By Karan Javaji
May 1st is celebrated around the world as International Worker’s Day. This May Day saw numerous riots and protests around the world. It presents us with an opportunity to reflect on labour from a Bharatiya perspective.
The history of May Day can be traced back to 4th May 1886. Workers gathered in Haymarket Square, Chicago for a peaceful protest in support of the 8-hour workday. But the protest took a violent turn, when few anarchists in the crowd used this as an opportunity to create chaos. Bombing and ensuing gunfire led to several deaths of policemen and civilians.
May Day, up until this point was an ancient European Spring Festival marked by harvest celebrations. Somehow, the International Socialist Conference in 1889 saw it fit to commemorate the Haymarket riots by declaring the traditional celebratory May Day as International Worker’s Day.
The contradictory nature of celebrating the tragic history of May Day, seems to have been lost on people’s minds because of the genuine lack of awareness about its history. Few Americans themselves are aware of the history of May Day despite its origins in the US. In fact, the US celebrates its own National Labor Day in September.
In India, it provides an illustration of how the Western-centric view of labour and the labour movement has come to dominate our mainstream thinking even without us realizing the stark irrelevance of it to the Indian context and more recently, to the broader global context as well.
Historical Context of Labour
To labour simply means to work and to work is to put in effort to achieve something. Humans have always been engaged in work, right from the times of early hunter-gatherers.Indeed it may be said that work is an integral part of human life. But the idea of labour has changed with time and across cultures.
India has had a strong entrepreneurial tradition where the idea of ‘work’ was historically associated with self-employment or working within a family enterprise. In agriculture, the family itself laboured on the farm generally on a subsistence basis. Even where there was employment of labour, the condition of labour was generally quite good. This was due to a couple of factors. In the rural agrarian sector, there was a strong sense of community and caring for one another rather than simply an employee-employer relationship. Labour was hired as “helping hands”—the employer and his family would themselves also work along with those who may be hired. Hence, there was little chance that there could be harsh working conditions, since the employer would also have been subjected to these. Payment often took the form of a share in the crop, which made labour feel like they had a stake in the success of the crop.
In the manufacturing sphere, India was a leader due to its prowess in artisanal production. The artisan was both the entrepreneur as well as the worker. He invested his own capital, procured his own raw materials, spilled his own sweat, creating marvelous products with his bare hands, took these to the market and sold them himself.There was no strict distinction between labour and capital.
But this harmonious balance was disrupted with the Industrial Revolution. Driven by the greed of surplus production, factory-based urban-centric mass manufacturing became the norm. Whereas earlier the artisan was both the labourer and capitalist, now a strict dichotomy appeared between labour and capital. In the new capitalistic society, workers became an emotionallydisconnected means to an end—with profit motive trumping everything else. The workers were exploited and their condition increasingly worsened. Production, which once involved the creativity, skill, passion, uniqueness and human connection that comes with artisanal creation, now became a mundane, monotonous, repetitive, stressful affair that stripped away the “human” quality of work that had existed thus far.
The wide reach of the industrial revolution across sectors and regions, meant the simultaneous rise of workers as a distinct class and the collapse of artisanal manufacturing. It was based on this unique situational evidence that Marx predicted the fall of capitalism and the rise of communism. Communist ideology was right insofar as recognizing the flaws of the materialism inherent in capitalism. But that’s as far as Marx got it right. The World witnessed the failure of communism over the past 80 years and most people are certain today that Marx’s predictions were deeply flawed. So if both capitalism and communism are flawed, what is the alternative lens through which we can understand labour?
Great thinkers like Dattopant Thengadi and Pt. Deendayal Upadhyaya have articulated the Bharatiya view of labour.
Unlike capitalism and communism with brief histories of about 200 years and 80 years respectively, our Bharatiya school of thought is an ancient one yet can be adapted to provide a fresh framework to understand labour issues.
In the Bharatiya tradition, the basis for human life rests on the four pillars of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. Whereas, capitalism and communism are only concerned withArtha and Kama, in the Bharatiya philosophy, even while recognizing the materialistic role of Artha and Kama to labour welfare, we give prime importance to the spiritual aspects of Dharma and Moksha to elevate welfare to true empowerment.
Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, thought labour and materialism were inseparable. Labour is the basis for ownership of private property. He who puts in effort to pluck the apple, owns the apple by virtue of having laboured for it. Smith’s Labor Theory of Value argued that the price of a commodity is based not on its usefulness but rather how much labour has been put into it. Marx used this very same theory to argue that labour is exploited when capitalists produce surplus value.
Such a narrow interpretation of labour fails in recognizing that workers are human beings. They cannot be reduced to a mere transactional exchange of wages for work. Materialist aspirations may only soothe the body. But the mind and soul need to be cultivated and nurtured as well. It is precisely the failure of this that has led to the persistently depraved condition of workers across the world.
Unfortunately, workers have been political pawns used by various stakeholders for their respective benefits. It is a shame that even today, workers are protesting for basic conditions such as minimum wage. Going back to May Day, it is pitiful to think that protests were required to demand for an 8-hour work day. Humans require far more than material basics such as wages to thrive and lead a fulfilling life.
