Anomie in Industrial Relations

Anomie in Industrial Relations

I published the story of Rajendra Vighe. It was captioned ‘The Contracts of Exploitation.’ In this post I take the story further to explain how ‘anomie’ is the word which describes the current state of industrial relations. However, since I used the word ‘exploitation’ in the earlier blog post, it is necessary to understand what the concept is.

On September 28, 2011 published an article titled “What do we mean by exploitation?  . Here is a quote from that article. It will help us understand the term well and in perspective.

THE TERM “exploitation” often conjures up images of workers laboring in sweatshops for 12 hours or more per day, for pennies an hour, driven by a merciless overseer. This is contrasted to the ideal of a “fair wage day’s wage for a fair day’s work”–the supposedly “normal” situation under capitalism in which workers receive a decent wage, enough for a “middle class” standard of living, health insurance and security in their retirement.

Sweatshops are horrific examples of exploitation that persist to this day. But Karl Marx had a broader and more scientific definition of exploitation: the forced appropriation of the unpaid labor of workers. Under this definition, all working-class people are exploited.

Marx argued that the ultimate source of profit, the driving force behind capitalist production, is the unpaid labor of workers. So for Marx, exploitation forms the foundation of the capitalist system.

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When I met the six young workers, one among them stood out. He wore an olive green shirt and a cap. He spoke passionately. I spoke to him at length. The discussion was in Marathi but translated here. He introduced himself as Swapnil Marathe.

Swapnil worked as welder at Hyundai Construction Equipment at Pune.

“What work did you do at Hyundai?” I asked.

“I worked as a welder.”

“Employed directly?”

“No sir. We were placed there by Yashaswi Institute of Technology. I started working there from 7th November 2011 and completed four years of work on 6th November 2015. ”

“Yashaswi engages people under the ‘Learn & Earn’ scheme. They are supposed to award you a diploma. Did you complete the Diploma?”

“There was no way I could have, or anybody could have completed Diploma. As far as I know, nobody there earned his Diploma. We worked 100 hours overtime, sometimes 120 hours. I requested them to arrange the ‘class’ during the working hours, but they did not.”

“How long did you work there?”

“I worked for four years as Yashaswi trainee. Then under Yashaswi’s NEEM for about one and a half year. I started working under NEEM from 27th Nov 2015. They usually give a ten day break after the YIT scheme.”

“Are you still working there?”

“No. They transferred me to Kalyani Forge in Ranjangaon.” [He may have meant Kalyani Technoforge].

“Why did you not go there?”

“Sir I find it difficult to make two ends meet staying here. Ranjangaon is almost 50 Km away. My two children go to school here. How to work at Ranjangaon and that too on lower salary?”

“How much did they pay you?”

“Under NEEM it is Rs 15000 pm, but they offered me Rs 10500 pm at Kalyani Forge.”

“Why did they remove you from Hyundai Construction?”

“They thought I was giving information to Shramik Ekta Mahasangh.” Others nodded their head to support him.

For those who are not familiar, Shramik Ekta Mahasangh is the federation of unions established at Pune. It is affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union. Reportedly more than a hundred unions are affiliated to this federation.

“Are you the only one removed?”

“There are others….” He looked at the five others in the room. All said that they were also removed for the same reason.

“Saheb, they used to deduct our wages. Rs 1000 were deducted because incentive was cut for whatever reasons. And then there were deductions for transport and canteen.” He wiped sweat from him forehead, and stopped to catch his breath. He was deeply disturbed.

“Wasn’t there was even a murmur of protest?”

“Saheb, we stopped work at one time. It was unbearable. We did not work for three days, everybody put down their tools.”


“Three Scorpio load of people confronted us at the gate. They carried hockey sticks in hand. We pleaded with them. We told them we are helpless, we can’t fight with you. They got some undertaking signed from us. Then work was resumed.”

“How many persons worked there?”

“Permanent workers were 102, over 300 under NEEM and more than 200 as contract workers.”

“So that adds to more than six hundred.”

This is the plight of the frontline soldier of the industry! In case you believe that this is a stray case, I can show you several more!!

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Why does situation take this shape? Here are a few leads:

Value Based People Management a Myth?

Firstly we have to understand that if there is a possibility of exploitation, people will get exploited! And the possibility always exists. Galbraith captured this bitter truth when he said, “In capitalism, man exploits man; in communism it is vice versa!”

Those who have seen the industrial relations situation in the seventies and eighties will tell us how unions were actually exploiting employers in select cases. These cases were not at all uncommon. This is one strong reason why unions have lost sympathy of a common man.

But admittedly it is old story. And just because some unions in affluent industries employed exploitative measures a few decades ago, should not give license to employers anywhere. After all, it is the clan of employers who declare their vision, mission and values on their website. Isn’t that very common? Doesn’t managing people involve practising good values or are we to follow only the market forces?

Populist Amendment to Labour Law

The other factor which has shaped the situation is Chapter V-B of the Industrial Disputes Act. This chapter is the epitome of populist decisions of the Government. It requires an employer to take permission if he wishes to retrench, lay-off or close his establishment. It is axiomatic that businesses experience ups and downs and there is always a need to put all costs under the pair of scissors. This chapter initially was applicable if you employed 300 workmen but then the political leaders soon reduced it to 100 to gain mileage in their trade. The trouble is that this section completely blocks exit of an employer.

Since this most damaging factor pushed persons entering labour market in ‘flexible’ manpower, the unions ought to have asked for its removal. But they are opposed to the change. As long as this Chapter is on the statute book, it is difficult to see how contract labour can be eliminated.

The Contract Labour Act has only added to the woes of the labour, as well as managements. It is practically impossible to think of any job that can’t be abolished in an industry on the representation of a union. So employers are almost neurotic about its implications. Many employers of repute knowingly employed contract labour in production jobs, and worried about the demand for their permanency. With passage of time, managements and unions have implemented variable pay. More permanent workers sometimes means lower variable pay. With other factors contract labour on shop-floor has got accepted! Unions seem to have acquiesced. Or perhaps with very low bargaining power they can do precious little except being onlookers.

In auto industry in Tamil Nadu and in Plastic industry in Gujarat the ratio of permanent to ‘flexible manpower’ is often 1:10! Even Kolkata is not different. I had opportunity to interview a union leader in Kolkata. He confirmed that the contract labour is now commonly [and indiscriminately] employed in the industry in Bengal. This is the situation in communist dominated state!

The point is that the Contract Labour Act is an impractical piece of legislation. The practices in industry have changed completely from seventies when this legislation was enacted.

On Your Own! Says Government

To add fuel to fire, the Government is now has almost abdicated its responsibility for enforcing its own laws. How else the situation can come to this pass? There is talk of ‘self-certification’. The alarming situation on labour front tells us that this is just not feasible. Self-certification requires disciplined behaviour of a large mass of employers [unions included, they also often ‘use’ contract labour for their benefit].

Essentially, this is an issue where economics is at war with good human values. And it seems to be winning so far. But then doesn’t such a situation exist at every step of life? The absence of the power of good governance, the absence of the driving force of good human values and a helpless mass of exploitable people is a deadly combination.

Interviews of Rajendra Vighe and Swapnil Marathe point to the anomie in industrial relations scenario. That the French sociologist Émile Durkheim introduced the term ‘Anomie’ in his study of suicide should send a signal to all players in industrial relations.

Watch Swapnil’s Video

Vivek S Patwardhan