Clemens Dutt

Book Review

How the Worker Lives—in India

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 5, October, 1923 No. 4, pp. 246-250.
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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Report on an Inquiry into the Wages and Hours of Labour in the Bombay Cotton Mill Industry.
By G. Findlay Shirras. (Labour Office, Government of Bombay, 1923. R.3.)

Report on an Inquiry into Working-class Budgets in Bombay.
G. Findlay Shirras. (Labour Office, Government of Bombay, 1923. R. 3.14.)

In no other country but India would Government Labour Reports deserve the special attention that these two have attracted. The reason is not far to seek. On account of its size and population, India now claims to rank sixth among the industrial countries of the world. Yet amid the voluminous statistics and reports turned out by the Government of India there is included next to nothing on the conditions of life of the growing ranks of Indian industrial workers. One thinks, for instance, of the casual evidence of the Indian Industrial Commission, 1916-18. The Bombay Government Labour Office, the first and still the only one of its kind in India, was not formed until as late as April, 1921. With the publication of its Labour Gazette, beginning in September, 1921, for the first time a little, though only a very little, detailed information has become available. It has now issued the two reports above, which represent the first fruits of its inquiries into labour conditions in Bombay.

Where accurate data are so scanty, any store of precise and relevant information is likely to receive a ready welcome. But official reports on labour matters can never be accepted without close scrutiny. It is not the more reassuring to be aware that it is an avowed motive behind the Bombay Government investigations to provide the basis for the settlement of labour disputes, now as much a normal phenomenon of Indian industry as in any Western country. It is, accordingly, not surprising that these two reports are no exception to the rule, and can only be regarded as unbiassed from the viewpoint of the ordinary employer of labour. They provide, especially the one dealing with working-class budgets, a mass of interesting data not hitherto available on the conditions and standard of life of Bombay workers; but much of the evidence and general conclusions can only be accepted with reserve, if not condemned as untrustworthy.

Take, for instance, the first inquiry into the wages and hours worked in the mill industry. Its results are not a little vitiated by the fact that they depend purely and solely on voluntary returns made by the employers on forms submitted to them to fill up. Even so, it is interesting to notice that the returns, which relate to rather less than 200,000 workers, indicate an average daily wage, for men, of only twenty annas (about 1s. 8d.). Assuming four weeks of six days worked in the month this would only yield a monthly income of 30 rupees (about 2) Women are, of course, paid much less; the average monthly wage being only half that of men. Even the average hours of labour represent a total of sixty hours or over for a working week of six days.

The second inquiry provides some startling evidence of the appalling living conditions necessitated by these incomes. Yet it is very doubtful if the budgets presented (even if accurately compiled) represent more than a small proportion, and that on the whole a relatively better-paid portion, of the total industrial population. Of 2,473 families investigated, only 340 had a monthly income of 40 rupees or below. The average earnings per month for male wage-earners works out in these budgets at over 42 rupees per month. Yet the first report returns the average monthly earnings per head in 1921 for cotton-mill workers throughout the Presidency as 33 rupees (about 44s.) for men and 16 rupees for women. For the 603 single men’s budgets compiled, the average income figure is not stated, but it appears as if it would work out at near 45 rupees. As conditions are, factory-workers in Bombay with this income cannot by any means be regarded as belonging to the lowest-paid class. In support of this it may be mentioned that not long ago the Department of Statistics published some figures for January, 1921, of average monthly wages in State establishments and in typical industries. They show clearly that it is by no means uncommon for even skilled workers to receive about 20 rupees (=26s. 8d.) or less per month.

The rapid growth of the Bombay industrial proletariat, the absence of real legal protection for the workers, and the indifference of the millowners, have resulted in conditions which can only be compared with those described by Engels in his account of the state of the working classes in England in 1844. The housing conditions of the Bombay millworkers are notorious, and some appalling details are given in the book. The following are some of the conclusions arrived at:—

About 97 per cent. of the working-class families live in single-roomed tenements; 70 per cent. of the total tenements in Bombay consist of one room only, and 14 per cent. of two rooms. Two-thirds of the population of Bombay City live in one room as against 6 per cent. in London. There are 3,125 one-roomed tenements containing at least two families, 270 of them housing five or more families in the single room.

It is eloquent of the quality of these dwellings that out of 2,473 cases, the water supply was reckoned good in 234 because there was “at least one tap for eight tenements.” In 1,423 cases there was only one tap for between eight to ten tenements, in the remaining 816 cases the single tap served for more than sixteen tenements.

The natural result is shown in the figures of infantile mortality in Bombay. The average number of deaths under one year per 1,000 births during the five years ended 1922 was 572. The figure in 1921 was 666. The corresponding figures in other towns in 1921 were 281 in Madras, 135 in Berlin, 95 in Paris, 80 in London, 71 in New York. The direct connection between overcrowding and the high rate of infantile mortality is shown by the fact that for whole families occupying one room or less the mortality figure reaches the awful figure of 828, decreasing as the number of rooms increases, until for four or more rooms it is as low as 133.

