Dr Lorena Arocha
Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Today Dr Lorena Arocha summarises the outcome of her collaborative research project with The Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Lorena Arocha, Meena Gopal, Bindhulakshmi Pattadath, and Roshni Chattopadhyay, ‘ “Ways of Seeing”—Policy paradigms and unfree labour in India’, Anti-Trafficking Review, 15 (2020)
In 2019, a collaborative project between the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Wilberforce Institute focused on exploring worker-driven initiatives to tackle exploitation in India. Many activists and organisations generously contributed to the project. In our recently published article, we trace the trajectory of different initiatives to address unfree labour and their impact on workers’ capacity to aspire to and exercise their rights in India. We attempt to understand the dimensions and effects of different ‘ways of seeing’ precarity and exploitation within the larger context of economic policies, social structures such as caste-based discrimination, gender-based violence, and state indifference.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, we tried to contact all contributing activists and organisations to find out how lockdown was affecting their work and impacting people already in precarious and exploitative work. Here we spotlight the work of two organisations that contributed to our project – Aajeevika Bureau and Sangram.
Aajeevika Bureau was set up in 2005 and works in the south Rajasthan-Gujarat migration corridor. It offers rural migrant workers not only direct services, support and protection, but also uses advocacy and research to push for legal reform and better policy implementation, building capacity among migrant workers, especially through its efforts to mobilise and organise workers into collectives. Since the beginning of lockdown, they have been recording and publicising cases of stranded migrants, providing and distributing food supplies and other essentials, raising funds through various crowdfunding initiatives, informing migrants and others what services are available, supporting existing structures among rural families to assist in containing the virus and warding against economic collapse, running a helpline, increasing solidarity and collaborating with intellectuals and other commentators on social media campaigns, videos and webinars and joining forces with other workers’ platforms. Aajeevika Bureau launched a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office to help transport migrants back home in security and dignity, given the chaotic results during the Shramik Special Train scheme.
Thanks to their efforts, we know how employers used the lockdown to defraud workers of their wages, how workers are running into debt to buy food or medicines or travel back to their home states and the discrimination they face when trying to obtain food rations or medical assistance, with fatal results. Aajeevika Bureau also mounts pressure against state government decisions which favour businesses over workers, as with the cancellation of trains in the southern state of Karnataka at the behest of construction businesses, trapping migrants in, or the order by the northern state government of Uttar Pradesh, imposing a 12-hour shift for workers in industrial units. On International Labour Day, Aajeevika Bureau launched a research report, ‘Unlocking the Urban’. In the report, they painstakingly remind us that, though documenting the effects of the pandemic is important, we should avoid short-sightedness and see the crisis as an opportunity for making visible long structural exclusions. Using the twin framings of political economy and citizenship rights, they show how the ‘sedentary bias’ of most public provision policies in India allows central and state governments to make circular migrants invisible.
Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha or Sangram is an organisation which was established in 1992 in Sangli, in the southern state of Maharashtra. It works through a series of collective empowerment groups for socially and economically stigmatised communities, like sex workers and transgender groups. It is a women-led, rights-based network with a firm recognition of the structural inequalities at the heart of what these groups experience, including gender-based violence and discrimination. Sangram emerged at the time of another pandemic, that of HIV/AIDS, and are thus well versed in mobilising these collectives to address public health emergencies.
Sex workers and transgender groups have been gravely affected by the lockdown, not only because they have lost their source of income and might become homeless as a result, but their choices are often stark, when return to home states might mean facing violence and ostracism. And yet they were among the first to be aware about the risks posed by the virus and to implement measures to stall its spread as early as February 2020. Unable to access any social welfare scheme or any of the relief assistance provided by the government, they have been left to fend for themselves. Without non-governmental organisations and groups like Sangram, who have been raising funds and distributing food rations and medicines, this collective would have been completely isolated. Sangram is part of other sex workers’ collectives who are mobilising for advocacy purposes and organising webinars to voice in their own words the experiences of lockdown. Without this support, and in the face of campaigns that identify these groups as spreading the virus, isolation, anxiety over the future and hunger are leading to debt and suicide.
As indicated in our article, our pilot research suggests that ‘ways of seeing’ workers and their conditions matter. These ‘ways of seeing’ have distinct results for workers. Never have these been more stark than since the pandemic hit, as demonstrated by what happened to the millions of invisibilised migrant workers in India and reflected in the labour law changes the current government is staunchly pursuing. Paying attention to ‘ways of seeing’ is crucial, as these lead to different dispositions and strategies in challenging and re-imagining workers’ positions and futures.