Unionising in Precarious Working Conditions


At a time of increasing precarity, traditional trade unionizing strategies must evolve to meet new challenges. While precarity is not new by any means, the systematization and entrenchment of precarious labour through all power structures and the steady decline of the permanent worker base necessitates broad-based and innovative unionizing strategy.


I. Forms of Precarious Employment


No strategy can be applied formulaically due to the sheer variety of systems of precarity that have been built over decades. Of course, the largest mass of precarious workers are in the unorganised sector and agriculture. Another developing mass of workers are gig/platform workers, who, as I have previously argued, must also be seen as ‘workmen’ who are ‘employed’ in an ‘industry’, and therefore entitled to be given protections of labour law. This article will focus on a third significant mass of precarious workers in the organized sector, who perform permanent and perennial work but are denied the benefit of regular employment.


Even amongst this mass, there are variations. On the one hand, there are workers who are shown to be employed through sham contractors. They are mere name lenders to divest the workers of claims against the real employer. This is a deliberate strategy to indefinitely guise such workers as employees of a sham intermediary.


On the other hand, there are other workers in conditions of ‘direct insecure employment’. These include workers who are taken on fixed term contracts, which are extended time and again. Others are shown as ‘trainees’ who do full time production without any training but are deprived of workman status. Yet another common category of such workers are casual or badli workers, whose names are not reflected on the rolls of the establishment. While these workers are to some extent entitled in law to some degree of protection, that protection is absent in reality, and such workers are deprived of equal and fair treatment.


II. Dualisation of the Labour Force


While performing identical work of permanent nature, precarious workers are not entitled to equal wages or benefits. In the case of contract labour, they are even denied the right to claim a relationship of employment with their real employer. With labour laws unimplemented, such workers are denied minimum wages, and denied parity at all levels, including parity of wage, bonus, increment, uniform, overtime payment, leave, allowances etc. While payment of equal wages and benefits for equal work is a licence condition of the contractor, the consequence of breach of this condition is revocation of licence, which never happened in decades. These workers face daily hire and fire at work and lack social security or other protections. Even the judiciary refuses protection more often than not.


Thus, precarious workers become a class within a class to some extent, or, as Sudha Bharadwaj calls it, ‘another caste system’. This is also referred to as the ‘dualisation of the labour force’. It has been argued that intensified precarity is a characteristic of late capitalism, which resulted in the fragmentation of the workforce into precarious and secure employment.


III. The Example of Contract labour

In 1970, India brought in the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, a law with the avowed objective of abolishing contract labour wherever possible. Prior to enactment, a 45-member Joint Parliamentary Committee was constituted to consider the passage of the Act. The government staunchly defended contract labour along with public sector and private sector managements. An excerpt of the Deposition of BC Ganguli, Member, Railway Board, before the Joint Parliamentary Committee is very telling:

“Labour Minister: If a contractor can afford to have men and then go on from place to place for work, why can such a corporation not do it? Perhaps, the argument may be that when there is no work, the contractor can discharge those people.

B. C. Ganguli: That is the main thing. The second thing is that you will not be able to attract temporary establishments to work for the Government because we have a lot of limitations – payment of bonus and things like that, also the pay scales.

Labour Minister: They are not limitations.

B. C. Ganguli: They are big limitations.

Labour Minister: I am talking from the workers’ point of view.

B. C. Ganguli: I am talking from the Government point of view.”


While this was the stance of the government as an employer, representatives of the CPI and Samyukta Socialist Party, amongst others had issued dissenting notes, noting that firstly, while the Act spoke of gradual abolition of contract labour, the effect would be its regularization and institution; and secondly, that the exclusion of coverage of the mass of casual workers who are treated in an equally discriminatory manner was unjust. These dissenting notes accurately forecast the present, wholescale institutionalization of precarious labour.


