Its history can be presented in the form of different eras with its early root in Pre-capitalism.
- Pre-capitalism: There were few workers or wage earners who were employed in iron and coal mining but since their numbers were few, they could not be considered as class.
- Early Capitalism: With the increase in production from factories and mushrooming of cities, the need of working class now felt. Hence people from villages came to the places for work and constituted the working class.
- Capitalism: A sense of class consciousness, developed among the workers, when they began to realize that the owners of means of production were taking the entire surplus and they were being stained.
- During World War: Socialist parties chose to work/support the ruling class. There was little opposition. These who opposed the war were a small section of the working class, mostly Bolsheviks in Russia. There was huge revolution in Russia and also workers rising in Germany.
- Post War to 70s : It was a boom period of industrialization. The standard of living of working class rose drastically. Now, working class no longer lived near the industry. It was due to introduction of cheap mass transport, cheaper housing and the reduction of societies to a body composed of individual families.
- The 80s: The rosy picture developed during 70s soon started fading away. The large scale heavy engineering and assembly plants began to shift from first world to third world countries. It called for shacking of large scale workforce. Further to compound the problem “White Collor” middle class came in. To serve there middle class there was spurt in service sector. Full time jobs were converted to part time jobs. And these part time jobs facilitated the growth of women workforce.
- The working class Today : The nature of working class today is quite different from that existed earlier. Today left parties have left the path of socialism and have built rainbow alliance.
The modern working class came into being with the rise of capitalist mode of production. This mode of production brought with it the factory type of industry. In other words, rise of factory system of production and working class happened simultaneously. Conversely, without a factory industry there can be no working class but only working people.
- In Marxian scheme, the capitalist society will be characterized with two principle classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat. Bourgeoisie will own the means of production and proletariat will sell their labour for wages in order to live.The Marxist meanings of these terms have been specified clearly by Engel in a footnote to the Communist Manifesto.
- In recent years, Marxist view on working class has been countered essentially from two views giving contradiction of analysis. The first view is that working class is literally disappearing.With the automation of industry and apparent displacement of blue-collar jobs, the working class is fast shrinking in size. However, the fact is that it is not the disappearance of working class as a whole, but blue-collar workers are disappearing. Second view states the opposite. In this view all society is becoming working class. That is, students, teachers, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers and salaried employee of various kinds are all workers. The working class is not disappearing by elimination, but is in fact expanding with everybody joining it except a few capitalists at the top. This view emphasizes the so-called blurring of class boundaries but overlooks the important social distinctions between classes. Moreover those distinctions are still very much prevalent in the society.
- However, the question still remains, who are the working class?As M. Holmstorm defines it ‘people commonly refer to industrial workers, and sometimes other kind of wage-earners and self employed workers, as the ‘working class’. Usually this means a group who share similar economic situation, which distinguishes them from others, like property owners, employees and managers. It suggests a common interest and shared consciousness of these interests’. This implies that like other classes the defining feature of working class is their understanding of ‘a common interest’ and ‘shared consciousness’. However, in recent times these two concepts have become difficult to actualize for the working class due to their own internal divisions and diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
- With the growth of modern industries the factory workers gradually shaped themselves into a distinct category. The concentration of the working class in the cities near the industrial enterprise was an extremely important factor in the formation of the workers as a class. Similar conditions in factories and common living conditions made the workers feel alike and react in similar fashion. In other words, the principle factors underlying the growth and formation of working mass as a class in India in the latter half of 19th century and at the beginning of 20th century although bears similarities with the advanced countries of Europe. Hence, the consciousness of being exploited by the capitalists/owners of factories was evident as early as 1888, when workers of Shyamnagar Jute Mill assaulted the manager Mr. Kiddie.That is, the reactions against the exploitation in early phases were marked by riots, affrays, assaults and physical violence.
