; healthier, cheaper ones can be brought in soon. Social distancing moves to social culling easily.

Temporary Indian workers in America, largely recruited under the H-1B programme, appear to be in an exalted category, but appearances can be deceptive. More than 20 lakh Indians may have reached the U.S. under the H-1B temporary visa programme. These workers are mostly skilled and they can technically reach the highest peaks of the U.S. economic pyramid — Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, CEOs of Google and Microsoft, respectively, started their American careers with these temporary work permits. But for the ordinary H-1B worker, life in the U.S. is constantly an experience of suspended animation — s/he gets extension not more than three years at a time, sometimes only one year, and is paid roughly 60% to 70% of what an American s/he may have replaced got paid. But s/he has a path to residency and citizenship in the U.S., howsoever narrow, long and difficult that may be.

Political distancing, control

Foreign labourers are critical to the host economies but they have to be kept under control, particularly keeping them at a distance from the political process of the country. As for capitalist democracies, the advantage that comes with exporting work is also to push exploitative labour relations that might be difficult to sustain within their societies to the peripheries of the global system. This process mirrors the export of polluting industries to developing countries. The competitive advantage in labour costs in countries such as China and Vietnam come also from the ability of the regimes there to suppress labour rights. By exporting exploitative work, Western democracies escape the responsibility of having to negotiate the relations with labour within their domestic framework. Additionally, this capability to export work, thanks to communication and transportation revolutions, the bargaining power of the domestic workers is undermined. They are told they are no longer competitive — this is the race to the bottom. All these gains would be lost if the guest workers are allowed too many rights.

H-1B workers have been termed the new slaves of America, given the iron grip that their employers have on their lives and jobs. It is employers who get the visas, and a guest worker has limited leeway to negotiate another job. It is the employer who gets do decide who gets a permanent residency, popularly known as Green Cards. By keeping them in temporary status, which requires periodical renewal, the employers have them on a tight leash. With the tightening of rules of the visa programme by the Donald Trump administration, every renewal is a nightmare for workers, whose lives remain constantly in anxiety and uncertainty. There are an estimated eight lakh Indians in America who are waiting for Green Cards, their children outgrowing their dependent status and hence staring at other consequences.

Life is more dismal for temporary farm workers in the country. California’s agriculture sector depends on its nearly six lakh migrant labourers, at least half of them undocumented. They come on seasonal H-2A visas, for not more than 10 months at a time, and with no route to residency or citizenship.

Singapore’s army of labourers in “dirty, dangerous and degrading” work can never get residency permits. They come under work permits or what is called S-passes, tied to particular contractors and mandated to stay in labour camps. A small portion of the total migrant workers, the skilled professionals, have a pathway to residency in the city-state. The situation gets more restrictive and intimidating in GCC countries, where immigrants outnumber citizens. Under the kafala system there, migrants are tied to their employers, who acts as their official “sponsor” (or kafeel) from the moment they enter the country and throughout their period of employment. Employers can force them to work, give them much less money than promised, and easily throw them in jail. In the case of women, additional vulnerabilities and exploitation come into play.

Exploitative labour relations are often defended by the claim that they are now better off. Migrant workers are rejecting this claim by the defiant act of walking thousands of miles to just get home. The State has now decided to force them to work. Now that it can be called the Singapore Model, brick kiln owners in Yelahanka might be wondering what was the brouhaha about bonded labour.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 8:44:20 AM |

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