Labour Movement in India as Reflected
in the Indian Labour Year Book 1997

C.N. Subramanian

The official labour statistics despite their many limitations can be useful in assessing the status of the labour movement in the country. The present article seeks to identify issues that emerge from these statistics and are relevant for the labour movement today. The idea is not to provide definitive conclusions but rather raise issues that need to be taken up for a more careful and reliable study.

Size and Structure of the Labour Force

Wage workers and non-wage earners

One of the first issues of concern of course is the relative size of the proletarian labour force in the population. The Indian Labour Year Book 1997 (hereafter the yearbook) provides some interesting information in this regard. We are told that according to the 1991 census, ‘workers’ constituted 37.5% of the entire population of the country. The term ‘workers’ here should be taken to mean all those gainfully employed and not as wage-workers. Out of these, ‘cultivators’ accounted for 38.41%. Likewise animal herders, hunters, fishers, etc. accounted for another 1.90%. In other words 40% of the working population of the country were petty producers and small property owners.

Peasants, Agricultural Workers and Industrial Workers

Interestingly the ‘cultivators’ are a dwindling segment of the population for there has been a steady and telling increase in the population of rural wage workers termed ‘agricultural labourers’ in the year book, presumably at the cost of the former. Thus we are informed that agricultural labourers who constituted only 24.04% of the rural work force in 1961 accounted for no less than 40.26% of the rural work force in 1991. This is a clear indication of the gradual proletarianization of the rural population.

It should be borne in mind that these are national averages – the figures for most of the ‘developed’ states are far higher. Thus Kerala tops the list with 67%, followed by Andhra Pradesh with 59% and Tamil Nadu with 58%. Most of the other developed states like West Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab have a rural proletarian population well above the national average. It is in the states with a large tribal population like the North-eastern states and Madhya Pradesh where the process of proletarianization has been proceeding at a slower pace. (The figure for Uttar Pradesh is intriguing - a mere 26%.)

To sum up the above discussion, it would seem that the proletarians constitute less than 60% of the working population of the country. Of these the agricultural labourers constituted the largest segment accounting for more than 44% of all wage workers. Two features mark this segment of the working class - firstly, it is the least organised, most dispersed and perhaps the most oppressed segment of the class. Secondly, it is a growing segment and its new entrants in all probability being the marginal and dispossessed peasants.

Coming to the mining and manufacturing sectors we see the workers engaged in them to be but a small segment of the total working force. Together workers in the two sectors account for 10.8% of all the work force and perhaps 18.8% of all wage workers.


Distribution of Working Population by Industrial categories
(1991 census)
Category Workers
(in 000s)
% of Wage
% of Working
Cultivation 107,143 --- 38.41
Agricultural workers 73,753 44.30 26.44
Pastoralism, fishing plantations, etc. 5,306   1.90
Mining etc. 1,717 1.03 0.62
Household manufacturing industry 6,743 4.05 2.42
Non-household industry 21,650 12.00 7.76
Construction 5,434 3.26 1.95
Trade & Commerce 20,818 12.50 7.46
Transport etc. 7,843 4.71 2.81
Other services 28,535 17.13 10.23
Total 278,940 100.00 100.00

Concentration of Industrial Workers

Marxists have always considered the industrial workers as the vanguard of the proletariat. We have just seen that it constitutes less than 20% of the class. The strength of the working class movement depends not only on its absolute numbers but also on its strategic strength due to concentration in the work place. The larger the number of workers per factory the greater is potential to organise and engage in collective action and bargaining. The Year Book does gives us figures for this but these figures are less reliable than the census figures we used above. They are based on the information collected by the inspectors of factories known for their corruption and inaccuracies. For example, the census figure for workers engaged in non-household manufacturing is 21,650,000. According to the information supplied by the factory inspectors the total number of workers working in factories is only 9,125,403. In other words the factory inspector covers only about 42% of all industrial workers. Besides the legendary corruption of the labour department part of the reason for this anomaly is also the fact that the labour department only takes into account workers actually working on any one day in a factory, thus reserve workers etc. get left out. The second major cause of discrepancy is the fact that most of the factories understate the number of employees or do not file a return at all. The labour authorities connive in this. One must therefore be clear that the inferences that we may draw on the question of the concentration of the working class based on such information would have a very large margin of error.

We are told that in all there were 227,130 factories in which worked 9,125,403 workers (a figure which includes some white collar workers too) in the year 1994. If we were to divide the second figure by the first we would get 40 workers to a factory. This is the national average. For the more developed states it varies from 26 for Kerala to 100 for West Bengal most of the rest ranging between 45 and 60. An interesting dimension to this problem is provided by the Indian Labour Statistics 1994. The figures are for 1993. The Labour Statistics disaggregates the figure and gives us the distribution between public and private sectors.

Public Sector

No. of factories Employment in 000s Average
8,694 2,170 250
Private Sector
No. of factories Employment in 000s Average
206,431  6,758 33

The government, even though it employs only less than one third of the industrial workers, facilitates a greater concentration of the work force by employing seven times more workers per factory. (Needless to say the actual difference may not be so high for the public sector units have to file more accurate returns while the private firms are not under such a pressure.)

Even allowing for a large error margin it seems justified to conclude that on an average a typical factory is a small one employing less than 50 workers, working under the close paternal supervision of the employer or his manager. The concentration of workers is definitely more in the public sector undertakings. Likewise the concentration of workers is not uniform all over the country - some states like West Bengal having 101 workers per factory and Kerala having as less as 26 per factory.

It is hazardous to use these average figures to arrive at a definitive conclusion but it would appear from the above table that only about 21% industrial workers work in factories with more than 100 workers. Industries which have a high concentration of labour have been highlighted. It would be interesting to see if concentration of work force has in any way facilitated the labour movement in those sectors.

