Migrant Workers’ Living Sphere in NOIDA / An Academic Research Project

Submitted by Django on January 1, 2011

Findings from a Newly Industrialising Area in India
Anita Trivedi
August 2007

[We document an excerpt dealing with the living arrangements of migrant workers in NOIDA, a neighbouring industrial area to Gurgaon and Faridabad]

Material differences at the workplace and variation in work practices and responses were reflected in the living spaces of workers. Key findings reinforced the theme of variation observed in labour management practices and the responses of workers at the workplace. At the same time, while the strategy of control of workers and undermining the commonalities through differential employment contracts and remunerations was reflected in the hierarchy of the living spaces, it was also crosscut by a sense of unity among workers arising out of shared spaces, experiences and a sense of unfairness. The living spaces formed a significant dimension of social relations of production.

In the five residential areas a form of hierarchy originating from and akin to the one at the workplace could be observed, with the government-planned (Industrial Authority) sectors/colonies at the top and unauthorised slums at the bottom as shown in Table 2. In between, in descending order were the company colonies, unauthorised colonies, ‘urban’ villages and authorised slums. The areas towards the upper end of the hierarchy had access to better services and to the decision-making levels of the state; such access progressively declined as one moved down the ladder.

Type of residential area
Name & Location

Planned colony
Gamma, Greater Noida
High level of public infrastructure, services and law and order

Authorised company colony
Y Nagar, Noida;
A Colony, Greater Noida
Slightly reduced scale and reach of public infrastructure and services

Unauthorised regularised colony
Harola, Noida
Come up through unauthorised sale or grab of land but regularised by government by providing some services

Authorised urban villages
Surajpur, Greater Noida
Villages surrounded by industrial and municipal urban settlements

Unauthorised slums
Khoda, Noida
Very little infrastructure / services

The processes of selective inclusion and exclusion extended here too. The ‘included’ permanent workers in the MNCs largely resided in well-developed and serviced areas; others ‘partly incorporated’, e.g. skilled migrant workers, apprentices, lived in company colonies, peri-urban areas and villages; and a majority of temporary and migrant workers, adversely incorporated or excluded, dwelt in the slums. Such scaling of the spaces resulted in further divisions among workers.

I admit we are better than others, especially the unauthorised ones, but not very good either. The light (electricity) doesn’t always come. The colonies of the Authority are much better. Why the difference?
(Union Functionary, J3, resident of a company colony)

Workplace injustices were overshadowed by demands for services and other issues in some areas. This continued the process of fragmenting the workers evident at the workplace and of weakening the formation of a collectivity.

However, on closer examination certain variations in the above scheme of things were observable. Not all ‘included’ workers resided in areas where they were expected to, i.e. well-developed and well-serviced residential areas. Some locals, who owned land and were economically and politically powerful continued to reside in or maintained strong links with villages, ‘urban’ villages and sometimes slums. This provided them with an opportunity to continue with an additional source of income (usually from agriculture or related activities); and allowed them to retain their dominant status (of class and/or caste) with its resultant social networks and benefits.

The ‘most included’ permanent workers, both in terms of employment status and also of the quality of the areas of residence and access to services, had the greatest fear of being ‘excluded’ from both. They suffered from a sense of insecurity similar to workers in other categories. At the other end, the ‘most excluded’ migrants who resided in slums exhibited no such fear and were resigned to workplace inequality and apathetic towards living conditions:

What is the point (of services)? We only come here to sleep. I am here to earn…and they will never give us a permanent job.
(Focus group of migrant workers, I1 and I2)

In between, there were many variations based on levels of inclusion and exclusion both at the workplace and in living areas. Many who were ‘more included’ at the workplace felt ‘excluded’ in the living spaces and vice versa. The skilled migrant workers (e.g. J2) who lived in the ‘urban villages’ experienced a greater sense of inclusion with respect to work but exclusion when it came to access to people of influence/ decision-making processes because they did not ‘know anyone’.

