[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Asia]: Basu on Sarkar, 'Trouble at the Mill: Factory Law and the Emergence of Labour Question in Late Nineteenth-Century Bombay'

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Thu Feb 27 16:51:31 MST 2020

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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: February 27, 2020 at 5:04:50 PM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Asia]:  Basu on Sarkar, 'Trouble at the Mill: Factory Law and the Emergence of Labour Question in Late Nineteenth-Century Bombay'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> 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
> 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.[1] 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.[2] 
> 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.[3] 
> 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. 
> Notes 
> [1]. 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. 
> [2]. 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). 
> [3]. 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. 
> Citation: Subho Basu. Review of Sarkar, Aditya, _Trouble at the Mill: 
> Factory Law and the Emergence of Labour Question in Late 
> Nineteenth-Century Bombay_. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53632
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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