Humanistic Needs of Labour
At the core, workers need a sense of purpose. This may be an innate purpose such as a feeling like one is doing what one’s life is meant for. Such passion will not only lead to higher productivity and output, but also work will not be perceived as a burden.Such a sense of purpose is especially magnified when it is a Dharmic calling; a duty that we have not only for ourselves but also for society, because it is a realization that we are all connected and our actions affect those around us. We see our work in the broader context of societal impact. This becomes a form of meditation—Karma Yoga. This state of mind will help us work through stressful situations in a balanced manner and come out victorious. All these components lead to a transformation from work to ‘Seva’ (service) without any expectations. In the Mahabharata, it says:
(You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the
fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your
activities, nor be attached to inaction.)
When these components are in place, then no longer does one seek an 8-hour workday. Our Prime Minister works not for 8 hours but 18 hours a day. In our culture (and some other cultures like the Japanese), hard work (‘Shrama’) is held in high esteem for its own sake. The Western concept of “work-life balance” makes it seem like work and life are two separate things. Work is a part of life.
Growth is another vital need for humans. Workers need to be provided opportunities for growth. Growth may take the form of promotions and training. But equally growth must be in the form of personal growth. Work must carve us out as the best version of ourselves—man-making. For this, nature of work must not be routine. It must be diverse and provide a wide range of exposure. This goes against the Western dictum of division of labour and specialization.
Dignity is also important from a humanistic lens. Dignity does not mean merely the absence of disrespect and exploitation. In its true sense, dignity must mean true empowerment of workers to elevate workers above the mere material conditions they are currently subjected to. In this regard, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, has given a call to celebrate September 17th, VishwakarmaJayanti as National Labour Day. Vishwakarma was the first artisan, craftsman, engineer, architect and creator. This elevates labour to the status of creators and doers who are making things happen.
Finally, another vital component that we can borrow from our philosophy is the importance of community. Humans work best in a group. Trust and loyalty evoke powerful emotions. Unlike the individualistic nature of Western society, ours is a community-based one.
So far we have discussed labour from a humanistic lens. But, labour does not exist in vacuum. Labour exists in the context of society, and in our philosophy, society is a living breathing being where each individual has a vital role in making society thrive. Bothlabour and capital are equally important and only a harmonious relationship between the two can lead to balanced blossoming of society.
In economics, unlike partial equilibrium analysis, that only looks at one particular aspect of the economy, general equilibrium analysis recognizes that all components of the economy are interrelated and have an effect on each other. Similarly, an integral view holds that all stakeholders—labour, employers, entrepreneurs, government and citizens—have a role to play. It is for this reason that the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, has its slogan–‘Workers Unite the World’ instead of the more familiar Communist call for ‘Workers of the World Unite’.
Relevance to Present Day
The global economy is experiencing a slow down with rising unemployment. There is also an anti-globalization wave. The world is looking to India to emerge as the torch-bearer.
When most nations are facing a demographic crises, India is about to reap its demographic dividend with a large young population. But for the past decade, we have experienced ‘jobless growth’. Even where jobs were created, it was in the informal and unorganized sector with low productivity.
At the same time, the World is set to embark on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where Artificial Intelligence and related technologies might threaten to replace much of today’s labour.
In this context, the above discussion of Integral Humanism offers some lessons:
- Due to complex labour laws that inherently pitch workers against employers, it has led to rigidities in the labour market. Employers consequently prefer to hire labour informally on contractual basis to avoid regulation. The government has rightly focused on reforming labour laws. Progressive reform should go beyond materialistic benefits and truly help empower labour in the long run. The recent Maternity Benefit amendment that provided for increased maternity leave to 26 weeks (one of the highest in the world) is one such progressive reforms that recognizes the “human” nature of work and prioritizes the institution of family. Employers must actively be involved as stakeholders so that they understand that such reforms are in their best long term interest.
- With the transformation to a knowledge economy and the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the focus should be on high skill creation. Government’s Skill India Mission is a right step in this regard. Where China grew from unskilled labour and industrialization, India’s growth strategy must be based on a high skill knowledge-based economy.It is only such high skill jobs that allow labour to grow on a sustainable path without fear of being replaced by Artificial Intelligence.
- We must take inspiration from our entrepreneurial tradition and encourage entrepreneurship. Startup India/Standup India, NitiAyog’s Startup Venture Fund, Mudra scheme are all great steps. But there also needs to be a stronger push for incubation platforms for collaboration between youth.
- Creation of a talent identification and mentoring network infrastructure that can successfully create domain leaders instead of only average workers. In this regard it is important to recognize that talent may be in unique and diverse fields.
The world is looking for an alternative way to understand labour relations. Bharatiya philosophy offers such an alternative. Pt Deendayal Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism is applied here to understand the “human” needs of labour beyond mere materialistic necessities.
The discussion above is a snapshot of the wide range of analyses and conclusions that can help India lead the World on a path of harmonious economic growth.
(Karan Javaji is a double major in economics and government from Cornell University and a former researcher at the Center for Public Policy, IIM-B. He is a Pt Deendayal Upadhyaya Shatabdi Vistarak and a Territorial Army officer)