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The dignity of labour

The Times reports that Rickshaw pullers reach end of ‘inhuman’ road

Rickshaw pullers … could soon be out of work after the Indian city of Calcutta banned the trade as inhuman.

The vote was boycotted by the Opposition, but Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister, told the state legislature: “In the 21st century it is not right for a human being to pull another human being.

I shall try not to be diverted into asking what the date has to do with it and go straight to the main issue. Why, out of all the millions of possible services that one human can perform for another is pulling a cart someone else rides on deemed “inhuman”?

It certainly would be inhuman if the rickshaw pullers were forced to this labour – but they are not. The only force involved is that Mr Bhattacharjee is forcing the rickshaw pullers to give up their livelihood. Compensation is promised but the plan for that seems haphazard and uncertain. In any case compensation diminishes but does not annul the wrong done to people who were making an honest living.

What is so bad about human muscle rather than batteries or internal combustion engines being used to power a conveyance? There are plenty of dirtier jobs, plenty more dangerous, plenty (if it were any business of Mr Bhattacharjee’s, which it is not) in which the generally perceived difference of class between the person paying for a service and the person providing it is greater than it is between a rickshaw puller and the person riding on the rickshaw. (Though if the class aspect is what bothers you, bear in mind that according to the leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, quoted in Kolkata Newsline, many of the users of rickshaws are “school goers and senior citizens”. Not that it matters. If every rickshaw user were a sneering rich businessman with a villain’s moustache, it would still be a private matter between the sneering rich businessmen and the rickshaw pullers whether and at what price the latter sold transportation to the former.)

Such has been the strength of the idea of socialism for a century or more that even those who explicitly reject it often adopt its assumptions.

Socialists have always claimed to defend the dignity of labour, and have always been lying. If they really believed that the man who labours with his body was fully equal to the man who labours with his brain they would not have presumed to deny him the right to direct his own life and sell his own labour in the way he thought best. Rickshaw pullers are only one example of people whose dignity has been violated in this way, and India is far from being the only place where it happens. Readers will be able to think of many other examples closer to home.

Incidentally, pound to a rupee the twenty first century will not have run its course by the time the city of Calcutta bans everything but human-powered rickshaws on evironmental grounds.

19 comments to The dignity of labour

  • guy herbert

    Indeed. And compare this story from The Independent (significantly reported as “consumer affairs” not business, or foreign news, or even human rights):

    Bangladeshis making cheap clothes for Asda, Tesco and Primark are paid as little as 3p an hour, according to a report that claims to reveal the grim truth about Asia’s sweatshops.

    Basic pay in factories that cut and sew fabric for budget chains could be just £8 a month for an 80-hour week, investigation for the charity War on Want found.

    Which doesn’t answer the right question, which is: what would these poor people be doing otherwise? The country has a mean income of a little over $1000 a year, with a Gini coeficient around 0.3. So £8 a month (ca. $190 p.a.), tho’ certainly not riches, makes one better off than very many.

    A cash income in Bangladesh means (as it did in industrialising Europe) that one is not going to starve if there is bad weather or crop disease. And 45% of the population fall below a poverty line is based on the theoretical cost of not being undernourished.

    To return to the point of the post, those who regard running a rickshaw as “inhuman”, have obviously never considered the options for someone with only their physical labour to sell. They’ll be the same ones who think subsistence farming (incessant, lonely labour, with no likelihood of reward, no certainty of survival) is a natural, desirable way of life, and growing flowers for export isn’t.

  • Sheriff

    Well, since you asked, I will answer the right question, those who do wish to earn an above average amount of money after a sweatshop closure will go into the other relatively well paying industries there: prostitution and drugs.

    A study of sweatshop workers for a German firm a year after the Germans had closed the sweatshop revealed precisely that, and I do not mean only the adults, the children too sold themselves.

    I would like some leftoid sweatshop-hater who sees this to answer something for me: how is child prostitution, or subsistance farming better than factory work?

  • rob

    And were you to find one who’d answer you honestly, Sheriff, the reply would likely be “They’re better because Western capitalists don’t make any money out of them.”

