Aditya Sarkar. Trouble at the Mill: Factory Law and the Emergence of Labour Question in Late Nineteenth-Century Bombay. Oxford University Press, 2017. 368 pages. $62.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-947442-4.
Reviewed by Subho Basu (McGill University)
Published on H-Asia (February, 2020)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Basu on Sarkar, Trouble at the Mill
In the late nineteenth century Bombay became a vast and thriving city. In Bombay too there came into existence a textile industry controlled by an indigenous capitalist class. Commencing its journey in 1856 in Tardeo, the new industry flourished in the closely packed area of Girangaon, literally translated as “mill village.” By 1885 Girangaon had close to twenty-five cotton textile mills within an area of twenty-five square kilometers. There also came into existence textile mills in the interior of Bombay presidency, the hinterland of Bombay city in Ahmedabad, Nadiad, and other lesser known towns. The spectacular rise of cotton textile industry and the concomitant growth of the labor movement in the city from the late nineteenth century onwards attracted the attention of historians such as Morris D Morris, Richard Newman, Rajnarayan S. Chandavarkar, and Sashibhusan Upadhaya.
In a departure from extant historiography on Bombay labor politics and industrial relations, Aditya Sarkar’s new tome is a critical engagement with the history of factory legislation in the presidency. The background to the story could be located in the passage of the Factory Act of 1881 and the increasing role of the state in shaping industrial relationships. The chief provisions of this act stipulated that no child should be employed under the age of seven, children under the age of twelve should not work in any factory more than nine hours, and children should not be employed in certain dangerous work that could cause injury or death. In 1884 the Bombay government further appointed a commission to inquire into the conditions of working classes. In 1890, the government of India, rather than the government of Bombay presidency, appointed a commission to investigate working conditions in the factories. In the meantime, an international labor conference in Berlin, which began on March 4, 1890, recommended that no child should be employed in a factory if below the age of twelve, or, in tropical lands, ten and, on attaining the age of fourteen, a child should be regarded as a young person. It further stipulated that children should not be employed at night or work for more than six hours a day. Intervening in gender relationships, the conference concluded that no woman should work for more than eleven hours a day, or be employed at night. More importantly, except in certain classes of factories, all operatives were deemed entitled to a weekly holiday. In the light of this international conference, in 1891 a new amendment of the Indian factory act came into existence, which further stipulated that “children”—a term applied to persons between nine and fourteen years old—would be allowed to work for seven hours and women were allowed to work at night in factories where a proper system of shifts had been adopted, but in line with Berlin conference it restricted the latter's hours.
Sarkar uses these acts as a backdrop to interrogate the emergence of what he terms the “labor question” in Bombay presidency in the late nineteenth century. Sarkar uses the term to refer to the dialectical interplay between two kinds of industrial relations regimes: a regulatory domain of labor legislation and a domain of strikes and industrial conflicts reflecting workers’ resistance to the designs of capital and colonial state. He argues that the latter demonstrates the limits of such legislation. In a tightly woven and dexterously written narrative, Sarkar seeks to map connections between law, social relations of domination, and emerging forms of labor’s resistance. He provides important insights into several vignettes from the making of labor legislation, such as the paternalistic imperial ideology, commercial rivalry between Lancashire and Bombay cotton lobby or the politics of factory inspection in the wider industrial world of Bombay presidency outside the limits of the city.
He defines the late nineteenth-century industrial regime in terms of strict temporal boundaries, with the catastrophic years of plagues signaling the end of a particularly paternalistic industrial regime. Sarkar hints that labor protests in plague years indicated the pattern of future labor militancy in the twentieth century for which Bombay industry became known.
There are three important claims that Sarkar makes in this book in relation to enactment of the first factory legislation. First, through the ideas and actions of an important social reformer, Mary Carpenter, who played a pivotal role in enacting factory legislation, he demonstrates how Victorian modernization theory saw the factory as vehicle of pedagogy and civilizational uplift. According to Sarkar, Carpenter viewed employers as dispensers of civilization. From her perspective, factory legislation, aiming at restricting the working hours of children, would provide a moral and educational instruction in sustaining social order rather than limiting exploitation by capital. Here Sarkar echoes a seminal finding by Dipesh Chakrabarty almost five decades ago about Sasipada Banerjee and Mary Carpenter. Second, he argues that domestic political economic compulsions in England led Lancashire to lobby for the Indian Factory Act. The growing labor movement in England and concomitant protective legislation made it imperative on them to demand a factory legislation in India. But the Bombay industrial lobby had enough counter-lobbying resources to water down their claim. A third implicit claim of Sarkar that flows from this interpretation is that unlike England, factory legislation in India had much more to do with imperial connections, whether in the form of colonial paternalistic modernizing mission or lobbying by rival business lobbies that was not in response to growing labor unrest. Indeed, Sorabji S. Bengali, a formidable social reformer of Bombay and a member of the legislative council failed to translate his factory bill into law because of the absence of the state patronage. It was B. W. Colvin, a member of imperial legislative council, who presented the bill in October 1879, and it became law in 1881.