- Side by side with these forms of protest there were also other forms of struggle characteristic of working class. Typical working class acts such as strike against long hours of work, against wage cuts, against supervisors’ extortion were increasing in number and the tendency to act collectively was also growing. As early as 1879-80 there was a threat of a strike in Champany Jute Mill against an attempt by the authorities to introduce a new system of single shift which was unpopular with workers. Presumably because of this strike threat the proposed system was ultimately abandoned
- The end of 19th century and beginning of 20th was marked by the organized national movements and consolidation of working class. The national movement especially in Bengal and Maharashtra had already assumed a developed form which exerted a great impact on the later national awakening of the entire country. Partition of Bengal in the year 1905 aroused bitter public indignation and gave rise to mass national upsurge.This political development worked as a favourable condition for the Indian working class too for moving ahead with its economic struggles and raising them to higher pitch. The period from the beginning of the century till the out break of the pitch First World War was marked with widespread and dogged struggles of the workers. Moreover, the turn of the century was also marked with the advance in industrializations with concomitant swelling of the working class in numerical strength.
- On the eve of First World War the capitalist development in India got accelerated The government widely used the country’s industrial potential for the needs of war But for the working class it was tough time. This was because the soaring up of prices reduced the living standards of working class. While rural areas were affected by the rise of prices of manufactured goods, the towns faced the higher food prices. The expansion of industrialization saw swelling of numbers of factory workers. October socialist revolution and subsequent sweeping mass and working class struggle formed the background under which the first organization of the Indian working class called All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was born. In other words, the end of World War I, Success of the October revolution and the first general crisis of capitalism added new strength to the anti-imperialist struggle of India.
- The working class did not fail to occupy its own place in anti-imperialist struggle. In this regard it is important to note that the background of political struggle during 1905 -08 is the unprecedented dimension of class struggle waged by Indian working class in the national and international set-up of the post-war period against capitalist exploitation, bore more significance from the point of view of workers’ class-consciousness. Then the birth of the central class organization of Indian working class at the right moment when national political awakening was at its peak and they were conscious as class.
- Recession in Indian industry and economy began already in the year 1922 and continued intensifying. In 1929 the impact of the world economic recession and general crisis of world capitalism veritably shocked Indian economy. The mill owners attempted to reduce wages of the workers. It is particular misfortune of the Indian working class that they ultimately have to fall victim to the intense rivalry between imperialists and native capitalists. But the workers did not lie low before that onslaught, they resisted So in order to safeguard its position the working class of India had to proceed through a path of bitter struggle.
- World War II broke out on 1939. This had devastating effect on the Indian economy and working class in particular. The colonial government reoriented the economy, where by the industrial units introduced double to triple shift of work and leave facilities were curtailed This done to cater to the war needs of England As far as workers were concerned their economic conditions were miserable in pre-war period and the new war made the situation more worse. This was because of the steady fall in the wage rates across the industry. In such a situation the working class of India had to wage struggle for protecting the existing standard of living.The working class embarked on a series of strikes in Bombay, Kanpur, Calcutta, Bangalore, Jamshedpur, Dhanbad Jharia, Nagpur, Madras, and Digboy of Assam. This event along with other struggles indicates that during this period the outlook of the Indian working class did not confined solely to the economic demands. The working class rather fully kept pace with the national and international political developments and played key role in the political struggles. In such event the imperialist government directed severe attack to forestall the struggle of working class.
- The defeat of fascism and end of World War II saw the emergence of the Indian working class as a highly organized, class-conscious and uncompromising force against the colonialist. An unprecedented and irresistible struggle for national liberation and democratic advance engulfed the country.Side-by-side the working class had to engage in sharp economic struggles. The phenomenal rise in the number of strike actions in the year 1946 was an indication of the stiff resistance.All India Trade Union Congress raised the demand of stopping retrenchment, minimum wage, eight hours work, health insurance scheme, old age pension, unemployment allowance and several other social security measures.
- As soon as India became independent the political climate of the country changed This was particularly so for the working class. That is, till independence political and economic struggle of the working class was directed against the colonial masters. But with independence began a new political dynamics, where power was in the hands of capitalist and landlords. Their economic interests were directly counter to those of the working class.