Other statistics, however, indicate a higher concentration of industrial workers so that 36.7% of workers in 1987-88 were employed in factories which had more than 1000 workers (Calculated from A.N. Agarwal et al., ‘India Economic Information Year Book’, 1991-92, Delhi).

Summing up

Two points emerging from the above discussion may have serious implications for the labour movement: firstly, that petty producers (non-wage earners) account for nearly 40% of the productive population; secondly, of all wage workers the industrial proletariat accounts for less than 11%. This in effect implies that capitalist development is yet to displace precapitalist forms of production and that socialization of production that forms the basis for socialist revolution is still a distant goal. In other words the overwhelmingly large segment of the labouring people in the country cannot be treated as having been objectively placed in the role of vanguard of social change. In fact of all wage workers as noted above, the rural proletariat which is by its very nature dispersed and largely unorganized accounts for about 44%. Further, those associated with trading, transport and other activities account for about 37% of all wage workers. These too are very dispersed and poorly organised. Thus nearly 80% of the proletariat is engaged in non-factory sectors.

The significance of the numerical preponderance of the non-industrial proletariat needs to be seriously considered. It is obvious that there is a great responsibility on the workers of the more concentrated sectors to organise themselves and provide leadership to the large majority of unorganized workers. They also have the responsibility of taking up the causes of the marginal farmers and tribal people and winning them over to the cause of socialist transformation. It also indicates the low degree of socialization of production whose implications for the political programme of the working class need special consideration.

Movement of Wages

There is a somewhat neglected section in the Year Book which gives the movement of real wages of workers (p.37). For some technical reasons it is not possible to compare the figures from 1961 but it is possible to compare the figures from 1983 to 1995.

Real earnings of employees in the manufacturing sector 1983-1995
(for workers earning less than Rs.1600 pm)
(Base year – 1983)
Year Earnings
1983 100
1984 98
1985 92
1986 88
1987 83
1988 82
1989 69
1990 70
1991 69
1992 59
1993 60
1994 51
1995 46

This offers a clear proof of erosion of workers’ real earnings, which in a decade has fallen drastically to less than half. The steep fall seems to have occurred after 1992 coinciding with the onset of the new phase of globalization and the strengthening of the communal forces in the country.

The year 1973-74 saw the heyday of the Indian labour movement; as many as 47% of all workers in the country were involved in strike action in 1974. Worker’s action i.e., strikes accounted for as many as 83.5% of all mandays lost due to industrial disputes. In other words workers held the initiative in industrial action that year. The very next year saw the imposition of internal emergency and the strikes were ruthlessly suppressed and the initiative returned to the capitalists. Thus in the last year of the emergency mandays lost due to lock-outs far outstripped the mandays lost due to strikes. They accounted for 90% of all mandays lost. It was after the emergency was lifted and democratic rights were restored that the labour movement revived. It almost reached the pre-emergency levels in 1979. The ruling classes panicked and once again restored the Congress government in 1979. Once again the labour movement shows a downturn.

The present writer has not had access to data for the period between 1982 and 1987. But the decade that follows 1987 shows a definite decline in the labour movement especially after 1991. It is intriguing to note that despite a constant increase in the size of the working class there is an absolute decline in the number of workers participating in strikes. The intensity of the strike action as reflected in the average duration of the strikes also shows a decline.

There was an upswing in 1989-90 and the trend lasted till 1992 when strikes caused a loss of over 151 lakh mandays. But this movement seems to have affected a limited sector of the class as the percentage of all workers participating in the strikes is less than 10%. The large number of mandays lost is more due to the intensity of the strike (an average of over 19 days per striker). It may not be farfetched to conclude that the ruling classes once again faced a serious erosion of authority in the years 1989-1992. This forms the background to the deliberate and large-scale instigation of communal movements as seen in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement led by the RSS. This was also the period in which the international capital came in with a helping hand with the IMF loans and the attendant extension of the stranglehold of the World Bank. This was also the period of the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the disarray it caused in the left movements. This period was however not one of industrial peace. It saw a major capitalist offensive, the capitalists wresting initiative from the workers. In 1981 only 17% of the workers affected by industrial unrest were off work due to lock outs. However in 1996-7 the corresponding figures doubled. The intensity of the lock outs also increased in this period, though it was not so consistent.

To conclude, it is a matter of concern that the strike action, the conventional form of class struggle waged by the working class, seems to be declining in the last decade. For example, it seems that less than 6% of the workers seem to be participating in strike actions in recent years as compared to as many as 47% in 1974. We need to investigate if this trend only hides the emergence of newer forms of struggle not evident in the statistics or if there is actually such a radical decline in the militancy of the working class.

Year Workers
% of all
% of
% of
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1988 937,291 na 78.6 12,529,895 13.3 253,742 21.3 21,417,030 84.4
1989 1,158,107 na 84.8 10,695,112 9.2 206,147 15.2 21,968,265 106.6
1990 1,162,303 13.2 88.9 10,639,687 9.1 145,560 11.1 13,446,483 92.3
1991 872,482 10.0 65 12,428,333 14.2 469,540 35 13,999,759 29.8
1992 767,484 8.8 61 15,132,101 19.7 484,741 38.7 16,126,643 33.2
1993 672,024 7.5 70.5 5,614,515 8.3 281,843 29.5 14,686,138 52.1
1994 626,326 6.8 74 6,651,054 10.6 220,103 26 14,332,028 65.1
1995 682,595 na 69 5,719,961 8.3 307,100 31 10,569,608 34
1996 608,573 na 65 7,817,869 12.8 330,631 35 12,466,934 37.7
1997 637,480 na 65 6,295,365 9.8 343,787 35 10,676,024 31

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