Condition of Indian Labouring Masses

Some gleanings from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS): July 2017 – June 2018

Part One – The Rural Labouring People
C.N.  Subramaniam

The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) set up by Government of India, periodically produces reports on various aspects of Indian economy and society. Its methods and conclusions have always been subject to much debate, but nevertheless it provides the most credible source of information as it is based on door to door survey of actual people and not on any data generated by government departments. In recent years the Modi government has been at great pains to either block the publication of NSSO reports or discredit them altogether, simply because it has been pointing to several negative trends in the performance of the economy. The latest in this is the tussle over the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) annual report1, a survey which had concluded in June 2018, but whose results were not allowed to be made public till May 2019 after many of the conclusions had been leaked to the press. It was published well after most of the polling for the 2019 General Elections had been completed and could not impact voter mood. So what was in it that was so damaging to the Modi Government? What is being talked about is the significant and unprecedented increase in unemployment especially among the educated youth and the dangerous decline in female participation in labour force during the last five years (after 2012 when the previous survey had been conducted). These findings were corroborated by independent survey compiled by Azim Premji University.2 This is a damning verdict on the economic performance of the Modi government which came to power with the claim that it will restore the economy and eliminate unemployment. It marks the failure of its high profile campaign to attract foreign direct investment (‘Make in India’), hare brained schemes like withdrawal of high value currency notes (‘demonetisation) ostensibly to eradicate ‘black money’, and the poorly conceptualised and disastrously implemented policy of unification of all indirect taxes under one central tax called Goods and Services Tax (GST). The Modi government had imagined that by opening land market in rural and forest areas it will facilitate some form of ‘primitive accumulation’ leading to a spurt in industrial production and employment generation. This met with stiff resistance of the peasants and adivasis forcing the government to withdraw the bill which sought to nullify the legal protection granted under previous government. Then it mounted an attack on the country’s principal employment sector – the unorganised sector by the ill-advised ‘demonetisation’, which drained the vast informal economy of its life blood – cash. The consequent slowing down of the economy meant forced decline of employment for nearly a year in all sectors and a resultant decline in demand in the market. As the economy slowly recovered from this onslaught another blow was stuck in the name of unifying the national market with a single indirect tax. It imposed a complex reporting system on all employers, shopkeepers and even freelance workers (‘service providers’). This virtually brought the economy again to a standstill. In the light of these misadventures of the Modi government it should not be a matter of surprise that unemployment levels have gone up substantially. However, the NSSO report also points a long term trend not confined to the Modi government and extends to the current neo-liberal policy regime inaugurated in the early 1990s by the then Congress government. This is the effect of the policy of job­less growth that has characterised the neo liberal growth over the last few decades.

The report also highlights various other aspects of Indian labour force which have not received enough attention in the press or academia so far. To these we will turn now. In this study we shall focus on the status of Rural Labouring Population and we hope to follow it with a similar study of the Urban Labouring Population in the coming issues.

 Who are the labouring people?

Demographic Profile Estimates in (000)

Rural Urban All

Male Female Total Male Female Total Male Female Total

388882 370273 759277 160213 154569 314826 549095 524842 1074103
%

70.7

29.3


Households: The report estimates a total population of about 1074 million people living in about 257 million households giving an average of over 4 persons per household. 71% of them live in rural areas indicating only about 30% urbanisation. This preponderantly rural character of the Indian labour force should be kept in mind while reading rest of the data, which gives rural and urban figures separately.

These 257 million households are divided into three broad categories of ‘self-employed’, salaried or regular wage employment and thirdly casual labour. This is obviously not a class category in the sense that the ‘self employed’ will include the small peasants, landlords and rural capitalist farmers as well as petty shopkeepers, fruit sellers, etc of the towns and also capitalists of various sizes. However, given the fact that the presence of capitalists in these samples is likely to be small, we can presume that these categories broadly refer to petty producers, blue collared workers/ government employees and proletarians respectively. The distribution of the rural households over these broad categories is as follows:

Table 1. Distribution of Rural households by livelihood in %

2011-12
2017-18
Self Employed in agriculture 34
38
Self Employed in non-agricultural work 16
14
Total Self Employed 50
52
Salaried / regular wage earning 10
13
Casual Labour in agriculture 21
12
Casual labour in non-agricultural work 13
13
Total Casual Labour 34
25
Others 6
10
(Statement 3 of PLFS Report)
 

This table gives us a snapshot of rural society of India: About 38% of the rural households can be categorised as ‘peasant’ households in that they till their own farms. While another 14% of rural households are self-employed or own their own petty means of production – could be artisans or shop keepers. Thus nearly half the rural population consists of petty producers. The other half is clearly dependent upon wage labour of diverse kinds – some are regular salaried (school teachers, government employees etc) and wage earners. Most others (about 25% of all rural households) depend upon ‘casual wage labour’.

