Industry and Informality: Assessing Work and Labour Movement Strategies in India's Auto Industry

Wednesday, 13 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 32 (Main Building)
Distributed Paper
Tom BARNES, Australian Catholic University, Australia
The automotive industry is a sunrise industry in India—it is relatively high-growth, technologically-sophisticated and plays a central role in Indian governments’ manufacturing and economic development strategies. The large historical literature on auto firms and auto workers in the West often assumes the positive socio-economic impact of the industry. Today, some scholars who see the developmental importance of auto production to value capture via Global Value Chains or Global Production Networks equally assume that auto industrialization in the Global South will produce Decent Work outcomes, including an ongoing role for trade unions. But this has not been the case in India. There is now a convincing body of work which shows that global and domestic auto firms have pursued a ‘low road’ approach to employment relations in India, commonly involving direct manipulation of products and prices in the supply chain, the mass employment of low-wage migrant workers, widespread evasion of protective labour laws and a multi-layered ‘contract labour’ system. This paper focuses on the trade union response in this challenging environment. It uses a comparison of case studies from industrial sites nearby the major cities of New Delhi, Pune and Chennai. Based upon multiple interviews with workers, union activists, employers and labour contractors, it shows that unions have struggled to cope with this transformation. Perhaps controversially, the paper frames the mass of auto workers as part of the continuum of ‘informal work’ in India. Unions have tended to focus on the defense of labour-related security rights, although there is some variation in union approaches in different regions which are also addressed in the paper.