Industrial Labor and Wages, 1800–1947

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INDUSTRIAL LABOR AND WAGES, 1800–1947 Throughout the British colonial period, workers in "unorganized," small-scale units outnumbered those in modern factories, mines, and railroad construction. As late as 1911, 95 percent of industrial workers were employed in units other than registered factories. The level of employment in important industries such as hand-loom manufacture and spinning no doubt declined due to the competition of European imports and to the disappearance of demand from pre-colonial states. But weaving, rice processing, bidi (cigarette) rolling, leather work, carpet making, and gold thread manufacture gave work to substantial numbers of people.

Changes in the modes of work and in production relations could be as significant in smaller industries as in large factories. Merchants frequently tightened their control over artisan producers, small workshops using wage labor sometimes replaced family-based units, and workers often had to adjust to new forms of technology.

In the hand-loom industry, there was extensive mobility of labor, as thousands of weavers moved from depressed areas of northern and southeastern India to more dynamic centers of the Bombay presidency. There was also considerable conflict between workers and employers, though often it was expressed in the form of individual, "everyday" acts of resistance, such as slowing the pace of work, embezzling yarn, or absconding with cash advances. There was little collective action by workers against employers in small-scale production until the 1930s and 1940s, when several unions were established and strikes were organized in the hand-loom, bidi, and gold thread industries, at least in western India.

Labor in Large-Scale Industry

What most distinguished the "organized" sector was in fact not its degree of organization or, in all cases, its technology, but the size of the pools of labor it required. At the peak of their activity, railway building, cotton textile production in Mumbai (Bombay), jute manufacture in Kolkata (Calcutta), and coal mining in eastern India each gave employment to hundreds of thousands of workers, while industries such as the cotton mills of Ahmedabad and Kanpur, the steel mills of Jamshedpur, and the gold mines of Mysore used tens of thousands. Because of the small number of such industrial enclaves, employment in registered factories was never more than 1 percent of the Indian population. Nonetheless, each industry needed to attract sizable numbers of workers to a concentrated locale, with the largest industries recruiting labor from great distances. Because of constantly fluctuating economic circumstances, many industrialists were unwilling to offer significant prospects for long-term employment to a large portion of their workers, often hiring them instead on a casual daily basis, then discarding them when the workers were no longer needed.

In most cases, migrants to industrial workplaces came from "labor catchment areas," rural regions where marginal farmers often struggled for subsistence on small plots of land. Bihar, Orissa, and parts of the United Provinces in eastern India, Telugu- and Tamil-speaking districts in the Madras presidency, and the Konkan and Deccan regions in the Bombay presidency were all areas marked by significant outflows of labor. In the textile industries of Bombay and Calcutta, ex-artisans provided an important part of the skilled workforce. Workers were often recruited by intermediary contractors and jobbers either in the villages or, more commonly, among people who had already moved to cities. These intermediaries frequently took small payments from the workers in return for the jobs they provided. Migrants looking for employment also relied on relatives and fellow villagers whom they had followed to industrial centers. Workers often retained rural connections to their home regions, in part due to cultural attachments and kin ties, in part because maintaining landholdings provided some insurance against the uncertainties of industrial employment.

Conditions of work in large-scale industry were generally quite difficult. Workers labored as long as fifteen hours daily, for instance, in the Bombay mills, after electricity was introduced in the 1880s and before legislation established a maximum workday of twelve hours in 1911. Jobbers often tyrannized workers, and the sexual harassment of women appears to have been widespread. Health and safety standards remained low. Work rules frequently gave to employers' arbitrary and unlimited authority to punish workers by dismissal or the docking of pay. At the same time, the ability of employers to impose tight discipline in practice was limited by their own internal divisions, their dependence on intermediaries, and their reluctance to develop a permanent workforce. Workers' resistances, whether in the form of collective action or of individual methods of everyday struggle, could affect employers' ability to introduce new technology, to standardize wages, or to speed up production. In railroad construction managers learned that they needed to offer significant cash advances before they could hire workers. In short, employers often had to make accommodations to workers' social structures and expectations.