A comparison with the previous NSS survey of 2011-12 shows some important changes. It shows a significant increase in the households dependent upon fanning and salaried or regular wage earning. On the other hand, the percentage of households dependent upon agricultural labour has declined steeply from 21% to 12%. Similarly households dependent upon non-agricultural self employment too shows a decline.

This perhaps indicates a decline of wage labour used in agriculture due to increased mechanisation. It may also indicate a decline in non-agricultural production in the rural areas as an aftermath of the demonetisation etc, which has forced people back to agriculture. This is otherwise incongruous with the general expected trend of decline in percentage of the population dependent upon agriculture as an economy heads towards capitalist development.

We shall now turn our attention from ‘households’ to individuals living in the rural areas.

The survey shows persistence of illiteracy in the rural population, especially among women. The literacy rate in the population above the age of seven years (when children should have spent at least two years of schooling): for males – 81% and for females 65%. That is, nearly 20 % of the males and 35% females in the rural areas are illiterate and thus any employment opportunity other than casual manual labour (or subordinate domestic labour) is closed to them. However, it should be admitted that over the last 10-15 years the literacy situation has been steadily improving in the rural areas – in 2004-05 the literacy rate for rural males was 73% and for rural females was a mere 51%. To some extent one may attribute this improvement to the passage of the Right to Education Act in 2007 which led to a concerted effort to bring all children to the school.

A closer look at education levels among the youth who constitute and will constitute the core of the working population in the coming years will be useful.

Table 2. % Distribution of Rural Youth (15-29 years) by educational levels

Not Literate
Up to Class V
Up to Class VI11
Class IX and above

2004-5
2017-18 2004-5 2017-18 2004-5 2017-18 2004-5 2017-18
Male
17
6
27
13
27
29
28
53
Female
38
13
24
16
19
27
19
43
(Statement 6 of PLFS Report)

While the share of illiterate persons has declined significantly during the intervening decade, the percentage of children completing formal schooling of ten years appears to be substantially on the increase: 53% male and 43% female, doubling during the decade. A part of this improvement may be attributed to efforts of the state subsequent to the passing of the RTE Act in 2007. During the early part of this period the public spending on education as percentage of the GDP grew marginally to 3.1% in 2013. This share has subsequently shrunk during the Modi government tenure to 2.7% in 2018-19. However, we should remember that is also the period when education has been increasingly privatised both formally through the increase of private schools and informally through tuition and coaching centres. Thus the cost of schooling has been in the main borne by the labouring people themselves. This table clearly shows the huge investment the Indian working people are making in educating their children, ensuring that they complete their schooling.

Nevertheless, it is a matter of concern that nearly 13% girls and 7% boys are entering the labour market without being able to read or write and another 16% girls and 13% boys are barely literate. Even more worrying is the fact that of the working population of Indian rural areas (persons above 15 years of age) we find abysmally low education:(Statement 13, PLFS report)

Table 3. % Distribution of Rural Population (15+ years) by educational levels 2017-18

Illiterate Up to Class V Up to Class VIII Class IX and above
Male
23
18
24
36
Female
42
18
18
23
(Statement 13, PLFS report)

Table 3 shows that a substantial segment of the rural population (41% males and 60% females) is either illiterate or barely literate and the gender gap is very large. This leaves the vast majority of the rural population to fend with its own resources (either petty capital or physical labour) without any skill acquired from education. It has been argued that lack of elementary education not only reduces the possibility of employment in high or moderate income jobs, but also becomes a stumbling block in using legal and constitutional rights or in simple bargaining with employers or potential buyers of products (for petty producers).

It is a pity that the survey does not go into the health status of the population, which along with education is a major factor in determining the quality of labour of the worker or petty producer. Simple techniques are available to judge malnutrition or illness during the preceding six months. We know from other surveys that a large segment of the population (especially female population) is undernourished. An NSSO report for 2011-­123 tells us that substantial segments of rural population in the lower decile classes based on average expenditure (57% in the lowest and 39% in the second lowest decile group) were grossly under nourished. We are told that the percentage of population which is undernourished has been increasing steadily from 2004-5 reaching 20% in the rural areas. The nourishment they got from food was mainly in the form of carbohydrates from cereals. The consumption of protein has been steadily decreasing ever since India entered the era of globalisation in the early 1990s as the prices of gram (dal) skyrocketed. Increased consumption of fat has taken the place of protein. An NSSO report on health of the population conducted in 2014 indicates that about 8% of Rural Males and 10% of rural females reported illness during the previous fortnight4. A little less than half of them were of chronic nature. The incidence of chronic illness increased substantially in the 40+ age group and was alarmingly high in the case of 60+ age group. The same report also indicates that the poorest strata are facing maximum health hazard: 13% of those in the lowest income group (among the five income groups) in rural areas reported illness during the previous fortnight.

