Conference Themes

The guidelines on the conference themes are suggestive only. The prospective paper writers may contribute on other relevant sub-themes as well. Apart from contributions on India, conceptual papers or those relating to other regions and countries are also welcome.

THEME I: Technology, Globalization and Work

Technological innovations have been a central force in shaping economic landscapes, workplaces, and working time throughout history. Technology has also been a determining factor in the geographical distribution of industry, and in facilitating global flows of capital, goods, and people. It has created a more connected world, increasingly interdependent economies, and the rapid inclusion of millions into paid work arrangements. Technological progress and diffusion of innovations have also led to digital innovations or digitalization, which are shifting the way we think about firms’ business models and employment practices. In this process, they are transforming diverse economic sectors and reshaping regional, national and international markets. The emergence of online digital labour platforms, or the “gig” economy, which has been one of the major transformations over the past decade, has affected labour markets around the world, and India is no exception.

Digitalization is also transforming the economy from being a site-based industrial activity directed by technology to a more inclusive cloudbased way of thinking. It is radically transforming the way organisations conceive business, as it increasingly allows enterprises to externalize their activities by obtaining services through a broader array of actors. Rather than subcontracting through established firms, enterprises can now outsource to a crowd that is geographically dispersed around the world to perform a diverse range of activities, conduct business transactions through new startups (financial services, legal services, patent services, logistics, healthcare, etc.), and profit and seek rents from platform ecosystems based on network effects.

Further, global and regional economic competition is also creating new kinds of employment and business opportunities with flexible work arrangements where workers can work at the time and location of their choosing and can undertake the tasks of their choice. As it provides business opportunities, this has led to a mushrooming of different types of platforms in the Indian economy over the past few years. These developments have the potential to generate many opportunities for workers, both men and women, but they also pose new policy challenges in terms of pay rates, work availability and intensity, social protection coverage and work–life balance.As these platforms are not regulated, they can undermine regular employment relations and can worsen the conditions of labour contributing to a rise in informal employment, creating new challenges for the labour markets. It is not clear how many workers are engaged on these platforms and whether thisleads to deskilling or upskilling of workers, and what is the relationship between the workers’ skill and the content of work they perform. These apart, digital platforms such as e-commerce platforms also have implications in the product market, and can lead to unfair competition to retail shops, small firms and a number of service providers.

Alongside the growing digital economy, and directly or indirectly connected with it, are a number of other major technological developments with implications for the labour market in India and elsewhere. New production systems depend on applications of robotization and artificial intelligence, modifying the pattern of demand for labour and making many skills redundant. Standardized global technologies spread through international production chains regardless of local labour availability and comparative advantage. Advanced industrial technologies may be surrounded by outsourced and subcontracted services and other inputs, with different conditions of work and employment relationships, creating new segmentations.

Different sections of the population have differentiated access to new opportunities, by sex, caste and community, age, region and education, reinforcing old inequalities and creating new ones. It is also important to look at the concept of technology, as it is useful to demonstrate how for example, coercive or perverse use of technology such as detecting the sex of the unborn child could become a direct assault on rights of citizens. At the same time, while technology could change lives and living conditions of different segments of the population, it could also be ‘hazardous’ in another sense. This is evident from the way technology instead of alleviating women’s drudgery has reinforced the socially constructed sexual division of labour, and the extent to which algorithmically managed artificial intelligence has propagated gender discrimination.

The IT sector itself is an important, and largely globalized source of employment and income. India has established itself globally in software development and back office services, and this contributed significantly to the dynamism of the Indian economy. But global competition is fierce, and there are signs of restructuring and retrenchment. The jobs that are created in the sector are often stressful and insecure.

Nor are the implications of these developments confined to technologically advanced sectors. Improved communication methods affect the pattern and timing of agricultural activities. Informal activities may be displaced, or local transport systems undermined, for instance when on-line services drive down the prices of traditional taxis and undermine conditions of work. New employment relationships escape from traditional social security arrangements, which become concentrated on a part of the workforce. Trade unions have difficulty to maintain their position in a labour market where jobs are more fluid and individualized, with a workforce that is harder to organize. In some ways this merely replicates in the formal economy the problems of the unorganized sector. Small businesses too may find their market positions undermined.

