Informal Labour in Urban India

Published: Monday 23rd March 2015

Over the past 20 years, India has been transformed by rapid economic growth and development. This has been widely celebrated, not least by India's globetrotting prime minister, Narendra Modi. But this focus on growth tends to hide the fact that India's transformation has been mostly based on the mass employment of poor, casual workers.

A new book by ACU's Dr Tom Barnes Informal Labour in Urban India: Three Cities, Three Journeys (Routledge) examines this phenomenon by using case studies from three urban regions - Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi - to explore growth in modern India's cities and towns.

Dr Barnes, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Melbourne-based Institute for Religion, Politics and Society, said that 'informal labour' in India has grown dramatically in an era of neoliberal economic policymaking.

He said India has undergone a process of uneven and combined development during its integration with the world economy, and this has encouraged a distorted form of urban development.

"India's rapid economic development has been based upon the mass employment of workers on low wages who lack basic social protection and rights at work," he said.

"Within the book I adopt a 'classes of labour' approach, classifying each case of informal labour as a specific 'form of exploitation': as a different way for employers to lower production costs, control workers and increase enterprise flexibility."

Dr Barnes said urban development in India is characterised by a combination of industrialisation, industrial relocation, restructuring and informalisation.

"My book aims to re-frame informalisation as a process that complements, rather than contradicts, contemporary industrialisation in rapidly-emerging economies," he said.

Informal Labour in Urban India is already garnering praise. According to Emeritus Professor Frank Stilwell of the University of Sydney, the book "combines empirical evidence, direct observation and careful political economic judgment to produce a cogent and insightful analysis. It is a thoroughly engaging book which changes the way in which Indian economic development should be viewed."

Dr Jens Lerche, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), at the University of London said, "Anyone concerned with informal work, wage labour and the underlying global and regional processes in India will appreciate this book."

Dr Barnes plans to hold a series of informal seminars to discuss the ideas in his book in Melbourne and Sydney later this year.

Dr Tom Barnes

Dr Barnes holds a PhD in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is an economic sociologist, with a research background is in the comparative political economy of development, informal employment and labour movements. He is currently researching labour in the automotive industry in Australia and the United States, as well as India, Indonesia and China.

Follow him on Twitter @drtombarnes or keep up to date via his blog.