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Dignifying Discontent of Informal Labour

Informal Labour, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India by Rina Agarwala (New York: Cambridge University Press), 2013; pp 264, price not indicated.

Much has been written about the hopeless condition of informal workers, and researchers and journalists have focused on their helplessness. The developed North would love to believe that these exploited, underpaid workers deserve special attention from donor agencies and governments, as being helpless they cannot expect to improve their conditions of life without liberal external aid. Rina Agarwala’s book is refreshingly different because she finds hope in these workers and their efforts to improve their conditions. Though the conditions of work are poor and wages are low, she discovers how they use different tactics to change the situation in their favour.

In the introductory chapter, she notes that liberalisation policies have opened the markets and have led to greater competition among manufacturers, but “this ideological shift has enabled the Indian state to overtly absolve employers of responsibility toward labour, which has increased workers’ insecurities and poverty levels” (p 3). The numbers of casual and contract labour have increased while the more secure formal sector jobs have been reduced.

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