Yes, we live together but half of them are locals and they go home. The people (locals) understand our problems but they live here during the week and go to their villages over the weekend. They are different. We are different. We have skills and we held good jobs. They work at the firm only for the name. Pay and conditions don’t matter to them.

What can we do? Nobody listens to us…we are from different places. We don’t know anyone here and even if we ask for help, no one will stand by us, we are from outside.
(Focus group of migrant skilled apprentices, J2)

The reverse was true for many unskilled local workers (e.g. K1, J2) who lived in the surrounding villages and continued with the original agrarian pursuit (often as a fallback option during periods of unemployment). They drew confidence from local networks of community, village, and region and were vocal in their criticism of workplace practices and migrant workers for ‘putting up with them’:

I tell the security men who misbehave (manhandle, shout) with me…I will see you at the gate…
Others (migrant workers) who put up with it are not men.

(Local temporary worker, K1)

Many of the relatively prosperous and influential locals, who were excluded or partly included-excluded in the workplace as temporary workers in its various categories, often indulged in land grab in the slums and extended accommodation at high rents to migrant workers. The economic strength and political clout required for this originated from their insertion into channels of influence (access to officials and politicians through links of family, caste, village etc that are often drawn upon in times of crisis or during elections). They were most vocal in their demands for services and more hopeful of their fulfilment because of their social support systems.

I tell you it is a matter of time…we will get the recognition (thereby services in the unauthorised colony). They [the government] will have to do it. We are a solid vote bank for them.
(Local temporary worker, J1, Head of the residential committee)

In a way, their exclusion at the workplace was sought to be remedied by seeking greater inclusion in their other spaces. Despite the very evident divisions, the unintended outcomes of such structuring and reconfigurations were the coexistence of the workers in the living spaces, the urban-rural continuum and the overlap of spaces and issues in the physical and mental landscapes of workers. Shared spaces encouraged sharing of the experiences and injustices of the workplace. The empathy and the sympathy from the shared plight, or the fear of it, often overcame the divisions and hierarchy of both the workplace and living spaces.

The situation in those areas [Khoda and Harola] is bad. The workers there are mostly in export units and it is well known the kind of exploitation that goes on in such units. The government supports the owners of such units but ignores the terrible conditions that the workers live in… where else can they live on the pittance that they receive? As for us (in the MNCs), it is a different kind of exploitation. [Nods of approval by all]
(Union President, J1 during a mixed focus group)

A fragmented workforce from fragmented work organisation lived in hierarchical living spaces. Given their degree of fragmentation, sense of insecurity and spatial segmentation, one would expect to find a much weakened workforce with reduced avenues of organisation and representation. Yet, the politics of the workers displayed complexities that arose from their varied exclusion/inclusion at the workplace and in living spaces and the varied nature of interest articulation. The emphasis on the interests articulated differed on the basis of the place of residence (more service-oriented in the slums and completely work-related in the residential areas of the MNCs), or origin of workers (migrant or local), or skills of workers.

Variation of interests could be observed between the slums, where demands centred on better living conditions and services, and the well-serviced residential sector developed by the government, Gamma, where the permanent MNC workers were concentrated, where workplace and work related issues completely dominated. Again, service-related demands in slums were vocalized by influential local residents of the area and not the migrant workers. The urban village of Surajpur and the company colonies showed a mix of demands: the demands for services were not as strong as in the slums and were mixed with criticisms of work culture and practices.

While migrants and temporary workers in the slums displayed apathy towards their living conditions and towards the idea of political solutions to the same, and felt completely disempowered politically and economically, those in other areas, e.g. the migrant skilled workers working in the MNCs and residing in the ‘urban villages’, were more engaged. This stemmed from their sense of greater inclusion (however selective) at the workplace. However, it is significant that the engagement was not with the local politics but with the new economic policies of the state to attract MNCs and its impact on them, i.e. at the global-national level (the case of apprentices of J2 who spoke of workplace issues but disregarded the local ones).