In this context, some of the questions that papers on this theme may address are:

THEME II: Labour Organizations and Labour Rights in the Changing World of Work

Labour rights are human rights, and so belong within the wider framework laid out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some rights are well established, while others remain subject to debate. Many labour rights are embedded in international declarations and instruments, notably ILO standards, and the ILO has established four core labour rights, viz. freedom of association and collective bargaining, and freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination in the labour market as “fundamental rights”, as reflected in its 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Within India the State has embedded a set of labour rights in the Constitution and the Indian Labour Code. Of course, including rights in legal instruments and declarations does not imply that they are adequately respected, either in India or in the world at large. Large sections of the workforce, particularly women, minority communities, in India Dalits castes and Adivasis, and other groups suffering from various forms of disadvantage, find that many rights are respected in the breach. Many rights need to be won through struggle and collective bargaining, in which trade unions have played an important role.

Labour rights and the organizations that protect them need to be understood in relation to the structural basis of production. The structural foundations are heterogenous both within and across economies – the process is quite different in agriculture and in industry, or in organized and unorganized production – and they undergo continuous change as production organization changes in response to economic, technological and social factors. Both rights and labour organization are affected. It is these interrelated dynamics that need to be captured and debated particularly in a global and national context that is witnessing dramatic alterations in the relationships between capital and labour, profits and wages. The increasing concentration of capital accompanied by rapid decentralization of labour structures has resulted in a process of informalization, which weakens labour’s capacity to organize and bargain.

Changing production arrangements in the global economy, including global supply chains and the dominance of transnational corporations, have introduced new factors into debates on labour rights, which become increasingly dependent on forces beyond the national economy. The impact of globalization on labour rights depends on the role and scope of labour institutions at both national and international levels. The pressures of global markets can undermine action to advance rights at the national level; whereas on the contrary, there are important international movements to embed labour rights in global production systems which can support national action. Meanwhile, the pressures to deregulate markets and weaken social institutions have led to shift away from regular, protected employment and towards a fragmentation of labour markets.

The central issue of debate therefore is to understand these new dynamics –whether and to what extent the changing economic forces and structures have impacted the definition of work, of workers and of the workplace. And, in this context, to re-examine the current basis of labour rights and labour organizations and to what extent are they relevant and even implementable in an economic scenario that is dominated by informality, by contractualization, by casualization, by home-based production, by self-employment – all of them made further complex by international, regional and local migration. In many parts of the economy paid work is increasingly accompanied by underpaid and unpaid work especially of women but also of men.

An essential component of analysis concerns the direct and indirect linkages between formal and informal work. A high degree of informality has an obvious impact on the realization of labour rights, but how work is organized in both formal and informal economic activity also has a direct effect. The fragmentation of production processes and the growth of outsourcing and subcontracting make it possible for employers to respect rights in some areas, where workers are well organized or public visibility requires responsible behaviour by enterprises, and to deny them in others. In this process trade unions play an important role in defending rights, but so do multiple and often conflicting voices from social identities such as gender, caste, community and a variety of specific interest groups. Some civil society organizations contest the primacy and even the relevance of trade unions in providing voices to people on the margin and who are classic “outsiders” to the conventional trade unions. Nevertheless, many unions attempt to reach informal workers, and there are a number of examples of successful strategies to represent them, including organizations such as SEWA which specifically aim at the organization of women. But more needs to be known about the effectiveness of union strategies of representation in the informal economy, the modes of action that are espoused and their success.

Many other specific issues merit attention: the decline of the public sector that assured labour rights and representative trade unions; increasing informality in various forms within the public sector as well as the private corporate sector that undermines organizing and freedom of association; the emergence of new business models that do not provide a base for collective bargaining; the legal redefinitions of ‘factory’, ‘work’ and ‘worker’ that protect employers from fulfilling their obligations; the establishing of zones that are protected against any possibility of implementation of labour legislation and organizing; rapidly increasing unemployment that inevitably leads to increasing competition between workers.

An important question here is the relative importance of the State, the judiciary, workers’ organizations and other actors in advancing (or hindering) the realization of labour rights. The political process and the functioning of democratic institutions has a considerable bearing on whether rights are realized, as does the independence, effectiveness and rigour of the judiciary.Trade unions have played an important role in advancing rights the past and continue to do so. However, only about 5 per cent of the non-agricultural workforce is unionized, and this share appears to be declining in the postreform period. Low unionization rates for women are a particular cause for concern, given the increasing exclusion of women from the Indian labour market.