The comfortable assurance of the sentence in the summary is in the typical tone of official optimism. It says, “the question of housing leaves much to be desired, but is receiving the closest attention by Government and local authorities.”

In view of the size of the incomes mentioned, it is not surprising that the investigators discover that “the standard of living and comfort is not a high one.” On the average, not less than 56.8 per cent. of the income is spent on food. The expenditure on education is little or nil. The following conclusions drawn in the report testify to the conditions of nourishment dictated by these incomes:--

The quantity of cereals consumed by the industrial workers in Bombay compares favourably with the minimum prescribed by the Bombay Famine Code. It falls, however, below the scale prescribed for jails.

Even though the ordinary worker has a somewhat greater variety in his food, the figures are sufficiently compelling for even the British liberal-capitalist organ, the Times of India, to admit that:—

It is indeed established that the average Bombay worker is less well-fed than a convict in jail, and can afford to consume only a little more than a man in receipt of relief under the Bombay Famine Code.

Jail prisoners and famine victims are not usually taken as standards of healthy nourishment. The results in the case of the Bombay factory workers might have been even more startling if the standard of comparison had been army rations or some such scale of diet.

At the same time, the report is very careful to please its patrons by its insistence that the remedy is not to be found in increased wages. Increased wages, it points out, as often as not lead to increased consumption of liquor and increased absenteeism. Thus the conclusion is reached, “in short, extra wages are sometimes spent on what tends not to increase efficiency but to decrease efficiency. Spending wisely may be regarded as the whole crux of the labour problem.”

It is stated at the outset that the inquiry “was set on foot at the instance of his Excellency the Governor in consequence, mainly, of the difficulty of ascertaining the true facts of the cost of living.” But, as a matter of fact, the information that is given under this head, and the tables and graphs that are compiled, can only be regarded with serious misgivings.

In the first place the budgets are not representative of more than a small proportion of the workers, and there is reason to suspect that budgets of workers earning relatively high wages preponderate amongst them.

In the second place the manner of compiling the budgets is inevitably open to serious defects. With a population so largely illiterate as that of Indian workers, it will be very rare indeed for written accounts to be kept by any of the workers concerned. For information, therefore, casual inquiry has to be relied upon.

Further, only five heads of expenditure are considered, viz., food, fuel, clothing, rent, and miscellaneous, the last amounting on the average to over 18 per cent, and including such items as drink, amusement, interest on debts, &c. But occasional expenditure, as on marriages, funerals, and festivals, is not taken into account, although it is a recurrent item in the lives of the workers. It may be mentioned here that no less than 47 per cent. of the families investigated were in debt (chiefly owing to the extra expenditure involved on marriages, &c.), and “the usual rate of interest is 75 per cent. per annum, and in a few cases 150 per cent.”

Another very important reason why the official figures of the cost of living index bear no relation to the actual expenses of the workers is that the prices used in the compilation of the cost of living index are those paid on a cash basis. Of the total families investigated, however, only 33.8 per cent. made their purchases on a cash basis, the rest made their purchases partly or entirely on credit (entirely so in the case of nearly 40 per cent, of the workers). The prices they actually pay for commodities are accordingly greater than those used in the compilation of the cost of living index.

A further very significant feature which does not receive the emphasis it requires is the use of the average family budget deduced from this inquiry for the purpose of determining the increase in the cost of living since July, 1914. The method gives not the present cost of the pre-war standard of living but the pre-war , cost of the present standard; it assumes that the pre-war standard was exactly the same and certainly no better than the present. Since the rise in prices and the lagging behind of wage-increases during the 1914-21 period have generally involved a substitution by the workers of cheaper articles for more expensive ones, the method adopted gives a figure for the increase in the cost of living which makes out that it has risen less than is actually the case, or as would be shown if the pre-war standard were taken as the basis.

For all these reasons, then, the calculating of the rise in the cost of living is open to grave suspicion. Most of the factors mentioned, especially the use of cash, if not wholesale, prices and of the 1921 standard as a pre-war one, tend to lower the cost-of-living index. It is, therefore, remarkable to find that the curve of the cost-of-living index during 1921 and 1921, based on these budgets, shows actually higher figures than the official index as published monthly in the Bombay Labour Gazette. It can only be concluded that the official index must seriously under-estimate the rise in the cost of living. Is it to be wondered at that Mr. J. Baptista, the President of the All-Indian Trade Union Congress, has given his written opinion that the official index “merely mocks the hard-worked and ill-paid labourer”? Whether the worker himself would corroborate this view we cannot tell, for he is as yet too inarticulate to say. But it would not be surprising if all these Government inquiries into his condition, however accurate their data, seemed to him little better than a mockery.