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Democracy and Demands

Parimal Maya Sudhakar

By Rina Agarwala
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 250, $29.95


Will there be workers organizing in neo-liberal times? Yes, workers will be organizing in a new liberal fashion! Rina Agarwala’s book Informal Labour, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India suggests that workers in the informal sector in India are successfully negotiating their livelihood demands taking advantage of intensely competitive politics particularly at the State level. As India ushered in the neo-liberal economic age in 1991, the trade union movement went into self-imposed siege in the formal sector. The formal sector came under intense threat of transforming into informalization as a result of neo-liberal economic policies. Hence, the trade unions have to concentrate most of their time and energies to save their forts. At the same time, relationship among employer, employee and labour department has undergone a sea change, which got reflected in the judiciary’s judgmental attitude towards weapons of trade unions such as sit-in and strikes. Before the enunciation of economic reforms, labour departments were fairly active in inspecting and regulating the industrial workplaces. This was a minimal protection to workers against inhuman work conditions—excessive working hours, mal-payment of wages and illegal terminations. Similarly, labour courts were interpreting the laws in favour of employees. In fact, India has created a fairly progressive labour law regime in its post-Independence years. However, their interpretations as well as delivery of justice also depended upon the political balance in the country. As the balance tilted towards the Right from the Centre-Left in the last years of the last century, workers began to receive discriminatory treatment in labour departments and labour courts throughout the country. As the formal sectors of the economy came under assault, a number of informal workers grew throughout the country. So questions arise about safe work conditions and welfare of workers in the informal sectors. Since trade unions have not only been deprived of capacities to organize informal workers but also been lacking strategies to this effect, the future of informal workers looked bleak and blank to one and many. Rina Agarwala’s book inquires precisely into this domain and comes out with findings opposed to common beliefs.  With the advent of neo-liberal economic policies, a wisdom has dawned on most of those who dreamt of converting all the informal workers into formal workers. Accordingly, the informal workers’ organizations had redrawn their strategy to seek welfare from the state. Instead of demanding traditional work benefits such as minimum ...

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