By 2001, the Supreme Court had shifted from calling the contract labour system “nothing but an improved version of bonded-labour” to gutting the 1970 law by denying absorption to contract workers upon abolition of the contract system. Now, through the new Labour Codes, the government is also granting statutory sanction to contractualisation by taking the stance that the contractor himself is the principal employer. In fact, a report issued by the V. V. Giri National Labour Institute and the Indian Institute of Public Administration titled ‘Impact Assessment Study of the Labour Reforms Undertaken by the States’ argued that deregulation by increased thresholds of applicability of beneficial labour legislation would increase formalisation by ensuring that the contractor is treated as the regular employer.


It may be kept in mind that the Government whose policies enable such precarity is also a primary beneficiary in its role as an employer, while also pushing its crony corporate agenda. The outsourcing of permanent government posts results in a transition of a government post to coolie work, for which far from scales of pay, workers are often denied minimum wage. While the Supreme Court has held that “Sanctioned posts do not fall from heaven. State has to create them by a conscious choice on the basis of some rational assessment of the need” this proposition has not been taken to its logical conclusion, and instead there is institutionalisation of precarity, to an unprecedented extent.


IV. Why are Precarious Systems Preferred in Capitalist Systems?


A. Economic Reasons: Heightened Expropriation of Surplus Value

The reality is that old systems of precarious work are evolving and new systems are being built as a deliberate economic strategy of the corporate state, with the complicity of the judiciary. The government has broadly continued to espouse precarious work for economic and administrative considerations even while turning a blind eye to the shocking indignities meted out to workers in precarity, who are denied all protections. This calculated precarity enables the extraction of maximum possible labour value from the worker, which is devoid of human value. The prevalence of precarious labour is a testament to the fact that the principal employer is perpetrating illegal discrimination of that workforce.


Importantly, it has been found that presence of precarious labour enables slow-down of wage growth of permanent workers too due to the problem of rampant unemployment.


B. Precarity as a Tool to Fracture Class Solidarity


In the eyes of the employer, apart from economic benefits, precarity becomes a tool to dilute revolutionary movements and workers resistance by fracturing class solidarity by dividing workers into two classes – the stable minority and the precarious majority. To some extent, precarity reveals existing fissures and contradictions of caste, class and gender. Stigmatic occupations, for example, ‘housekeeping’ work that entails manual scavenging is overwhelmingly performed by Dalit women. Now, all such work is outsourced, which is institutionalized in the labour codes, by excluding “sanitation works, including sweeping, cleaning, dusting and collection and disposal of all kinds of waste” from the definition of core activity, where contract labour is prohibited. Now, a Dalit woman who gets a housekeeping post will no longer get scales of pay or benefits of permanency but are in perennial precarity. Similarly, outsourcing of government jobs has a direct impact on reservation, which is not required to be followed by the contractor.


V. Difficulty in Unionising in Precarious Employment


It is a known fact that unionising is difficult for workers in precarity. A report by IndustriALL Global Union titled 'Precarious Work in India' finds that there is a greater resistance to unionising among the workers performing indirect precarious work on vastly inferior terms, who are increasingly made to replace those in permanent direct employment. There is a higher degree of victimisation of contract workers, who are more susceptible to illegal dismissal without any repercussions on the management. High levels of unemployment also result in workers being highly replaceable and less valuable to retain for the management. A dynamic workforce reduces the responsibilities of all those managements that evade legal compliance. A precarious worker often has no economic safety net and is unable to take the risk of losing his job. An atmosphere is created around unionisation as the probable consequence of speaking out is economic death. Class struggles which revolve around collective bargaining, and strike as a weapon of last resort to the working class are thus less available to precarious workers.


VI. Need for Established Unions to Espouse the Cause of Precarious Workers

Traditional unionising was in the context of large permanent industrial workforce, and had burgeoned at a time when there were aspirations of a welfare state with state and judicial support to the working class. With permanent workers as members, these unions had sufficient resources and collectivisation to be able to fight exploitative managements.


