Book Review: Informal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India

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51+jLLjZIfLInformal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India. By Rina Agarwala. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 264 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-66308-4, $29.99 (Paperback).

Looking for a good read for the long weekend? Akshay Mangla of Harvard Business School recently reviewed “Informal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India” in ILR Review.

Informal workers, unprotected by official labor law, make up a majority of the labor force in most developing countries. In addition to performing agricultural labor, informal workers construct roads, clean homes, staff kitchens, and knit clothing. Notwithstanding their centrality to the ILR_72ppiRGB_powerpointeconomy, scholarship on the organization and politics of informal workers remains sparse. We know far too little about the work conditions they experience, how they understand their rights, and not least of all, the strategies by which they organize and engage in formal politics. As with much of the informal economy, informal workers are largely treated as a residual category, one whose import is expected to diminish with economic and political modernization. While much recent scholarship documents the resilience of the informal economy in both developing and rich countries, few studies have investigated whether and how informal workers mobilize as a class and demand their rights. If anything, informality is thought to preclude workers from engaging in collective action given the dispersed and insecure nature of informal employment.

Informal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India offers a fascinating account of how informal workers in India have organized themselves to make collective demands on the state. India provides a rich and important context in which to study informal labor. More than 90% of the Indian labor force is engaged in informal work. Moreover, India’s diverse federal democracy offers considerable variation for analyzing the conditions under which informal workers successfully organize themselves. Agarwala exploits this variation effectively to examine informal worker organizations across two sectors, the construction industry and the bidi (hand-rolled cigarette) industry, and analyzes how successful they are across three Indian states. The study can be divided broadly into two parts: 1) it examines the organizational demands and strategies of India’s informal workers, and 2) it analyzes the political conditions that enable or constrain informal workers’ organizations from achieving their objectives. The research design allows Agarwala to analyze both industry- and state-level factors that could potentially shape the organizational strategies and effectiveness of informal workers’ organizations.

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