Home / News / India /  Contract work fuelling new caste conflicts

A new year is a time of new beginnings. That, however, holds a different meaning for 23-year-old Milan Kumar who has to start yet another job hunt, having been laid off on 31 December after a six-month stint at an auto parts maker.

This is Kumar’s third spell of joblessness in as many years. His most recent stint as a temporary contract worker was at Bellsonica Auto Component India Pvt. Ltd in Manesar, Haryana, where he earned “roughly 20,000 a month".

Hailing from a village near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, Kumar is at least not the worst-case scenario for the government, which is battling a bleak job creation report card. He, after all, managed to find three different jobs since 2016, though each lasted a mere six months. For large chunks of the year, he would have been technically categorized as “employed" in a government jobs survey.

But Kumar is deeply unhappy. Temporary workers like him largely staff the automotive companies that dot the Manesar-Dharuhera cluster. In factory after factory, well over half the workers are temporary, casual or trainees. They get paid, on average, less than a third of what a regular employee earns for doing the same work. And the job comes with a fixed tenure of six months. The system keeps wages low and worker turnaround high, denying them certain basic protections such as earned leave, which kicks in after 240 days of continuous employment.

Enough people sign up because there are few other options, says Kumar. When out of a job, he makes the daily trek to Gurugram’s coaching centres. “Sarkari ki taiyari kar rahe hain (I am preparing for a government job)," he says. “My parents don’t know my situation. How do I explain to them that I begin searching for a job every six months? It’s strange."

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For many within the government though, the state of India’s job market isn’t all that strange. In a hurriedly organized press conference late last week to rebut the finding of historically high unemployment levels in an official jobs survey, which was leaked to the media, NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant cited the rapid expansion in the number of Ola and Uber drivers as evidence to claim that there were plenty of jobs and the only issue, if any, was their quality.

But quantity and quality of jobs are not entirely unrelated. Poor quality, low-wage jobs are partly a fallout of the intense competition for available options in the absence of sufficient new jobs. India’s contractual workforce expanded significantly over the same period when large-scale national surveys began pointing out that newer jobs are harder to come by. Since 2000, roughly 85% of all newly created factory jobs were contractual, according to Annual Survey of Industries data. While a sliver of these new workers on contract are reasonably well-paid white-collar workers, the vast majority make do with low pay and little or no job security.

The supply of labour is clearly far more than the supply of jobs, says Radhicka Kapoor, an economist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “Despite a growing economy, only a very niche group in India gets the jobs it wants. It’s a very disturbing trend," she says.

And when the persistent problem of limited jobs meets India’s already existing cleavages of caste and local versus migrant, it creates a potent mix of resentment. In Manesar and Dharuhera, for example, the low-paid contract workforce is largely dominated by migrants or socially backward groups. “The dominant landed castes won’t take jobs that often pay just 8000-10,000 a month," says Mohammed Yamil, 35, who works at a dye-making unit. But they do want jobs that match their status, since jobs are, after all, available for the “others", Yamil adds, referring to migrants.

Although the primary economic activity in the surrounding villages is renting out cramped row houses to the temporary workers at steep rates, there is a growing clamour for salaried jobs. “If our children have passed only Class XI, they should be given a job that matches that qualification," says Ramesh Yadav, 55, who grew up in Manesar village. “A lot has changed in this region in the last 10 years, but the problem of unemployment has not changed at all."

Between 2000 and 2015, nearly a third of India’s new manufacturing jobs were created in just three states—Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat. They also happen to be sites of intense stirs demanding fresh quotas in government jobs. On Friday, cabinet minister Arun Jaitley waded into the jobs debate, tweeting that if enough jobs weren’t being created, as alleged, “there should have been great social unrest". “In Gujarat, there is certainly a perception among the Patels that others are getting jobs [even if low paying] and we are not," says Indira Hirway, director and professor of economics at the Centre for Development Alternatives in Ahmedabad. “India has no option but to create a large number of good quality jobs if it wants to put a lid on social tension."

Caught up in this cycle of low-wage contract work that is taken up largely by vulnerable groups with few other options, India seriously requires a broad strategy on job creation that comes with a set of smart new labour regulations, says Amit Basole, an economist and labour market researcher at Azim Premji University. “As an economy, we have started believing that we can’t afford well-paid people. We need to wake up to the well-documented negative effects of inequality on our society and democracy," he says. Whether that happens depends on how fast governments start recognizing that there is a problem, to begin with.

Meanwhile, scores of young men and women will continue to take up jobs they deeply dislike. And they would be the lucky ones, as official job surveys that the present government has tried to suppress indicate that even open unemployment is rising in the aftermath of demonetization.

In any case, for many, the distinction between having a job and not having one is rather fine. Rajesh Gujjar, 22, whose first job began in mid-January, already wants to quit. After completing a polytechnic diploma from Bhilwara in Rajasthan, he recently began installing car doors on Maruti’s assembly line as a temporary worker. “My friends tell me a railways job is better. Here, you run around for six months and, in the end, there’s nothing left," he says. “I might as well go back home and study till my parents have money. Phir dhekte hain (We’ll see after that)."

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