  • I tend to think the issue here is not actually the question of what kinds of labour are good or bad overall. I think it is more that the Indians see themselves as becoming modern and more sophisticated, and they see rickshaws as things symbolic of poverty and backwardsness.

    Of course, what is much more interesting is that rickshaws are now much more technologically sophisticated than they were a few decades back. To the extent that they have found a place on the streets of rich cities as well as poor. (And the people operating them seem to be fit, middle class working holiday backpacker types). So that view is perhaps becoming outdated.

  • nic

    Indeed. The number of rickshaws in Soho seems only to multiply.

  • In the 21st century it is not right for a human being to pull another human being.

    And how many workers here are metaphorically pulling along others via their taxes? Taxpayers are taken for a ride yet get nowhere. The only pulling going on is the other one, and with zero dignity. Taxis or taxes?

    I also saw that War On Want refused to divulge the particular sweatshops to the companies in case the workers lost their jobs…Warmer…warmer…they might get it one day.

  • Perhaps automotive taxicabs in the West should be outlawed, since we have an obesity crisis. Switch to rickshaws exclusively. It’s Green, too. kidding

    Another possible difference between the rickshaw operator cf. the factory worker, prostitute, farmer: ownership. Perhaps having your own rickshaw is the height of entrepreneurial achievement. No factory manager, pimp, state farm manager to answer to.

    Just a guess on my part, I’m not sure how the rickshaw industry is organized.

    Last week I would have given a fistful of cash for a rickshaw. I had outpatient surgery and was going to take a taxi home. The taxis in my area only carry Medicaid patients! They don’t even do cash business any more. Ya gotta be poor and on a medical run to get a taxi ride at all. *harumph*

  • Billll

    Pedicabs are actually being manufactured here in Denver, and are in use in the downtown area.
    I imagine that the ladies might enjoy watching a muscular young lad in spandex, pedaling away for their benefit.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Great post. The hypocrisy of this, and sheer illogicality, is astounding.

    M.Jennings hits the nail on the head: a lot of people view this as image, or aesthetic, issue. Rickshaws are seen as old fashioned, primitive. So to be part of the “modern” global economy, they have to be gotten rid of.

    This also ignores another point, which is that not all people are good at intellectually demanding work but who can still earn a decent living by manual labour. On a comment thread here a few weeks ago, this point was made by people who doubted the benefits of globalisation. But in fact manual labour will continue to be important and for many folk, rewarding.

    It goes without saying that few politicians of a left-wing bent these days have done an honest day’s manual labour in their lives. Can you imagine David Cameron digging a ditch or pulling a rickshaw, unless for photo opportunity purposes?

  • It is all about the need to have power over others. Power means making what you find ‘icky’ illegal because you have the easy violence of the state at your disposal. It is a psychosis really, a pathological need to use force to make people do what you want… it is usually why politicians become politicians rather than rapists or wife beaters (not that politicians have not been both of those). They get a buzz about being able to bend people to their will. Do you seriously think these politicians give a damn about the true welfare of rickshaw drivers? Don’t be silly, they only care about how it makes them feel and how it effects their image of the place they wield their power over others (and hence how they think people will see them).

  • Midwesterner

    I spend a fair amount of time pushing a wheelchair for a relative who had a stroke. Is it somehow morally superior to push than to pull? I actually pull it quite often, too. Especially where it’s bumpy.

    This action is so reminiscent of failed states trying to look good it gives me concern for India’s direction.

  • Nick M

    A folks here seem to think that it’s pedicab type things we’re talking about. It isn’t. It’s a guy running along holding two poles. I heard about this legislation a while back and I read (I forget where – sorry folks!) that doing this day-in day-out is very bad for your health and these guys don’t live long. This trade shouldn’t happen. In a slightly more ideal India they’d all be using the cycle ones which are much easier. Perhaps the (Communist) government should think how this could be achieved without making thousands unemployed in the name of appearing “modern”?