There are many issues here on which papers may be submitted, for example:

THEME III: Changing Pattern of Rural Labour Markets

India is one of the fast growing economies of the world, but the pace of urbanization has been slow. About two-thirds of the population and seventy percent of the workforce are still rural. There have been rapid changes within the rural economy in recent decades. The share of agriculture in the rural national product has declined from about twothirds to one-third, and there have been growing productivity differences between agriculture and non-agriculture. Due to mechanization the growth in demand for labour in agriculture has declined, and it turned negative in the last decade and a half. Within a short period between 2004-05 and 2011- 12, employment in agriculture fell by a whopping 32 million. At the same time certain changes in agriculture point to potential increase in demand for labour. Alternative agriculture technologies and practices like SRI (rice intensification), natural and organic farming have emerged, and there has been a shift in agricultural production towards horticulture, dairy, poultry and pisciculture, for which there is increasing demand from the middle classes with growing incomes. These activities have also spillover effects increasing employment in transport, marketing and other services. The impact of these activities on labour markets is little explored.

In contrast to agriculture, rural non-farm employment has been growing at three to four percent per year over recent years, and now accounts for one-third of rural employment. Nonfarm employment has also become a supplementary source of income for a considerable proportion of agricultural households. The structural shift within rural non-farm employment is driven by the construction sector, the single largest source of rural non-farm employment, growing at over twelve percent per annum during the first decade of the 2000s. Rural manufacturing, and ‘community, social and personal services’, where the quality of employment is relatively better and which account for most rural regular employment, witnessed a very slow rate of employment growth of less than one percent per annum. There are also some non-agricultural activities with a net decline in employment. The implications of these changes for rural labour markets are yet to be analysed in detail.

The overall distribution of the rural workforce in terms of status of employment continues to be a cause for concern. Almost all employment in agriculture and more than eighty percent of non-farm employment is informal in nature. Self-employment, with a share of about fiftyfive percent, still dominates, and subsumes considerable underemployment. Over the decades regular wage employment remained at a stubborn seven percent, while casual employment has been on the rise, reaching almost two-fifths of rural employment. Many rural workers seek multiple sources of work, straddling self-employment and casual wage labour, rendering a large part of the rural workforce ‘pluriactive’. Further the characteristic swings in demand between peak and lean agricultural seasons result in a coping strategy of seasonal migration of rural labour, especially in agricultural labour surplus regions.

Besides regional diversities, segmentation on the lines of gender and social groups adds further complexity. That female labour force participation has been low in India is widely acknowledged, but in recent years there has been a further steep decline, with the withdrawal of over 20 million rural female workers from self-employment in just five years between 2004-05 and 2009-10. That share of female employment in non-farm activities is very low, that twenty percent of female employment is in the form of “subsidiary” activities and that most women remain in agricultural activities as the men leave for non-farm employment, demonstrate lack of access to more productive work for rural women!

With the growth of non-farm employment, there have been occupational shifts among social groups. While the shift of STs to non-agriculture is limited, the dependence of SCs on agricultural work, which was very high, has declined much below that of ‘OBCs’ and ‘others’, and their dependence on nonfarm employment increased substantially, much of it driven by the growth of construction sector. It raises the question whether such a rapid shift to construction is sustainable.

Apart from the changes in the growth and structure of labour markets, there have been a number of changes in rural labour market institutions. Bonded labour has been on the wane except in certain pockets of the country and in a few industrial enclaves like brick kilns, quarries and rice mills. Though there is no sign of mobilization or organization of rural labour, there has been some improvement in the bargaining power of rural labour. The length ofthe working day in agricultural activities has declined and wages have increased. On average daily real wages in rural areas increased by three to four percent per annum between 1983 and 2011-12. The rural nonagricultural wage rate has historically been higher than the agricultural wage rate but the difference between the two has declined. Wage differentials between rural male and female workers in regular employment widened, but for casual workers the differential declined. There is increasing tendency towards payment of wages by piece rate, or by contracted quantity of work, in place of daily wage rates, with uncertain implications for the incomes of workers.

The MGNREGA has been a major public intervention to augment rural employment, with an impact that varies across the states, partly because of differences in administrative capacity and partly due to agro-climatic conditions. The impact of MGNREGS is seen in changes in the supply of labour to agriculture and other informal non-farm activities, the bargaining power of rural workers, wage levels and wage differentials, and seasonal migration of rural labour. That higher wages in the MGNREGS will divert workers from agriculture and create shortages of labour in agriculture is a theoretically valid proposition but the extent to which it has been happening is an empirical question for further investigation.

Most of the labour regulations relating to conditions of work, employment security, and social security do not cover rural casual labour or the self-employed, who together constitute over ninety percent of rural workforce. Legislative measures like Minimum Wages Act which are applicable to agricultural wages are implemented more in the breach. The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act has been diluted into a set of welfare measures of poverty alleviation rather than worker-oriented interventions.

In the light of these broad changes in rural labour markets, the following may be considered as indicative issues for prospective paper writers:

These are only indicative areas and paper writers are encouraged to make their own choice within the broad framework of the theme.




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