The clause for compensation against accidents made this law a powerful tool for those who spoke for workers to claim compensation for the latter. As Sarkar states, the law acted as tentative ground for the articulation of institutionalized expression of workers’ interests. However, through an analysis of Meade King, a British factory inspector’s appointment, and the industrial world of Nadiad (a town located in the rural hinterland of Gujarat), he concludes that the Factory Acts generated different sets of possibilities at different conjunctures where state and capital conflicted, negotiated, and compromised or cooperated over the question of entitlements and needs of laborers. In describing the operational matrix of the law in relation to children, Sarkar hints at the existence of a shadow zone of moral economy, whereby children of doubtful age possibly obtained forged documents from bribed civil surgeons. The law is obeyed in violation. This is the dialectics of operation of law in the context of the world of capital in Bombay presidency.
Sarkar notices a critical disjuncture in the industrial relations regime that came into existence with the arrival of factory legislation. He argues that factory legislation dealt with workers’ time, such as the hours of work of women and children or the absence of regularized holidays. This became part of the articulation of legal discourse and public debates in the late nineteenth century. But the state scrupulously refrained from intervening in matters related to wages. The state left wages, or the realm of social reproduction of the work force, to the free play of market forces and contracts. Workers sought to disrupt such separation by organizing strikes in the 1890s when the industry faced crisis because of the currency policy of the government of India. Sarkar here brings forth the issue of the impending decennial reform of the Factory Act and consequent female retrenchment and marginalization in factories. He analyzes patterns of the politics of representation that came into existence through intermediaries such as Bahadurji, a physician who spoke for capital and Lokhande, a labor reformer and more of an incipient trade unionist. But he is at his best when he unpacks workers’ protests against the practice of millowners’ delayed payment of wages, and the consequent widespread indebtedness among workers due to their dependence on predatory forms of credit. The strikes and violent resistance to this arrear system, in a situation of stagnant wages in the 1890s, cracked open the very system of industrial relations that state and capital had given birth to in Bombay presidency.
Sarkar’s most important assertion is that industrial relations underwent a metamorphosis in 1897, the year of plague. Due to the flight of labor mill owners, who had capitulated at workers’ assertion of their rights, there was a crisis of labor supply in the cotton textile industry that year. Thus, ironically, Sarkar maintains, labor’s rights were achieved not in a period of buoyancy but in the face of death, whereby workers were not assured of their physical survival but of their wages. This plague, according to Sarkar, permanently altered industrial relations in Bombay, whereby both state and capital sought to control welfare provision, the supply of labor, and the reproduction of working classes.
The book is interesting and thought-provoking but it strangely shies away from wider generalization of the role of the state in shaping industrial relations and the critical relationship between street protests and the law. He quotes Evgeny Pashukanis’ work but without crucially foregrounding the implications of his findings. Pashukanis challenged the very form of law as an inherent or eternal instrument of social regulation. He implicitly assumes the disappearance of law and its replacement by other social relations under an authentic form of socialism.
In a way, Sarkar’s Bombay workers, trapped in formal colonial paternalistic ideologies of law that actually sanctified their exploitation through a doctrinaire approach to laissez-faire economies, could gain advantage only through the dreadful situation of plague, when rule of law virtually collapsed. Sarkar could have been far more polemical by juxtaposing this debate and E. P. Thompson’s brilliant but limited and conservative approach toward the defense of rule of law. More importantly, by all means Thompson’s transcendental defense of law is problematic and Thompson is incurious about investigating the colonial context that Sarkar so meticulously documents. Sarkar hints at difference between the colonial domain and metropolitan context but never seeks to theorize it, and his strength, a very robust empirical analysis of late nineteenth-century Bombay’s industrial relations, becomes a weakness as he shies away from theoretically confronting the colonial rule of difference. Does he see this as a problem associated with the early stage of industrialization that will disappear with the coming of representative democracy? This is where as he could have offered us a work like that of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Chandavarkar, or Chitra Joshi, but he happily confines himself to his social context.
. Neera Adarkar, and Vidyadhar K. Phatak, “Recycling Mill Land: Tumultuous Experience of Mumbai,” Economic and Political Weekly 40, no. 51 (2005): 5365-368. Accessed January 23, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/4417541.
. Morris D. Morris, The Emergence of an Industrial Labor Force in India: A Study of the Bombay Cotton Mills, 1854- 1947 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964); Richard Newman, Workers and Unions in Bombay, 1918-1929: A Study of Organizations in the Cotton Mills (Canberra: Australian National University, 1981); Rajnarayan S. Chandavarkar, Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Sashibushan Upadhaya, Existence, Identity, and Mobilization: The Cotton Millworkers of Bombay, 1890-1919 (New Delhi: Manohar, 2004).
. Michael Head, “The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Jurist: Evgeny Pashukanis and Stalinism,” The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, 17 (2004): 269–94.
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