    Such as perhaps allowing micro-finance schemes to allow these guys to buy cycle-rickshaws? Just a thought.

    There is a fuller story than the Times one here:


  • RAB

    I tend to agree Nick. I checked the Times photo, and the rickshaw he was pulling looked to be about the size of a coach and four!
    I couldn’t even shift it sans passengers, given my body mass!!
    There are a mere 390 of these rickshaw pullers in a population of 5 million in Calcutta. Bung them the cash for a new Tuk-Tuk each and have done with it.
    There! my good deed for the evil empire of oil done for another day!!

  • Paul Marks

    A good posting and good comments.

  • Kim du Toit

    Having just returned from Bangalore, I have to comment on a couple of things.

    1. Until you’ve seen the pollution generated by the “scooter cabs”, you have NO idea how much better for the environment a human-pulled cab would be.

    2. Now, if there was regulation which mandated the size of cabs, then that would be a different thing. Yes, rickshaw “drivers” put an appalling strain on their bodies, but no less than the guys who push enormous carts full of produce and such to the markets every day.

    3. Frankly, until you’ve seen how desperate the plight of the poor really is, no one has any right to stop anyone from trying to earn a living — even if that living might kill them. Construction workers in Bangalore live lives of the utmost precariousness — no hard hats, no work boots to protect the feet, and no safety harnesses. Yet they make a living, and sometimes die in the process — because if they don’t work, their death is inevitable.

    4. I hate to break it to the commentariat, but 2.6 rupees/hour (3p/hr) means that the worker can afford to buy a 50lb bag of rice after three days of work. 2.6 rupees/hour also buys fruit and vegetables for four people after six hours of work. Okay, subsistence living means that you can’t put a new addition onto the house each year, or afford cable TV — butfor the millions of poor in the Indian sub-continent, the alternative to a subsistence wage is… death.

    Yeah, it’s exploitation, after a fashion, and I’m not trying to excuse it. But context, as they say, is everything.

  • Rajesh

    Got to disagree with Kim.
    As someone who’s spent a lot of time in both Delhi (where Rickshaws are not allowed) and the surrounding suburbs (where they are) my opinion is as follows.
    In a city the size of Delhi (or Kolkata) rickshaws do nothing but slow down already crowded citys to a total crawl.

    Delhi has also got over the pollution problem by mandating the use of LPG as fuel.

    I’m sure that whilst the tactics being used to justify the ban are moral sounding nonsense as quoted in the post the real reason will be that people are fed up being stuck behind one of these things on an already slow , busy city.

  • Midwesterner

    What is the context? What is the alternative? I don’t have to go too many generations back in my family tree to find similar examples. As recently as my grandfather, he worked at what is now called child labor in a factory. They say it was one of the reasons that he died at 57. But by that time, he had moved up to land owner status (with a mortgage) and three of his four children had or were about to receive bachelors or higher degrees.

    With due acknowledgement of Rajesh’s concerns, I am totally in Kim’s camp here.

  • Seconded MW.

    True poverty requires denial of opportunity from within (poverty of ambition) or without (the only meaning of “deprived” I think is actually valid).

    Good to see IDS being very thorough, btw. Harriet Harman was on top/bottom form trying to disinform and obfusticate so as to obscure her inability to accept reason which would explode a poisonous meme or two, wiping out the odd shibboleth in the process.

  • Samsung

    I personally think all this talk from the Chief Minister about rickshaws being ‘inhuman’ is total crapola. My guess is, it’s a smoke screen for the REAL reason for wanting rid of rickshaws in Calcutta. India is rapidly industrialising and modernising as a country and has aspirations of being a big player on the global scene. They want to compete with the technologically advanced West, the Tiger Economies of South East Asia and rapidly industrialising China. I think this is all about Image, and not ‘inhumanity’. My guess is, the Minister in questiuon thinks that old fashioned rickshaws on the streets Calcutta hark back to a more primative bygone age and does not fit in with the new image of a technologically developed 21st century India and all this talk about ‘inhumanity’ is just an excuse to get rid of them.