It should be noted that educational and health services level in the region in many ways determined perception of illness and health. Thus Kerala (31%) followed by West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (16%) reported the highest morbidity in rural areas while states like Bihar and Assam reported much less. This is perhaps not because the people of the former states were facing greater health hazards but more because of their health awareness and education.

An increasingly undernourished labouring population susceptible to illness (mostly related to infections resulting from low body resistance, poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water) with little or no education is populating the rural labour force of India. While the educational status has been improving over the last decade or so, the reverse unfortunately is true for nutrition and health. It can be argued that the rural people of India, desperate to get out of the poverty are investing heavily into education even at the cost of their food and health.

Labour Force Participation Rates

Capitalist notions of productive work require primarily production of exchange values and as such discounts all labour which does not produce immediately saleable goods or services. Thus household work of women, children or old persons is not classed as economic activity at all in the surveys. However production, which may not be sold but consumed over long time (as that of small farmers who eat the grain they grow) and infrastructure building like building one’s own house or digging one’s own well are also considered economic activity. Often activities like begging, prostitution or robbery are also not counted as economic activity by some perverted logic.

Out of the entire population only a part is engaged or willing to engage in productive labour (‘economically active’). Such persons including those who may be currently unemployed but willing to be employed are counted within the ‘labour force’. Thus children, school and college going youth and aged or sick persons are not likely to engage in productive work on a regular basis. Some others may be constrained by social conventions to keep out of labour market (caste prejudices). In many ways labour force participation indicates the level of socialisation of labour, especially reproductive labour, which enables men and women to perceive all kinds of work as labour and enter the labour market accordingly. It does not mean that those not included in the labour force are idling away. Education of children is fast becoming one of the pernicious forms of child labour where children are prepared as both consumers in the present and as skilled workers in the future. Often womenfolk are considered outside the labour force just because they are busy attending to reproduction of labour (childbirth, rearing, household tasks etc). Old people too contribute to social work in many ways, but are not categorised as being part of the labour force. With these reservations let us look at the data regarding rural labour force participation. Given these qualifications, we may look into the proportion of the rural population engaged in economic activities as defined by the NSSO.

According to the 2017-18 NSSO PLF survey, 55% of rural male population and 18% of the rural female population are counted in the ‘labour force’. However we need to disaggregate these figures to understand the reality better.

Table 4. Rural Labour Force Participation and Working Population Estimates

Male % & Persons 000
Female % & Persons 000
All
Labour Force
Participation
54.9%
225163
18.2%
67390
37%
292553
Workers
51.7%
201052
17.5%
64798
35%
265850
Thus of the rural male population only about 52% is working and among rural women only 35% is working.

From the details of the data provided in page 192-3 of the report the following conclusions may be drawn:

1. Under normal circumstances we do not expect children under 15 years and elders above 65 to be ‘economically active’ and working. Hence in international calculations for labour force participation only the age group 15-64 is taken into account. However, the survey data only tells us about labour participation in the age group 15 years and above, which is 76% for males and 25% for females in the rural areas.

2. The report uses two categories to calculate working population: labour force participation (which includes potential workers who are currently unemployed) and work participation (which includes only those currently employed).

3. The prevalence of child labour is indicated by the fact that 0.1% of children in 5-9 age group and 2.2% (male) and 0.5% (female) children in the 10-14 age group are at work. Nearly 25% males and 5% female adolescents and youth in the age group of 15-19 years enter the labour market.

4. About 39% of old men and 7% old women in the age group of 65 and above continue to work to make ends meet. In the context of India, it indicates the lack of any old age social security worth the name, which forces the elderly also to continue to work.

5. It would appear that over the years, participation in labour force has declined. In 2004-5 the rural male participation in labour force was around 85% which has declined to 76% in 2017-18 as mentioned above. Indeed, the participation of women has come down drastically from 50% to just 25% during the same period. A part of the reason for this has been the spread of education which delays the entry of youth over 15 years of age into the labour market. This however is not sufficient to explain the steep decline as in the case of female labour participation.

6. The data provides an inescapable conclusion that the rural working population of India is predominantly male. In the age group 25 to 59 years, more than 90% of the men are in the labour force. However, the figure for women in the same age group hovers between 32 and 37%.