It has been argued that a strictly legalistic understanding of workers’ rights and the relationship of employment has resulted in inertia of mainstream unions towards casual workers who fall out of this framework. It is argued, “for labour to respond effectively to the rise of precarity, it will have to follow capital beyond the legal boundaries of class relations. Where the fewest legal protections exist, we find the greatest potential for innovative class conflict.”


On the other hand, it has been argued that with the growth of precarious employment, traditional trade unions employ a host of new strategies to defend these workers.


It is undeniable that there is some lethargy in espousal of the cause of precarious workers by permanent unions. However, with a rapidly decreasing permanent workforce, unless unions embrace the cause of precarious workers, there will soon be no concept of permanent work.


VII. New Union Strategies in Times of Precarity


Most experiences of organising precarious workers seem to indicate a key role of solidarity and community building.  One report finds three broad themes that workers in precarity face, which include lack of control, commodification of time and creation of mistrust. The report notes that “Unions must recognise that precarious workers often face a double burden with respect to both ‘time poverty’ and ‘financial poverty’, which might limit their ability to engage in union organisation in the traditional way” and finds that “precarity can be harnessed as a shared identity and sense of community”. In another article, the downward trend in union power has been attributed to reduction in economic growth and industrial employment, as well as deregulatory policies, which all increase precarity in a process termed as a ‘vicious cycle’. Escaping this cycle requires stronger institutions and mobilising of unorganised workers through solidarities of similar identity.


It has also been argued that “perceived difficulties for unionisation are fear, lack of knowledge of precarious workers about their rights, status of frustration and lack of interactions with other workers. Reported practices for unionising precarious workers consist of dealing with these barriers in order to build trustful relations and empowering workers through education and inclusion in leadership positions. Actions taken to protect and secure precarious workers are strongly interlinked with their unionisation.

The main conclusions of the study are that precarious work means a loss of control by workers over their work life stemming from labour commodification and flexibilisation due to increased management control and lack of rights and protections surrounding work. The formation of solidarities needed for unionisation is hindered by the detachment of precarious workers from the work community and by inequality regimes.


VIII. What to Fight for?


In an article titled “Trade union strategies against precarious work: Common trends and sectoral divergence in the EU”, different union strategies regarding precarious work are discussed – first, elimination of the precarious work itself and secondly, bridging the gap between the two classes of workers. It also notes that demands can be claimable against not only the employer, but also against the government or the third-party user agency.


The Global Union Principles on Temporary Work Agencies adopted by Global unions states, “the primary form of employment shall be permanent, open-ended and direct employment. Workers provided by temporary work agencies must be accorded equal treatment and opportunities, including equal pay for equal work, with regular and permanent employees with respect to terms and conditions of employment.” The principles consider a number of other aspects including liability of the principal employer, social security, regulation etc.


While elimination of precarious labour must be the ultimate goal, it must go hand-in-hand with demands of immediate equality and security of the precarious workforce.



IX. The Way Forward


Bhagat Singh wrote: “Class consciousness is required to ensure that people do not fight among themselves. It has to be made very clear to the poor, working class and peasants that their real enemy is capitalism. That is why they have to safeguard themselves from its stranglehold. The rights of all the poor – be they of any caste, colour, religion or region – are the same. Your wellbeing is in overcoming all these differences and remaining united and strive to take the reigns of power into your hands. With these efforts, you will lose nothing; with these efforts, one day your chains will get cut and you will have economic independence”.


Today, the idea of the welfare state is no more. Workers can no longer rely on benevolent (if flawed) legislation but must rely on their own power to emerge from the anti-worker capitalist regime. Then, working class solidarity is the sole way to build unity and thereby effective resistance. Established unions have the heavy responsibility of building confidence, trust, and solidarity with workers in precarity to establish some level of control over the employer and emerge out of the vicious cycle of increasing precarity.