- The Independence though roused immense hopes and aspirations among all sections of the society, but was accompanied with huge rise in prices and continuous fall in the real wages of the workers. Moreover, the ruling classes had embarked upon a path of building capitalism in the newly independent country. This brought in immense hardships and suffering to the toiling masses which generated powerful resistance of the working class all over the country.
- India has a multi-structural economy where a number of pre-capitalist relations of production co-exist with capitalist relations of production. Correspondingly; here exists a differentiated working class structure i.e., the numerous types of relations of production, consumption and accumulation of surplus combines to produce a variety of forms of the existence of the working class. This is further compounded by the structural features of Pan-Indian society along with local conditions. So the composition of the working class is affected by the caste, tribe, ethnic origin and the gender based division of labour between male and female and associated patriarchy. This implies that despite internal structural differences and the relations of production through which working people have been and continues to be, there exists a group of people denoted as ‘working class’. Then, it becomes pertinent to analyze the growth of working class in India. This particularly so, when one considers two facts. First, in India prior to 19th century there were vast working people not working class. Second, the growth of capitalist mode of production along with industrialization was imposed by colonial masters.
- Given such an eventful history and growth of the working class in India, it is worthwhile to examine structure nature of the working class in the present day circumstances. As mentioned above, due to the existence of multi-structural economy and effects of primordial affiliations, variety of forms of the working class exists in India. On top of all the differences the differences in wage is also the basis of divisions among the working class. On the basis of wage there are four types of workers.
- First, those workers who are permanent employees of the large factory sector and get family wage;(by ‘family wage’ it is meant that wage of the worker should be sufficient to maintain and reproduce to only the individual but also the workers family.) They are mostly employed in the public sector enterprises and modern sectors of petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and engineering.
- Second, a large and preponderant section of the working class that does not get a family wage. This includes workers in the older industries like cotton and jute textiles, sugar and paper. Even the permanent workers in the tea plantation come in the same category because the owners refused to accept the norm of family wage for an individual worker.
- Third, this section of the working class is at the bottom of the wage scale. They are the mass of contract and sometimes casual labourers in industry, including construction, brick making and other casual workers.
- Fourth, below all these lie a reserve army of labour, who work in petty commodities production in petty trading, ranging from hawking to rag-picking.They are generally engaged in informal sector and carry on for the want of sufficient survival wage.
- The existence of majority of workers, who are not paid family wage means that either the worker gets some form of supplement from other non-capitalist sector or the worker and his/her family cut down their consumption below the minimum standard. This also means that there is more than one wage earner per household And as Das Gupta mentions that both men and women work in the plantation or bidi manufacturing. At the same time they also supplement these earnings with various kinds of agricultural activities including not only cultivation as such but also poultry and milk production. Even in plantation workers were given plots of land with which to carry on agricultural production. It is the supplementary agricultural activities that enable wages in these sectors to be kept low. In this sense, supplementary activities by the workers under pre-capitalist relations of production are a tribute to capitalist sector.
- Not only there is wage differential among working class, but variations are also there in the terms of working conditions. Hence, better paid labour has also much greater job security. However the workers on the lower end of wage scale have not only job security but also have considerable extra-economic coercion and personal bondage which leads to lack of civil rights. Similarly, working conditions for the low paid workers are uniformly worse than for high paid workers. So, in the same plant or site there is a clear difference in the safety measures for the two groups of workers.The situation worsens further with regard to women workers. For example, women are not allowed to work in the steel plants for safety reasons, but are not prohibited to be employed on the same site as contract labour. With such major divisions amongst the working class of India on the basis of wage, one would expect that there would be large scale mobility among the workers. So a worker would start as casual or contract labour in a firm and then would move to permanent employment either in the same or other firm.
