ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Capitalism, Non-capital and Workers' Rights

Workers, Unions and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India by Rohini Hensman (New York: Columbia University Press; published in India by Tulika Books, New Delhi), 2011; pp xx + 416, Rs 825.

Workers, Unions and Global Capitalism is a timely intervention on the important theme of workers’ rights under globalisation. Rohini Hensman’s has been among the few voices on the Indian left that has steadfastly refused to join the nationalist chorus against globalisation – which for the left has become just another name for “imperialism”. As Rohini persuasively argues, “globalisation” is used as a vague, catch-all expression that condenses too many things within it. She spells out her own understanding at length. To her, globalisation is primarily about global spread of the capitalist economy, in a context of changing relations between capital and the state, where “the most advanced capitals” need porous borders (p 62).

It has been her contention that globalisation actually affords an opportunity for entering a new terrain of struggle where new alliances are to be made and new institutional frameworks found, that can act as a counterpoint to the limitations of the nation state. The global arena, in this reading, provides the possibility of a universal normative framework of labour and human rights standards, something usually resisted by nationalist elites in the name of national sovereignty. This became manifest quite dramatically in the debate on what came to be known as the “social clause” in the mid-1990s when the World Trade Organisation was being put in place. It is well known that most trade unions and left parties in India rallied behind their own national government in defence of “national sovereignty”, against the demand of the US and European governments that universal labour standards be linked to trade. That is, the idea that matters like denial of the right to form unions, implementation of minimum wages, employment of bonded or child labour and so on should be treated as unfair trade practice was taken by trade unions and left parties as interference in the nation’s sovereignty! Rohini, along with some of her other comrades, was among the few voices then that sought to point to the absurdity of such a position.

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