7. Conversely 60-70% women in the 25-64 age group are engaged in household and related work like tending cattle, gathering fuel & food, sewing for domestic consumption etc. As mentioned earlier, this is a consequence not only of patriarchal hold over the rural households but also a low degree of socialisation of reproduction of labour. Reproduction of labour requiring not only child birth and rearing, but also cooking, cleaning, gleaning, gathering, grinding, kitchen gardening, sewing, tending to the sick, etc etc. continues to be part of household activity to be done by women and girls without wages.

8. A startling revelation by the PLFS report has been the incidence of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. While the overall unemployment rate for rural males is 4.4% for the age group 15 and above, it is substantially high for the 15-29 age group: 7% for 15-19 age, 16% for 20-24 age group and 8% for 25-29 age group. At the beginning of the decade there was much talk about the demographic dividend accruing to India, with the large youth population. It is this segment of the population which is facing severe unemployment.

9. The report also indicates high level of female unemployment – nearly one percent of the female population in the 15+ age group going up to about 3.6% for the 20-24 age group. Thus even as women are appearing in the labour market having contended with patriarchy, they are confronted with little absorption.

A matter of major concern has been a steady decline in the rate of women’s participation in labour force over the last few decades. While a large number of countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh have registered a steady increase in women’s labour participation, India, China and some south eastern Asian countries have shown decline. Of course, China and South East Asia had a much higher women’s participation to begin with compared to the abysmally low level in India. The increase in Bangladesh has been attributed to the spread of the garment industry which is employing a large number of women in the rural areas too; and secondly to the success of its micro-credit network which has enabled a large number of women to access credit and operate self employed production units. In India the decline has been principally attributed to greater percentage of youth population attending educational institutions instead of taking to work. This however, should have shown in greater employment of women in the 20-25 age group, which is not the case. A second set of reasons given relate to increase in family incomes and the ability of women to opt out of work. While the increase in family income is highly debatable, the Work Participation Ratio for different decile classes (based on average per capita monthly consumption expenditure) in the rural areas shows that higher income groups do not necessarily show any significant increase in female labour participation. Thus the highest decile class in rural areas shows a female WPR of 19.7% against the lowest decile class figure of 16.5 a mere three percentage point difference (compare this with the comparable figures for rural male WPR – 57.8% and 45.5%, a difference of 12 percentage points).

What actually appears to be happening is that given the decline of employment in the post-liberalisation era as evidenced by both absolute and relative decrease in formal employment, given the overall patriarchal nature of the society, the menfolk are edging the women out of employment and confining them to the sphere of domestic labour, conserving expenses in reproduction of labour. In other words it can mean that in the current phase of capitalist accumulation, there has been a decline of formal labour (earning) opportunities; what remain are being controlled by the men, while women are forced to subsidise this labour by increasing their workload in the unpaid domestic sphere.

The Decile Class figures also indicate an important fact – a higher proportion of the population in the upper Decile classes are engaged in work than in the lower Decile classes. This indicates that every working person in the lower decile class has to support a larger number of non earning members of the household.

Let us now turn to the kind of employment these workers in the rural areas engage in.

Nature of Employment

The PLFS report uses the term ‘Status of Employment’ for different kinds of employment, namely, owner operated, regular wage/salaried and casual work done for others. Table 5 gives us the relevant information for the rural sector.

We noted above that of the rural population about 51.7% men and 17.5% women were ‘working’. Of this entire rural ‘working force’, 58% were engaged in self-employed category, being mostly peasant households and petty artisans or shopkeepers. 13% of the rural labour force had employment which assured them regular wages or salaries. The rest constituting about 29% of the rural working population were casual labourers. Of the self employed labour force nearly 17% were working gratis as subordinate family labour. Of those working gratis, women constituted nearly 56%. This indicates a double problem with regard to women in the rural areas. While the overall share of women in the labour force is a meagre 24%, of these nearly 3 9% work gratis in family enterprises. Further, even in the self employed sector, of the total workforce engaged in it, only 24% are women. This effectively means that women work with no control over the resources or incomes from labour, even in this sector.

Table 5. Rural Labour Force Participation and Working Population Estimates

Male
Female
All

%
Estimated
Persons in
000
%
Estimated
Persons in
000
%
Estimated
Persons in
000
Women
as % of
workforce
Self Employed







Own Account
48%
96,505
19%
12,312
41%
1,08,817
11%
Unpaid (?) Helper
10%
19,703
39%
25,078
17%
44,781
56%
Total
58%
1,16,208
58%
37,390
58%
1,53,598
24%
Regular Wage/salaried
14%
28.148
11%
6,804
13%
34,952
19%
Casual Worker
28%
56,697
32%
20,606
29%
77,303
27%
Total
100%
2,01,053
100%
64,800
100%
2,65,853
24%
Based on Tables 2, 16, 17, 19 of  PLFS report

Regular wage/salary earners constitute about 13% of the rural labour force. Of this category, only 19% are women while more than 81% are men. These we may largely presume to be a workforce with some education which enables them to get employment as teachers, government servants of various kinds and even regular wage earners in shops and establishments.

