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Engaging with the Workforce

Praveen Jha

By Geert De Neve
Social Science Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 347, Rs. 795.00


Geert De Neve has written a book which is a significant contribution to the growing literature on the world of workers in India’s informal economy. As the title of the work suggests, the focal concern of the author is ‘the everyday politics of labour’, and it is through an ethnographic enquiry that he engages with his chosen arena. Three informal textile industries, namely handloom, powerloom and dyeing, located in two small towns, Bhavani and Kumarapalayam, in the centre of the Tamilnadu’s cotton belt, constitute the basic sites of investigation. For good and well-known reasons, the author does not confine his enquiry to the day-to-day interactions on the shop floor only and attempts searching engagements with issues relating to social interactions that provide texture and content to the politics of labour. These obviously include the relational criss-crossings through workers’ neighbourhoods and their wider communities. Thus, work places, coffee-shops, markets, streets, union offices, homes of workers as well as their employers—all these become relevant spaces for investigation.   In the first couple of chapters, the author sets out the context of his study as well as the economic and social organization of the industries being investigated; the issues under focus include the nature of class relations in these industries, prospects of mobility of particular groups therein, among others. Chapters three and four are primarily concerned with the play of authority and hierarchy within the four walls of the factory along with ethnographic mappings of shared and contested everyday social relations. The next three chapters are detailed explorations into the politics of labour in each of the selected industries and bring out the underlying diversities therein. The author reports that in the handloom industry, the weavers’ union has been central to building resistance against exploitation and furthering the interest of workers. Formation and the activities of the union itself was predicated on a shared weavers’ identity, or as the author puts it, ‘craft consciousness’, strengthened by a caste consciousness, and their experiences of work on the shop floor.   The sketch of the industrial relations in the powerloom industry of Kumarapalayam offers a sharp contrast to the above noted scenario in Bhavani’s handloom sector. Here, there is no union worth the name and the industry, since its inception in the 1950s has never been affected by any form of collective action by the workers. At the root of it lies, the ...

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