Powerless and Precarious: Struggles of Surat's Power Loom Workers
Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI
Recently, in a noteworthy article published in the Indian Express, eminent economist Jean Drèze used the Reserve Bank of India’s annual all-India wage estimates to show the stagnation in the growth of real wages for agricultural, non-agricultural and construction workers in the country since 2014-15. He urges the need to focus on real wages since it points to stark gaps in the growth of economic productivity and welfare gains for workers. In the same article, he notes that although the analysis of welfare gains of workers is the most “important” economic indicator, it remains the most “neglected” in India. Drèze provides an important direction towards assessing real wages as an estimate of ‘better living’ and ‘better jobs’ for informal sector workers.
Through this article, we analyse the wages and working and living conditions of a sample of 70 power-loom workers in Surat, chosen conveniently from different work categories, and compare this with their welfare gains in terms of the growth in real wages. All the workers covered in this study are currently working in industrial clusters in the peripheral villages outside city limits. All of them were employed in units located within Surat City before 2017. As is true in most cases of labour migration, in this case, too, most workers were pulled towards the peripheral areas by an assumed hike in pay and better living and working conditions.
Our survey and the Labour Bureau’s data on Consumer Price Indices for Industrial Workers (CPI-IW) show how, in an industry with an annual turnover of Rs. 50,000 crores, the real wages have remained low for the Surat power loom workers.
Power loom industries in Surat are characterised by informal production and labour processes and exploitative wage arrangements. The workers handling the loom machines generally work 12 hours a day, handling between 8-16 machines, and are paid between Rs 1.10-1.50 per metre of fabric produced.
With no weekly off, fixed work hours, or paid leave, along with job insecurity and a ‘pronounced lack of social security’, the migrant power-loom workers of Surat live a precarious existence.
Wages and Woes
The minimum wages for workers in Gujarat were only recently revised in March 2023 after eight long years since April 2014. The recent wage revision notification issued by the Labour, Skill Development and Employment Department of Gujarat has prescribed a daily wage of Rs 474, Rs 462, and Rs 452, respectively, for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers in urban areas. The corresponding wages for other areas are Rs. 462, Rs. 452, and Rs 441, respectively.
Computing for a standard, 8-hour working day, minimum monthly wages for skilled (Workers, Masters, Beam Prasars, Supervisors) and semi-skilled labourers (Two-For-One Workers and Bobbin Workers) in 2017 come to around Rs 9,414 and Rs 8,904, respectively. After the revision in 2023, the minimum monthly wages for skilled and semi-skilled workers stand at Rs 14,220 and Rs 13,860. These wage rates represent more than a 60% increase over those prescribed in 2014.
The increase in minimum wages broadly corresponds to the rise in prices over the period. However, two major gaps need to be noted. The wage notifications neither specify what constitutes a normal working day nor do they fix the piece rate for the workers.
The notification merely states that the minimum wage—including special allowances—payable to workers engaged in a piece-wage system shall not be lower than the minimum wage rate stipulated for the category of workers to which they belong. This allows employers to maximise production by extending the working hours and adding more machines without actually compensating for the extra time put in by the workers. A typical power-loom worker in Surat clocked in 83 hours of work every week.
The other gap that needs to be addressed is that the increase in the nominal wages of workers has not translated into an increase in real terms. Figure 1 below shows our calculations for the nominal wages of workers in 2017 and 2023. The real wages of workers in 2023 were obtained by deflating the nominal wages by the Consumer Price Index of Industrial Workers in Surat (General Index).
Figure 1: Average nominal and real wages of workers for 2017 and 2023, standardised for an 8-hour work day
[Sources: (1) Nominal wages are based on the first author’s field survey; (2) Consumer price index is taken from https://labourbureau.gov.in/centre-index ]
We can see that although most workers experienced an increase in their nominal wages in the period 2017-23, beam prasars and supervisors saw a decline in real terms, keeping their purchasing power staggeringly low. The apparent increase in the real wages of the workers is a result of the increase in the average number of machines handled by them, which has increased from 8 to 12 in the past five years.
The piece rates, however, have not actually undergone any significant change. Our dataset shows that the workers had a meagre increase of 0.50 paisa per metre in the last five years. Thus, the piece wage has almost remained stagnant, with only an immense increase in work burden and productivity.
It is essential to understand that the increase in wages in real terms for other categories of workers is a reflection of the commodities they would be able to afford in 2023 at 2016 prices. This means that an increase in nominal wages has not essentially translated into welfare gains for the vast majority of power-loom workers in Surat.
The stagnation of welfare gains of workers, as shown in the figure above, coupled with the lack of social protection, has led to the workers being unable to lead a decent and dignified existence. The poor living conditions, lack of availability of clean drinking water, sanitation, education, healthcare, and the general lack of safety for migrants are why workers do not bring their families to the city.
One worker said, “I sent my family back even though they used to live with me for a while. I don’t want them to live or work here because I know what it’s like and don’t want to subject them to this. Nobody who works in power looms here earns more than Rs 25,000-30,000. Then how can we live with our families here? Since we have dependents back home, we try to spend as little as possible on our living here and send the rest back home.”
Even though 60% of the workers interviewed have, on average, lived and worked in Surat for more than 20 years, they continue to have no formal document to prove their residence in the city. The majority of them do not have access to utility bills and hence cannot apply for, say, a cooking gas connection. In fact, as undocumented migrants in the city, they are made to spend a lot more on basic utilities than ordinary residents.
Workers are thus forced to live in sub-optimal living conditions, most currently residing in shared bachelor rooms, mess rooms, or on the worksite itself. The shared rooms usually house five to six people within these cramped spaces, with a small mori as a bathing space and a kitchen right beside it with no partitions. The workers use shared toilets outside the rooms. Even such rooms, with unsanitary conditions and minimal facilities, cost Rs. 2,700/- on average.
On the constant lookout for cheaper housing options, workers end up opting for worksite housing. While not prevalent in the city-based units in Surat, employers in the peripheries allow workers to stay within power loom units free of cost and, in return, gain complete control over their work hours.
The suppressed wage levels in the power loom industry, combined with their precarious conditions of work and living, reveal the systematic exploitation that informal workers experience within the larger capitalist enterprise. Thus, the state is reduced to a mere arbitrator rather than a strong adjudicator and protector of labour rights. The faults in the design of our systems make it exceedingly difficult for migrant workers within the larger realm of informal sector workers to secure employment that ensures decent standards of living and security.
Most of the workers we spoke to claimed that the choice of moving out of the city was forced upon them since it was becoming increasingly difficult to find secure jobs in the city. Moving out of the city has meant an increase in the nominal income but being subject to far more deplorable conditions of working and living. Workers are constantly searching for a job that pays higher wages, that will allow them to lead a life marginally better than what they lead now.
Chitrasenbhai from Odisha has spent more than two decades in the Surat power loom industry. His life has been a struggle.
“It has been 22 years, and nothing has changed. If anyone is willing to stand with labourers, truly, only then we will have changes. The issue is also with this state - no one in Gujarat will question if workers are mistreated or not given fair wages or proper benefits. This is not the case in other states. I know that after 22+ years of work, I’m not going to get any benefits, but I’ll continue to work as long as I have the strength in me because I don’t know anything else I can do”, he said.
Niveditha G.D. and Anuraag Srinivasan are Research Fellow and Associate, respectively, at Work Fair and Free Foundation, Bangalore, a research and knowledge institution incubated by Aajeevika Bureau, Udaipur.
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