In contrast to them nearly 29% of the rural working population engages in unskilled wage labour on a casual basis. This segment too is predominantly male (about 73%). We should expect the poorest women to be in this segment. They constitute 32% of all rural women in the work force, but only 27% of total casual workers.

We may conclude that patriarchal family based petty production constitutes the bulk of productive employment in the rural area of the country, where 70% of the population resides. This sector accounts for nearly 58% of rural employment. While regular salary/wage employment is significant engaging about 13% of total rural labouring population, casual wage labour of the property-less and unskilled kind accounts for about 29%. While women’s participation in the rural labour force is small, even out of these few women workers about 39% are not paid for their work.

The nearest to a class profile of the rural population that we get from this report relates to ‘broad occupational divisions’ (Statement 17), which gives us about nine broad divisions. While these should not be seen as class categories, they can be safely treated as income groups. If one may broadly see these as also income groups then the managerial strata and the professionals would come out as the richest crust of rural society, the middle income group would be constituted by technicians, clerks, service workers and skilled agriculturalists. The low income group would include the skilled crafts-persons (weavers, smiths, potters, etc) working with minimal capital, machine operators (skilled workers) and ‘elementary workers’ probably unskilled workers. Thus the rural working population would have about 7% high income group, 52% middle income group and 41% low income groups. This roughly maps on the figures for ‘self employed’ and wage workers in Table 5.

It may be noted that women workers are concentrated in the peasant and unskilled segments and virtually absent in the category of machine operators.

Table 6. Percentage distribution of rural workers by broad occupation division
Division Male Female Persons
1. Managerial 5 3 5
2. Professionals 2 2 2
3. Technicians 2 4 3
4. Clerks 1 0 1
5. Service workers 7 4 6
6. Skilled Agriculturalists 40 47 42
7. Skilled Crafts-persons 10 7 9
8. Machine Operators 6 0 4
9. Elementary workers 27 33 28
Total 100 100 100
(Statement 17 of PLFS Report. Division 1: Legislators, senior officials and managers, 2: Professionals, 3: Technicians and associate professionals, 4: Clerks, 5: Service workers and shop & market sales workers, 6: Skilled agricultural and fishery workers, 7: Craft and related trades workers, 8: Plant and machine operators and assemblers, 9: Elementary occupations (unskilled manual workers)

The occupational structure of rural labouring force shows a great degree of diversification and a decreasing reliance on agriculture over the last four decades or so. While agriculture and farming continue to support bulk of the male (55%) and female (73%) labouring population, its share has come down significantly since 1977-78 as can be seen in the table below.


Table 7. Change in Oceupartonal Profile of Rural Labour Force
1977-8 to 2017-18 (in %)

 

1977-78

2017-18

 

Male

Female

Male

Female

Asficulture

81%

88%

55%

73%

Manufacture

6

6

8

8

Construction

2

1

15

5

Trade, Hotel

4

2

9

4

Transport etc.

1

0

5

0

Others

5

3

8

10

(Statement 16. of PLFS Report)

There is a decline of 26 percentage points over the four decades for men. While 73% labouring women continue to be employed in agriculture, even here we see a decline of about 15 percentage points. The substantial decline of rural male population engaged in agriculture has meant that the share of women in agricultural labour has increased; in 2017-18 thus 43% of total rural labour force engaged in agriculture were women. This implies a feminisation of agricultural labour as men shift away from it to engage in other income/wage earning occupations. We need to see this conjointly with the point made above regarding 39% rural labouring women being engaged in unpaid labour.

It appears that a significant proportion of rural male population has shifted to construction, trade and transport. Women too have used the diversification of employment opportunity in recent years to take up work in media, finance, administrative support, education, health, entertainment etc. Nearly ten percent of rural labouring women have taken up such professions, an increase of 7 percentage points over 1977-78.

Even though agricultural productivity has increased between 1987 and the present, the fact remains that capital investment in and productivity of Indian agriculture remains significantly behind other sectors (like service sector and to a lesser extent manufacturing). The shifting of male population towards these has burdened the rural women with the low productivity employment of agriculture.

