– By Sudhir Katiyar Brick kiln workers from Western Odisha form one of the largest seasonal migrant streams in the country, accounting for up to 200,000 workers according to some estimates. It is also a stream where work conditions are worst and worker …

– By Sudhir Katiyar

Brick kiln workers from Western Odisha form one of the largest seasonal migrant streams in the country, accounting for up to 200,000 workers according to some estimates. It is also a stream where work conditions are worst and workers vulnerable to bondage. The recruitment of workers through advance payments that create bondage conditions is mediated by an extensive network of recruiting agents, known as sirdars locally. The sirdars are powerful stakeholders that have as much vested interest in perpetuating the current exploitative system as the employers.

Policy planners realised the importance of regulating the ‘mode of recruitment’ to regulate movement of workers and avoid worst forms of exploitation. The state promulgated the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act to regulate recruitment of inter-state migrant workers. The Act provides for registration of the employers, recruiting agents, and the workers; and prescribes a number of provisions for welfare of workers. However like many other labour laws, the provisions of the Act have not been implemented. It remains one of the least implemented Acts. While a number of reasons could be cited, the primary reason remains the current dispensation of the power as reflected by the asymmetry in power wielded by the two contesting parties – the wage labourers on one hand and owners on the other hand. The wage labourers (and more so migrant labourers) as a class have little power vis a vis the owners who wield enormous financial and political clout. This asymmetry can only be challenged by organising the wage labour class. It would be futile to expect that Labour Department will implement Acts that will balance this asymmetry. So reform of existing Acts will not have any impact unless this asymmetrical power equation is changed.

This note therefore argues for an alternative paradigm of intervention. Instead of trying to regulate recruitment by giving licenses to labour contractors, it argues for setting up an institution that will replace the labour contractors. This institution will function like a labour exchange – mediating between supply and demand. The concept of wage labour exchange has been talked about in development circles for some time. Employment Exchanges have been set up by the state. However like many other aspects of welfare policy of the state, these exchanges have primarily catered to the middle classes. The initiative described in this note seeks to operationalise the concept of labour exchange for the vast mass of unorganised seasonal migrant workers.

The core idea is to develop an institutional interface through which the migrants will pass before going to destination areas. This institutional interface will perform a registration function – identifying the owner and workers. It would thus solve the most vexed problem in labour legislation for unorganised sector – establishing the owner employee relationship. There are many other functions that this institution could perform – it could take on social security functions, thus resembling Tripartite Boards that are conceived in progressive labour acts like the Construction Workers Act. It could also develop as a labour exchange – meeting demand with supply. However the defining element of the institutional interface will be that it will be a member-based organisation, similar to a Trade Union or a Cooperative.

Thus the proposed exchange seeks to combine features of a number of existing institutions highlighted below

  • Labour Exchange: mediating between supply and demand
  • Labour cooperative: creating a common pool to negotiate higher rates for a commodity – human labour
  • Tri-partite boards: A multi stakeholder forum representing state, workers, and employers
  • Trade Union: Organising workers to change asymmetry in power relations vis a vis the employers and championing workers’ rights

Operationalising Wage Labour Exchange

The exchange can only come up through a collaborative mechanism between the Government and the Civil Society. It needs support of the state to protect it from vested interests (labour contractors, employers) and an implementation team comprising of dedicated and committed members who own the concept.

Institutional environment: The exchange can be set up through an innovative pilot in Public Private Partnership mode. The state must provide the initiative backing as the exchange will come into immediate conflict with the existing labour contractors. It can use features of Inter State Migrant Workmen Act to ask employers to get registered under the Act. It can itself register under the Act. It could be registered as a Society.

The Spear Head Team: It would be best to operationalise the exchange through a spear head team that can be chosen on the basis of open selection process from within the NGOs and Government Officers.

Enrolling members: The Exchange will undertake a massive awareness and mobilisation campaign reaching out to all brick kiln workers in source areas. It will motivate the workers to become members of the exchange. This will entitle them to a photo id card, voting rights in the new organisational set up, and certain amount of social security like accidental insurance.

Favourable factor conditions for Western Odisha Brick Workers Migration Stream: While the Wage Labour Exchange model can be tried out in any migration stream, the Western Odisha brick kiln workers stream offers good factor conditions. The labour catchment area is contiguous and confined to one geographical cluster. This makes it more feasible to organise and control the supply of labour. There is also a labour shortage as shown by the fact that employers travel all the way to Bolangir to contract labour.


– Written by Prayas Centre for Labor Research and Action. The Centre has been working with seasonal migrant workers in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and AP. It has organised workers into Trade Unions that have undertaken struggles for higher wages and improvement in working and living conditions. The Centre has experimented with the concept of Wage Labour Exchange in the past; achieving significant, albeit short term, success in one migration stream.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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