- A study by Deshpande of Bombay labour found the reverse to be true. That is, around 87 per cent of the regular employees, who had changed their job, had started as regular employee and only 13 per cent had started as casual labour. In this regard Harris, who conducted study in Coimbatore, reported that ‘individuals do not move easily between sectors of the labour market Among the 826 households surveyed there were only less than 20 cases of movement from unorganized into organized sector. Many in the unorganized sector had the requisite skills, experience and education for factory job. But they lack the right connections or to put it in another way, they do not belong to the right social network’. This means that mobility to a large extent is dependent upon the way recruitments are done. The above-mentioned study of Bombay labour, though dealing with private sector, found that recruitments are done mainly through friends and relatives. A study of Ahmadabad by Subramanian and Papola found that 91 per cent of the jobs were secured through introduction by other workers. This in a way then denies the disadvantaged groups access to the high wage employment In public sector though substantial portion of the vacancies are filled through employment exchange, but it does not in any way means that the causal contract or other disadvantaged groups have equal access.
Indian working class, as mentioned earlier, came from diverse social backgrounds in which primordial
identities such as caste, ethnicity, religion and language played very important roles. In recent years the
significance of these elements has been reduced but they do persist nonetheless.
- In this regard the Ahmadabad study of Subramanian and Papola points out that where jobs are secured through introduction by other workers, the latter was a blood relation in 35 per cent of the cases belonged to the same caste in another 44 per cent and belonged to the same native place in another 12 per cent Friends helped in 7 per cent of the cases.Several other studies have pointed not only playa significant role in securing the employment, but also in the placement in wage scale.
- K. L. Sharma in his five studies of Pune, Kota, Bombay, Ahmadabad and Bangalore covering large number of industries found that 61 per cent of workers were upper caste Hindus.
- The dominant position of the workers from upper caste was also brought out in a study of Kerala. This study point out that in higher income jobs upper castes dominate whereas Dalits/Adivasis have preponderance in low wage jobs. The middle castes are concentrated in middle to bottom ranges. Even in public sector, the representation of backward caste, schedule caste and tribe is not up to their proportion in population.
- Moreover, it seems that caste-based division of labour is followed in the class III and IV jobs in government and public sector enterprises. So the jobs of sweepers are reserved for Dalits and Adivasis. In coal mines, hard physical labour of loading and pushing the coal tubs is done by dalits and adivasis. In steel plant the production work in the intense heat of coke oven and blast furnace is mainly done by adivasis and dalits. This is because, as Deshpande points out of ‘pre labour market characteristic’ such as education and land holding. So those who possessed more land and education ended up in higher wage sector. But then if upper and lower caste people own comparable levels of landholding and education, the upper caste worker will get into higher segment of the wage than lower caste worker. This is because of the continuing importance of caste ties in recruitment
- According to Nathan, Caste also serves the function in ensuring the labour supply for different jobs with the fact of not paying more than what is necessary. In other words, the depressed conditions of adivasis and dalits helps in ensuring a supply of labour, who can be made to work at the mere subsistence level. Hence, caste on one hand plays the role in keeping the lower sections of the society into the lower strata of the working class, on the other hand, the upper caste get a privilege in the labour market Further, caste is not only a matter of marriage and to an extent; residence; but more so a continuing pool of social relation for the supply of various kinds of labour for the capitalist mode of production.
- The working class, which is the product of capitalist relations of production, came into being with industrial revolution and subsequent industrialization in England, in particular and Europe, in general. In this relation of production, unlike other epochs, they did not own anything except the labour, which they sold for survival. At the other spectrum, there were capitalists who not only owned all the means of production but also appropriated the entire surplus generated out of this relation of production.
- The working class at the conceptual level seems to be fairly simple, but if one tries to define it, the problem magnifies.The reason is that this is not a homogeneous entity. Rather it is a complex, contradictory and constantly changing entity. Other reason is that the concept of ‘class-consciousness’ is very slippery with regard to the working class.
- The consequence of this is that it is often proclaimed that either working class is shrinking in size or everybody except a few at the top is working class. However the fact is that working class is a distinct entity, with characteristics of its own. In India, the situation is much more complex because of several reasons like, (a) the forced intrusion of British capital in India; (b) simultaneous existence of multiple relations of production; and (c) never ending identification of working mass with primordial features such as caste, religion and other ethnic divisions of the society.
- Their coming into being and consolidation of working class in the world as well as in India has been affected by local and international events of both economic and political nature. So for carrying out further studies on the working class, these peculiarities have to be taken into account.