Conditions of Employment

The forgoing discussion would have made it clear that the vast majority of the rural population works under conditions of informality, whether they be ‘self-employed’ peasants and artisans or they be wage earners. As noted earlier only 13% of the rural labour force can look forward to ‘regular salary or wage’ and these are overwhelmingly (87%) men. The PLF survey tells us about the precariousness of even this miniscule minority.

A degree of security is provided to the worker if he or she is formally engaged through a written contract which then may enable them to invoke prevalent labour laws in their defence if there is any violation of the contract. The fact of the matter is that bulk of the rural labouring population (in non-peasant-agricultural sector) which ‘enjoys’ regular income from salaries or wages, amounting to nearly 72% of male workers are engaged without any written contract. While the figure (54%) for women workers of the same kind may appear brighter, in actual fact it is misleading as the total number of women workers in this category is miniscule (mere 2% of rural female population).

To put it differently, less than one tenth of the rural population works under conditions of formal employment. The rest are either small peasants or workers without any formal protection. (We need to qualify this statement as the peasant population may own land which entitles them to some legal protection as property owners.)

The absence of any formal arrangement naturally precludes other essential features of decent employment like weekly holidays and fixed working time, paid leave including leave during sickness, maternity, etc. The survey shows that more than 58% of rural non agricultural regular wage earners are not entitled to regular paid leave. It also appears that this condition has been intensifying over the years as the percentage of workers without paid leave appears to be steadily increasing over the last decade. The figure for women is 49% and the same qualification would apply here as above. It may be noted that a high proportion of regular wage earning women would be working as school teachers or as government servants and as such would be entitled to leave.

Likewise most of this category of workers were not entitled to any social security benefits (pension, gratuity, provident fund, health or maternity benefits). According to the survey results nearly 52% of male workers in this category were not eligible for any social security benefits.

The data on hours of work indicate minor variations over various seasons, but it broadly shows that almost all categories of worker worked for more than six days a week and put in between 46 to 58 hours every week. The self employed men who constitute the bulk of the rural workforce, on an average put in 51 hours of work a week and worked almost on all days of the week (more than seven hours every day of the week). The hours of work for women in the self employed sector ranges between 37 to 40 hours a week, an average of five and a half hours every day of the week. In addition they would be attending to domestic work like cooking, cleaning, attending to children and the old and ill persons.

It would appear that the low capital intensive and low technology work that such self employed persons do at a pace set by themselves, allows them to work longer on all days of the week. From the unemployment statistics compiled by the NSSO, it appears that this category of workers feel that they can work for another seven or nine hours a week if gainfully employed.

The regular salaried/wage workers of the rural areas appear to be putting in the longest hours of work, the men working for nearly 58 hours a week (more than eight hours every day of the week); women in this category also work for over 50 hours a week (again averaging over seven hours every day of the week). This is the price they pay for their ‘regular’ salaries or wages. In a highly insecure labour market, relative job security comes with a stiff bill.

In contrast, casual workers in the rural areas typically get less work: Male casual workers get work for around 5.6 days a week and appear to get on an average only 45.3 hours of work a week. (Table 46, A19) Women casual workers too, get work for five days a week and an average of 37.3 hours work a week. (Table 46, A20) However, this unskilled work can be highly exhausting so much so that despite putting in lesser hours of work, they feel disinclined to work more as this category of workers shows least willingness to extend hours of work. Strangely casual workers work longest (46.4 hours a week) during months when the wages are at the lowest (July to September) and shortest (44.2 hours per week) during months when the wages are highest (April to June). Quite possibly, it can mean that given the low wages during the monsoon months, workers are forced to work longer to make ends meet.

A simple look at these figures tells us that the 150 year old demand of ‘Eight Hours Day’ remains a distant dream for the Indian labouring masses. Condemned as they are to work for over eight hours every day of the week, there is little time left for either educational, political, cultural or recreational purposes.

Let us now turn to the issue of remuneration and earnings of these workers.

Earnings of Rural labouring people

Let us first take the category of Regular wage or salary earners (Table 42 of PLFS report) as their earnings can be clearly expressed in terms of monthly earnings. As mentioned above they constitute 13% of the rural working population. We learn that even though the earnings are supposed to be regular, they are not constant over the year and vary from season to season. The range for male workers is between Rs 12,650 (in monsoon months) to Rs. 14,440 (in Spring). Averaging the seasonal variation, we get a figure of monthly salary/wage of Rs. 13,533 for men and Rs. 8938 for women. Assuming from the above discussion on working hours, that women work for 200 hours a month and men work for 232 hours a month, we get the following hourly averages for their respective incomes: women Rs 45 per hour and men Rs 59 per hour. Women thus get about 77.5% of the men’s wages per hour.

