A column reflecting on contemporary society and politics.
Over the last two decades, the labour beat has all but disappeared from media newsrooms. The labour reporter belongs to a journalistic tribe which is today virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, the only time that we become aware of this this void is when tragedies like the one in Bawana hog headlines. At least 17 workers died when a fire engulfed an illegal firecracker packaging unit in there last month. It appears that the media acknowledges the existence of workers only when such catastrophic events take place.
On such occasions, we encounter workers as flesh and blood persons, women, men, and children, who spend inordinately longs hours working in innumerable illegal factories. More often than not, these factories operate in dangerously hazardous conditions. Yet these conditions and the lack of enforcement of any kind of labour rules in unregulated workplaces mostly go unreported.
When and if the media chooses to focus on risky working conditions, it is mostly prompted by perverse reasons like, for example, large-scale loss of lives or incidents of violence. Recall in this context, the reporting of the violence by workers at Manesar’s Maruti Suzuki car manufacturing plant in July 2012, which left a senior HR executive dead and scores of officials and workers injured. More than a hundred workers were arrested, of whom the court convicted 31 and acquitted 117 last year.
While the workers’ violence was reported at great length, long-term reportage that could have given the incident some context was largely missing from the headlines and coverage. What was presented as a question of justifiable or unjustifiable violence should, in fact, have been one of trying to understand what led to the violence in the first place.
The fact was that workers at the Manesar plant had been agitating for months on a series of important issues, such as removing discrepancies in the salaries of permanent and contractual workers, better work conditions etc. Even as issues were building up at the factory, there was no sustained media reporting of them. By not reporting the violence that erupted against this background, the media de-contextualised the conditions they were challenging.
On such crucial issues, the media narrative of the working class always remains unfinished. This is primarily because of a lack – if not absence – of sustained coverage of labour-related issues over months, years and even decades. In the face of such huge gaps in the spectrum of information and knowledge, the questions that surface in times of tragedy or violence, hang in a vacuum. The media fails to connect immediate tragedies to larger, long-term processes that govern the spheres of economy and labour, particularly the informal sector, which employs more than 90% of India’s workers.
In addition to dehumanising the working class, media invisibility of such a large section of the country’s population, renders our knowledge about them and their lives sketchy and abstract. Paradoxically, even though phrases like informalisation of labour are regularly bandied about in public discourse, workers themselves are conspicuously missing from the narrative. At best, they are reduced to statistical numbers to buttress one argument or another.
Consider the broader political-economic scenario in which the labour beat was first marginalised and then gradually effaced in most newspapers. Before the onset of liberalisation, labour occupied a prime position in the roster of beats. A quintessential labour reporter used to keep track not just of the labour ministry, but also of trade unions and workers. Even then, there were problems in the way media reported issues related to labour. Much of the reportage centred around economic demands – primarily steered by political party-affiliated trade unions – and little on occupational and workplace health hazards. But the important thing to note here is that workers’ issues weren’t totally excluded from media coverage then.
That slowly changed after liberalisation began in the early 1990s. Downgrading of the labour reporter and the labour ministry went hand-in-hand as the economy was restructured. The subsequent weakening of central trade unions – particularly Left trade unions like the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) – further helped delegitimise the labour beat.
As public discourse became more skewed towards identifying GDP rates as the sole marker of the country’s economic well-being, the condition of workers in the informal sector seemed to increasingly matter less. The media became enamoured by growth rates, and the labour ministry became a shadow of its former self. Labour reportage became “business journalism.”
One of the themes has that frequently come up in media and government circles since the 1990s, is labour law reform. At the centre of the discussion is the issue of rationalising labour. This entails amending the Industrial Disputes Act, bringing in an exit policy to facilitate worker retrenchment – a move enthusiastically backed by business and government.
The demand has not gone out of vogue. The Narendra Modi government, too, frequently talks about the need to reform labour laws. What is of interest here are the different ways in which the subject has been reported over the years. Two decades ago, there was extensive reporting about the exit policy and its implications for workers, particularly in the informal sector.
The labour portfolio had still not been downgraded at the government level. Unlike today, when the labour minister is often a weak or dismissible leader in the party, the Narasimha Rao government had a powerful labour minister in P.A. Sangma. Liberalisation opened up new spaces of engagement and conflict with labour leaders and workers. One of the primary issues of dispute was the exit policy. Faced with the trade unions’ intractable opposition to the policy, the Rao government had to finally withdraw it. What’s important to note is that the media diligently reported the discussion.
Two important things have happened since then. First, with liberalisation turning to dogma, workplaces started to change, and major trade unions found themselves unable to adapt to the changed context. Gradually, labour leaders made themselves irrelevant, as the informal sector came to be regarded as the main sector of the economy. Second, alongside the growing irrelevance of the labour minister and trade union leaders, the tribe of labour reporters also disappeared.
This is not a phenomenon peculiar to India. A report in the Columbia Journalism Review in March 2015 says: “The ranks of the labor beat have indeed hollowed out alongside the atrophy of organized labor, continuing as news organizations have more recently hemorrhaged cash. But the beat historically focused on unions, a focus unsuited for an economy in which just 11 percent of American workers belong to them. ‘The old fashioned idea that you’re covering just organized labor went away a long time ago,’ said Dean E. Murphy, business editor of the New York Times.”
Ominously, as discontent among working people grows, and the media fixates on violent tragedies when they occur, millions of people around the country become mere statistics, their lives disappearing further from our view with each passing day.