Women in Industry

Women's role in modern industry was increasingly marginalized over time. Women constituted 37 percent of mine workers in eastern India in 1920 but only 11 percent in 1938; they composed 25 percent of the workforce in Bombay mills in 1896 but only 12 percent in 1944; their proportions in the jute industry fell from 21 percent in 1901 to little more than 12 percent by 1950. This trend seems to have been caused by a convergence of several factors: the strengthening of norms of social respectability discouraging women's work outside the household (especially in rural north India); British colonial legislation that restricted working hours for women; and the role of jobbers and other middlemen in hiring. There is some evidence of decline in women's industrial role even in informal industry. Spinning of cotton yarn dwindled into virtual economic insignificance, and the use of machinery displaced women in professions such as rice husking and warping of yarn. A few occupations involving women, such as rolling bidis, did expand, but the overall trend toward "de-industrialization" for women seems clear.

Wages and Earnings

Compensation for industrial work was uneven and generally poor. When male workers could find jobs, these positions usually paid better than unskilled agricultural work or employment as hand-loom weavers. There was no single trend for wages in India as a whole. Available statistics seem to suggest that while real wages in the cotton textile industry of Bombay and Ahmedabad rose after World War I, wages in the jute industry were stagnant until the late 1930s, and then increased only to a minor extent. But these general trends mask considerable internal variations and instability.

Most workers received less compensation than they needed to support their families. This sometimes necessitated labor by all family members, including children. Women were paid less for the same work as men when they could get it, but more commonly they were confined to less prestigious forms of employment deemed "supplementary," where payments were particularly poor.

Evidence on wages for workers in small-scale industry is especially scanty, but unpublished research suggests that real earnings of hand-loom weavers in some cases fell over the course of the nineteenth century to levels little higher than those received by unskilled agricultural laborers. Other forms of artisan wage employment, such as carpentry and brick masonry, may have kept better pace with rising prices.

Strikes, Trade Unions, and Workers' Consciousness

Workers in large-scale production took part in collective resistance almost from the inception of the factory system, but sustained participation in trade unions was limited. Nearly every major industry had an extensive history of strikes, and dramatic episodes of confrontation with factory management were not uncommon. There were also several major waves of strikes for India as a whole: in 1919–1920, 1928–1929, 1937–1939, and 1945–1947. Some strikes proved successful in winning higher wages or in defending against wage cuts planned by employers. Strikes sometimes brought into being the organizations necessary to sustain workers' solidarity and to bargain collectively, but such unions often died out after the strikes were broken or workers lost interest. A number of significant trade unions with substantial membership did develop, for instance, the Gandhian Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association after World War I; the Bombay Textile Labour Union in the mid-1920s and the communist Girni Kamgar Union after the later 1920s (both among mill workers of Bombay); and the Jamshedpur Labour Association and the Jamshedpur Labour Federation in the Tata steel mills of Bihar. There were also national organizations of workers, most notably, the All-India Trade Union Congress, founded in 1920. But few of these organizations commanded the support of a majority of workers over long stretches of time. Labor organizations often became torn by internal conflict. The hostility of employers and occasional repression by the colonial government were major causes of the ephemeral character of union organization.

Discussions about workers' consciousness are among the most contentious issues in the labor history of India. Certainly contemporary scholars no longer accept the notion that work experiences in factories and mines led automatically to the formation of broad solidarities among workers. Divisions among the working class were widespread. Often these resulted from ethnic identities that were developing in Indian cities, differential skills and earnings in workplaces, and competing social networks in working class residential areas. Indian workers could be drawn to nationalist, caste-based, and communalist activity as strongly as action on the basis of class. Workers' solidarities often shifted over time as the larger political environment changed. Consciousness of exploitation in the workplace could just as easily give expression to caste- as to class-based assertions of equality. Even nationalist and communalist politics among the urban poor, however, were often colored by uniquely working class perspectives grounded in the experience of deprivation and subordination. As discussion of these issues continues, labor history, once thought to be virtually moribund, now appears to be undergoing a significant revival.

Douglas E. Haynes

See alsoEconomic Development, Importance of Institutions in and Social Aspects of ; Economic Policy and Change, 1800–1947


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