China & India compared: SOAS study

Some preliminary results from a fantastic research project on workers in China and India have just come out. The project is called ‘Labour conditions and the working poor in China and India’ and involved academics from the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Peking University. It looked at the conditions of construction workers and garments workers in the two countries and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK and British government’s Department of International Development. I’m sure lots of interesting publications will emerge from this. SOAS has released some bite-sized reports here. You can read them for yourself but I just wanted to comment on the standouts for me.

First, there are some clear similarities between Chinese and Indian construction. Both sectors are dominated by large firms (four of the five biggest construction firms in the world are Chinese) who contract to builders who subcontract to various firms who actually employ the workers. In both countries, work is intensive, wages are low and labour relations are highly ‘informal’. Having said this, things look a lot worse for Indian construction workers. In Delhi, virtually all workers are short-term interstate migrants hired by labour contractors. Most are not paid until their job is finished. Unlike China, whole families – men, women and children – migrate and work together on construction sites. Two-thirds haven’t completed primary school. There are no unions and very little social protection. Prof Ravi Srivastava’s report paints a dim picture for these workers in India.

On the garments sector, there is some survey research on workers in larger firms (the organised sector) in the New Delhi area but the really alarming material (for me) concerns the wages of workers who labour in small workshops or homes. While self-employed ‘own-account’ workers and wage workers in ‘micro-units’ earned Rs 6,503-6,950 per month ($AU 115-123), ‘homeworkers’–individuals working for piece-rate wages from home—earned Rs 1,280 ($AU 23). That’s an extreme poverty wage. Dr Alessandra Mezzadri’s report talks about workers going into debt to make ends meet but one wonders how any workers could survive on these wages, particularly in the NCR where costs of living are always high. Dr Mezzadri has written some excellent articles on these workers and the inability of ‘corporate social responsibility’ campaigns to address their concerns. So I’m really looking forward to seeing more information about the results of this project, as it comes out.

19 September, 2014

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