February 20, 2022

Rising Exploitation amidst ‘Humanitarian Crises’

Sanjay Roy

ONCE again it is clear by emerging trends in employment, that wages and returns to labour and the conditions of employment are determined in capitalism not by any moral judgment of nutritional necessity or by any universal norm derived from a metaphysical notion of ‘humanity’, but purely conditioned by the relative bargaining power of contesting classes.

The current pandemic has an extensive impact on human life at large with the virus mutating continuously and infecting human bodies escaping the shields of various preventive measures including vaccines. But the impact of the pandemic is also embedded in the existing structure of class divisions and precisely because of which the impact of the pandemic in terms of the degree of incidence varies according to the structural position of individuals and households. It also affects the employment conditions, incomes and institutional rights depending on the changes that have occurred in the relative positions of employer and employee.

India’s labour market and the emerging trends suggest that the rising trend of precarious labour forms that were already evident in the pre-pandemic scenario has been sharpened in a situation of a ‘humanitarian crisis’. The symptoms were starkly visible during the earlier waves when lakhs of migrant workers were simply expunged from the metropolis, a large number of them being cheated by their employers by not paying their dues taking advantage of difficult times. Migrant or undocumented workers are being preferred worldwide in the neoliberal regime by the employers as they generally have low reservation wages and largely be deprived of any sort of institutional or community protection. Their vulnerability has been adequately used by the employers in terms of paying low wages, increasing working hours, denying citizenship-related rights and collective bargaining.


It seems that the pandemic situation is going to stay for some more time depending on the extent of vaccination worldwide, particularly in less developed countries and the poorer segments of the world. But it is also important to see how a capitalist society driven by profit motives and in which social relations are fetishized by articulation through market responds in a devastating ‘humanitarian crisis’. It is the time when ideally social concerns of protecting livelihood and income particularly of the poor and the informal workers should have been the overriding concern of the society as a whole and redistribution from the privileged and the powerful to the poor and the vulnerable was desirable. What actually seems to be happening is something contrary to this.

Capitalism once again shows its colours. The unemployment rate continues to be high and there has not been any significant move so far to expand the scope of rights-based employment schemes to urban areas where the poor have hardly any social capital to fall back upon. What is even more significant is that the unemployment rate within the younger people particularly of the age group 15 to 29 has been very high. In fact, for the age group, 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 in the year 2020-21 the unemployment rate was as high as 39 per cent and 13 per cent respectively while average open unemployment as a whole for the working-age population continues to be as high as 8.75 per cent. Recall the fact that the spike in open unemployment from 2.2 per cent in 2011-12 to 6.1 per cent in 2017-18 happened before the pandemic and primarily because of two effects: one, because of the increased number of entrants into the labour market and also because of declining absorption in the non-farm sector during the period 2012-2018.

Generally, the open unemployment rate in countries such as India used to be lower than average unemployment figures of advanced countries because in developing countries poor can hardly afford to remain unemployed as they possess very little savings and also since there exists no unemployment benefit extended by the government which happens to be the case in advanced economies. Therefore, people are forced to accept all kinds of employment even with reduced returns and entitlements and can hardly wait for better options. Hence low unemployment rates in poorer countries actually reflect the fact that people on average undertake any kind of job to make both ends meet. In such a context rising open unemployment rate simply reflects a fact of a severe crisis that may easily slip to rising poverty and hunger as the vast majority of the people hardly possess any other asset except their labour power against which they can derive income. Generally speaking, a low open unemployment rate in a developing country scenario also reflects a case of disguised unemployment in the sense people are forced to opt for low-wage-low-productivity jobs as a survival strategy. This is the reason why the quality of employment becomes extremely important in such a scenario to assess the emerging trends of employment.


What is alarming is the fact of absolute decline in employment in certain segments that are not so easy to recover. The number of employed persons in 2020-21 is less than the number employed in 2019-20 by more than two crores. The number of salaried employees declined by about 12 million during this period and persons involved in business activities declined by 1.9 million during this period. Employment increased in sectors such as IT and ITES, communication, post and telegraph, entertainment and sports, health care, hotel and restaurant and wholesale trade. In fact, employment fell in industrial activities particularly manufacturing and some new jobs are being created in services that are mostly casual and informal in nature. The pandemic had hit the women and the youth disproportionately compared to their male counterparts worldwide. This precisely manifests a higher concentration of women and youth in contact intensive jobs.

In the case of India even if female labour force participation has increased in recent times it is primarily because of increasing work participation as helpers in household enterprises that are mostly unpaid jobs. The situation is alarming for the educated youth. The unemployment rate for persons who have passed higher secondary level is more than 10 per cent and for those having graduate degrees and above unemployment rate is 20.4 per cent. Although there had been much talk of demographic dividend which comes only once in a nation’s lifetime and in the case of India such phase is supposed to end by 2040, we are actually ending up with a huge bulge of unemployed youth. In the case of China, such a phase of demographic dividend ended in 2015 and had been adequately utilised strategically to make a huge leap in increasing per capita income. In 1979 India and China began with more or less the same per capita income and now China’s per capita income is over four times that of India’s.

While coping with the pandemic, employers have generally resorted to modes of activities that could be carried out at a distance and hence more IT-intensive. This has also given the opportunity to increase working hours and also the intensity of work, recruit freshers at a lower wage in place of existing workers and further casualisation of the existing workforce.

On the other hand, due to the severity of unemployment and shrinkage of job opportunities, employers could reduce wages in many sectors and impose harsher working conditions. This will further widen the gap between skilled and unskilled workers both in terms of job opportunities and earnings from available work. Hence the ‘humanitarian crisis’ as the current pandemic is often characterised to be, in a capitalist context, has turned out to be offering greater opportunities for capitalists in reducing the bargaining power of workers and imposing inhuman working conditions!

The game in the end, in the rule of capital, is a cruel one and that of increasing profits by raising the degree of exploitation. Rising inequality beyond a tolerance level may become a major concern to many quarters as it reduces the legitimacy of capitalism but what is often missed out even in such critical discourses is that the root cause of such rising inequality is increased exploitation by capital and that is the lifeline of this system rather being an exception.