Migrants, whether in temporary low paid employment or skilled, felt weaker on account of ‘not knowing anyone’ compared to the local workers who felt stronger because of their social support systems despite their insecure jobs. The presence of many well-placed permanent workers and entrepreneurs, mostly local, in the unauthorised slum of Khoda indicated both the operation of an ‘informal’ economy and the use of informal channels and mechanisms by the workers to gain economic strength and social status, and thereby access to the decision-making processes and institutions.

If they are going to take our land away, why wouldn’t we grab this land? We have to live and this is our place, our roots. [AT - But land grab is not good, surely?] No, it isn’t. But a man has to go up in life. Money talks, power matters.

None of the locals wanted to move and all felt that the migrants were unfortunate, thus manifesting the relationship between spatial mobility and social power.

Nobody wants to be rootless; I can’t imagine going somewhere else to live… it is sad to be a migrant.

This fractured politics with conflicting interests in the slums and the ‘urban villages’ reflected the inclusion-exclusion experienced by workers at the workplace. The local residents were ‘more included’ in the social processes of decision-making and power because of their origin (as compared to the migrants) but ‘more excluded’ than the permanent workers in the MNCs (who had access to better services). The latter, for their part, were not as concerned with the conditions of the slums (when asked about it) as with their own largely work related issues. The greater inclusion of the migrant skilled workers and exclusion of the local unskilled workers at the workplace reinforces Massey’s (1996) emphasis that space implies a co-existence of differences and multiple trajectories. Also, the preoccupation with service provisions in the slums was counterpoised by very powerful workplace and work-practices related responses in the company colonies and the residential sectors of the workers.

At the same time, the workers in the MNCs were as likely to exhibit a place-based politics in their villages.

I still have my land in the village…have bought some more too. This area is only going to grow more, not less. At the end of the day, it is family [extended family], community that matters…in times of need, marriage, troubles, and illnesses. Without your roots and links (in the village), a man is anchorless.
(Permanent worker, MNC)

Another example was found in interviews conducted with a local, permanent worker and a focus group of a mix of workers from the same organisation in one of the villages. When the interview was completed, I requested for all categories of temporary workers to be assembled. None of the temporary workers sat down and no response was forthcoming on any of the issues raised except from the permanent worker, who belonged to the dominant caste, was one of the rich men of the village, and was also instrumental in getting others employment. On being prompted, the permanent worker said ‘I am telling you, why do you need to ask them’ and the temporary workers said ‘we agree with what he says’.

Despite attempts by capital to undermine their commonalities, the possibility of a common consciousness emerging among workers, identified at the workplace, was also identifiable in the living spaces of workers. There was a keen awareness of trends and practices in other workplaces. Also, all along there was an emphasis on injustice and unfairness and a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ among workers. Despite the divisions and conflicting interests there was a continued sense of awareness that such differences were largely work-mediated. This came through in almost all interviews and focus groups when workers, after initial scapegoating of other groups of workers, would end by attributing all their problems to the ‘MNCs, employers, state, new policies and changes’. Use of local networks were accepted by all and resented by some but always attributed as a counter to the prevalent ‘unfairness’.

It appeared that processes of exclusion-inclusion were multiple and interrelated and operated in all domains of workers. Although at some level the exclusions at workplace and living space were mutually reinforcing, in other respects and for some groups they were mutually compensating – e.g. exclusion at work can be offset by living space inclusion, and vice versa. The locational sources of power, i.e. those rooted in a place, local support structures and networks of influence that followed from it played a role. Also, though the fragmentation of both living space and workspace was a source of division, there were countervailing sources of solidarity deriving from a shared plight (or fear of it). Workers attempted to counter work-generated and spatial inequalities by demands for services, through recourse to formal as well as informal channels of influence and institutions of the state. What emerged was a lack of concordance between power location within the village or other living space, and power location in the company. Old social structures rooted in agrarian systems persist alongside new power relations in industrialised workplace settings.