Casual labourers as we saw earlier constitute about 29.1 % of the rural working population (which will work out to be around 773,00,000 persons amounting to 8% of the total Indian population). They thus represent a large segment of Indian population once we add their household dependents.

It is rather difficult to calculate the earnings of Casual Workers as we have to put together a number of tables to get at the figures and we don’t really have all the necessary information. Casual workers’ earning depends upon the number of days they find employment and the rate of daily wages prevailing in the season. To add to the complication, the PLFs points to three parallel rural labour markets – the commercial rate, the general public works rate and MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) rate. The daily wage rate in each of these categories of work varies and varies with the season too. However, we do not know how many days work an average casual worker gets in each of these categories and as such will have to depend upon some averaging and approximation to figure out how much an average casual worker may actually earn in a month.

The range of variation between the three rural casual labour markets is of some significance. The following table summarises the issue (Table 8).

Table 8. Variation indailly wage rate in Rupees

Male
Female
Season
Commercial
Public works
MNREGA
Average
Commercial Public works MNREGA Average
July-Sept
253
158
41
184
166
142
135
148
Oct.-Dec
265
161
157
194
172
144
138
151
Jan-Mar
270
171
152
198
175
134
165
158
Apr-June
282
142
138
187
179
119
131
143
Table 43, 44 of PLFS Report

A cursory look at this table will show that the public works rates are about 60% of the commercial market rates. While the MNREGA rates are still lower, one can understand their being pegged lower due to its being a minimum guarantee welfare scheme. This cannot be said of public works done for the government projects like road building. Pegging them far below the market rate clearly indicates that the state actually engages in fleecing the rural casual workers. But there is more to it.

Just when market rates in the countryside is the highest in the summer, the public works and the MNREGA depresses the wages unnaturally, to depress the overall wage levels to the benefit of the rural kulaks. In these months the public work rates are half the market rates. This indicates a sordid connivance between the state bureaucracy and the rural capitalists to the disadvantage of the rural proletarians.

We add in passing that contrary to principles of equal pay for equal work mandated for the state and for the MNREGA, their daily wage rates are much lower for women as compared to men. Let us now return to the earnings of casual workers.

What strikes one is the way the average hourly rate is maintained through the year. The Public Works and the Employment Guarantee scheme appear to be assisting in keeping the wage rates constant by depressing wages in high demand seasons. This also appears to close the gender gap in hourly wage rates. This hypotheses needs to be further investigated and checked by field studies.

What is of importance is the stark contrast this presents to the earnings of the regular salaried / wage earners. Casual workers are paid less than half the hourly rate of the regular wage earners and more important the latter being employed for longer time, end up earning about three times more in a month.

Table 9. Average number of days worked by Casual workers and EstimatedMonthly Earnings by season

Male
Female
Season
Days per
week
Hours
per week
Average
wage rate
per day in
Rs.
Earnings
per month
in Rs.
Average
per Hour
Rate in
Rs.
Days per
week
Hours
per week
Average
wage rate
per day in
Rs.
Earnings
per month
in Rs.
Average
per Hour
Rate in
Rs.
July-Sept 5.8
46.4
184
4269
23
5.2
39
148
3078
20
Oct.-Dec 5.7
45.8
194
4423
24
5.3
39.2
151
3201
20
Jan-Mar 5.6
45.3
198
4435
24
5
37.3
158 3160
21
Apr-June
5.5
44.2
187
4114
23
5
37.7
143 2860
9
Table 9 is an extrapolation based on Tables 43 and 44 of the PLFS report

We shall now turn to the most complex segment of all, the ‘self employed’ workers. This omnibus category includes the peasant farmers (who should be the bulk of the ‘own account’ self employed who don’t hire in labour), capitalist farmers who hire agricultural labourers, small shopkeepers, petty artisans, repair shop operators, etc. These constitute 58% of the rural workforce, with men dominating the profile. To recall the information from Table 2, the own account workers constitute about 41% of rural workforce and helpers in the same category constitute about 17%. Unfortunately, the report does not give us any break up of the earnings of the two categories, assuming that the ‘helpers’ are largely unpaid. Two points strike us strongly on eva cursory reading of the table below.

