Centre for Labor Research and Action - Organizing Workers in the Informal Sector

Centre for Labor Research and Action (CLRA) promotes workers' rights in the vast informal sector economy of India. Its primary agenda is to organize workers into trade unions that can take up the struggle for decent wages and improved work conditions. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector set up by the Government of India to "review the status of unorganized/informal sector in India'' noted in its final report in the year 2009 that the unorganized sector comprised of 86 percent of the total workers. These workers did not have any job security, income security or social security and are therefore extremely vulnerable to exogenous shocks. The Commission recorded that the benefits of growth seem to have bypassed the overwhelming majority of India's population. Further division of work across the caste hierarchy was highly uneven. Majority of the workforce in the informal sector belonged to the Scheduled Caste/ Tribe, Other Backward Castes, and Minorities. A recent assessment by the Labor Ministry of India puts number of workers in the informal sector at about 370 million.

Seasonal migration has emerged as the dominant mode of labor engagement in the informal sector in India. Workers, sometimes with their whole families, migrate from the relatively underdeveloped pockets to the developed areas for short term deployment, constituting what has been termed by a noted researcher as 'footloose labor'. The mainstream trade unions have failed to organize this vast underclass. There exist material differences between workers in the organized sector and the unorganized sector in their class and caste character. The traditional organizing activity has focused on work place. However the work places are dispersed, deployment of workers is on a seasonal basis and migrant workers are dependent on the employers in many ways - debt, residence at the workplace, and lack of support at destination.

CLRA has developed an alternative paradigm of organizing workers that has proved its effectiveness over the last decade. The focus of organizing is the migration stream rather than the work place only. Organizational activity is spread over the whole cycle of movement from source areas to work places in destination. It has taken violation of labor rights beyond the realm of labor laws and sought to juxtapose these as violation of human rights invoking criminal statutes. CLRA looks upon middlemen who recruit and supply labor as essential links in the organizational chain rather than as adversaries. It has adopted novel tactics to maximize the collective negotiating potential of the working class. To give concrete examples, in brick kilns the short term nature of employment and debt bondage became sources of strength when workers organized to demand their rights in the middle of the work season and threatened to leave the work place at mass. In cottonseed farms, the Union was able to impose a blockade on movement of workers from the source areas forcing the employers to negotiate. At the ideological level, CLRA has mobilized the bourgeoning dalit movement in urban India in support of working class issues seeking a marriage of caste and class, the difficulty of which has ensured continued dominance of the ruling classes in India.

CLRA has so far worked across four migration streams in a concerted manner - cottonseed farms of North Gujarat that draw more than 200,000 tribal seasonal migrants from South Rajasthan and North Gujarat; brick kilns in central and North Gujarat that get 100,000 workers from Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and UP; construction industry in and around the city of Ahmedabad and Surat that employs almost 150, 000 workers, mostly seasonal tribal migrants from surrounding areas; and cotton ginning industry in

Central and North Gujarat that draws 20,000 workers from Rajasthan and Bihar. The trade unions promoted have been able to initiate large scale industrial action leading to hike in wages, signing of collective wage agreements, and reduction in exploitative practices like debt bondage and child labor. In brick kilns, the approach has been tried out with good results in other states like Rajasthan and Telengana. The model has been tested reasonable successfully and is now ready for replication in new streams in Gujarat and elsewhere and scaling up nationally in brick kiln work. CLRA believes in the international solidarity of the working class. It believes that the roots of all poverty lie in the unequal distribution of fruits of labor. This is as true of inequity within the national boundaries as the inequity at the international level. Moving beyond the concept of working class unity, in this age of internet and climate change, CLRA would like to assert the basic unity of mankind, as so eloquently described in the old Sanskrit phrase, 'Vasudhaiv Kutumbum', the whole world is a family. CLRA has collaborated with international working class groups in a number of countries to pursue this goal.