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Trade unions have been understood in scholarly literature as the vehicle of working-class solidarity and struggle. In the Indian context, trade unions have developed as federated bodies, affiliated to political parties, drawing the working class as a constituency into processes of democracy. Such trade unions, called ‘central’ trade unions were dominant till the end of the twentieth century. They have been considered to have delivered for the working class considerable improvement in working conditions and social security.

Two criticisms have also been made: first, that such unions remain yoked more to the imperatives of political parties rather than the interests of their constituency and, second, that the constituency they served was a miniscule 10 per cent of ‘organised’ labour. In the twenty-first century, we have seen two major shifts. First, the strand of ‘independent’ unionism, that is, unions not affiliated to political parties, has gained ground. Second, both central and independent unions are seeking to move beyond the formal sector and organise informal workers. In this context, the unionisation of autorickshaw operators in Kolkata marks several exceptions.

The autorickshaw was introduced in Kolkata in 1983-84 by the then Left front government. It inhabits a rather extreme end of informality, even paralegality. Contrary, however, to trends in other informal sectors, the auto operators were organised under central unions almost from their inception. There is another puzzle -- the unions include owners, renter drivers and owner-drivers and this has been successful despite the contradictions that may be expected.

This talk will address some of these issues. Why is the auto trade, despite its informality, so heavily unionised? How do central trade unions negotiate the illegalities characterising the sector? How have such unions successfully held owners and drivers within the ambit of the same union?



Professor Samita Sen

Professor Samita Sen is currently the Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge. She received her Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1992 and was JRF at Trinity College, 1990-1994. She taught at Calcutta University and Jadavpur University from 1994 to 2018. In this period, between 2013 and 2015, she served as First Vice-Chancellor, Diamond Harbour Women’s University. She was also Dean, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies (Jadavpur University), 2016-2018.

Her monograph, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 1999) won the Trevor Reese Prize in Commonwealth History. She has published extensively on gender and labour. Her specialisation is colonial South Asia but she has also done contemporary and interdisciplinary research on issues such as domestic violence and labour in the informal sector. She is a member of editorial boards of various academic journals, including Modern Asian Studies and South Asian History and Culture. 

She has been active in the women’s movement in India and internationally.

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Event details

Anatomy Museum
Anatomy Museum
Anatomy Museum, Strand Campus, King's College London, WC2R 2LS