Table 10. Monthly Gross Earnings of Rural Self Employed workers
  Male Female
Jul-Sept 8493 4342
Oct-Dec 8807 4104
Jan-Mar 8864 4121
Apr-Jun 9657 3291
Average 8955 3965
Table 45, PLFS

The earnings of the self employed varies between seasons and the earnings of women are one third to half that of the men. Both these are to be expected given the seasonality of agriculture and also the total control of male patriarchs over the household modes of production. The earnings are termed ‘gross’ in that they include both ‘profit and wages’. The profit ought to accrue to the capital investment in the form of land, equipment and animals. Also these are income of the entire family and not of individuals as in the case of regular salaried or casual wage workers. The average monthly income projection of about Rs. 9000 for men and Rs. 4000 for women is only marginally better than the earnings of the casual workers. That our peasants have been earning pitifully little from their farming is pretty well known and if we take this gross earning as any indication, it falls far short of decent living requirements.

Conclusion

The PLFS and related reports of NSSO surveys leave no doubt as to the predominantly rural and male character of Indian labouring force. The rural labour force constitutes about 72% of the total labour force of India (about 29 million of 41 million). Likewise, men constitute 78% of the total labour force. These two features of the Indian Labour Force have immense implications for the democratic and working class movements. Agrarian distress among working peasants and unemployment, precarity and low wage employment pose a formidable task of organising the rural proletariat and forging an alliance with the distressed poor peasants.

If our interpretation of the PLFS categories is tenable, i.e., the ‘own- account self-employed’ in the rural context being predominantly peasants and traditional artisans, then about 41% of the rural workforce can be termed as peasants and artisans and another 17% of the workforce paid and unpaid workers associated with them. That constitutes the majority of rural workforce and also more than 41% of the entire national workforce.

The rural proletariat is in all probability covered under the category of ‘casual labour’ constituting 29% of the rural workforce and 21% of the entire workforce of the country. While the peasant distress has found much expression in the form of marches and press coverage of farm crises, the rural proletariat has largely remained unorganised and unrepresented.

The fact of women not being visible in the labour force data of course does not imply that they are mere ‘consumers’ not engaged in any productive work. The fact remains that women continue to share unequal burden of physical labour; the problem is in the definition of labour which excludes most reproductive work done at the household whose burden is particularly higher in situations with limited socialisation of work as in the rural peasant economy. While recognising this contribution of women to the economy, the fact remains that in being kept out of production of exchange values women are denied opportunities of breaking out of domestic drudgery and engaging in new ways of life. What has been of concern is not only the fact that female participation in ‘work’ has been low but that it has been declining steadily over decades. This can be explained as the assertion of patriarchy which seeks to keep the newly emerging market oriented employment as a preserve of men and edge women out. The confinement of women to household work has an implication for the economy as a whole as it really means that the household sector (itself a non-capitalist unit of production) is forced to subsidise the labour of men in the capitalist market. Some of these issues have been discussed at length by feminists, but much empirical study remains to be done.

What is of deep concern is the steady and drastic decline in the participation of rural women in the labour force from 33% of all rural women in 1993-94 to 18% in 2017-18. Of these women in the labour force nearly 38% are engaged as unpaid helpers in Self-employment units and 32% are casual workers. This gives the kind of profile of working women in the countryside – mainly engaged in unpaid and unskilled work. At the same time, it is noteworthy that the percentage of labouring rural women engaged in regular salaried jobs has increased significantly from about 3% in 1993-9­4 to 10.5% in 2017-18. This is the only heartening factor in the otherwise bleak picture.

It is important to note that while more and more women are indeed seeking work, there is a shortage of employment opportunities to absorb them. The unemployment rate among women (by current weekly status) has increased from 3% to 8% between 2011 and 2018. Indeed, unemployment among educated women (secondary and graduation) is extremely high, about 17.3%. The Modi government has much to answer for this alarming rise in unemployment among the educated youth.

Some of these special issues relating to women in the rural sector need to be flagged and have to be taken up seriously for both organising the women and also raising demands and framing programs for facilitating greater participation of women in the labour force and also enable access to employment with dignity of labour and higher remuneration.

We had the opportunity to look into the working hours of the self employed, the salaried workers and the casual workers and also their remuneration/earnings. The ‘informal’ setting of the work which essentially denies the workers any social protection and does not even recognise them as workers calls for innovative strategies for mobilisation, organisation and raising meaningful demands.

Endnotes:

1. Periodic Labour Force Survey, Annual Report, (July 2017 to June 2018), New Delhi, May 2019

2. State of Working India, 2019. Azim Premji University, Bengaluru 2019. This report is even more damning as it traces the present downturn in employment to the twin projects of Modi of demonetisation and GST. “Five million men lost their jobs between 2016 and 2018, the beginning of the decline in jobs coinciding with demonetisation in November 2016” (p. 21). This report mainly focuses on urban employment issues.

3. Nutritional Intake in India, NSSO Report no. 560, 68*^ Round New Delhi 2014.

4. Health in India, NSSO Report no. 564, 71st Round, New Delhi 2016.

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