Part 1: Onslaught of Capital
By Deep Vakil
As local and global forces of corporatism knock on Ashoka’s gates, contract workers risk becoming collateral damage without solidarity from the rest of the Ashokan community.
The Union Cabinet approved a new National Education Policy on 29th July, the first revision in more than three decades. Notable among its many lofty goals is the plan for increasing government spending on education up to six percent of the GDP. But this policy rests atop tectonic shifts in the country’s education sector. Over the last 25 years, private institutions have gone from housing nearly none to almost two-thirds of all the students in higher education . Conversely, since 2014, education spending taken as a percentage of GDP has in fact shrunk from 0.53 to 0.45 .
Critics of the NEP, who argue that it is a trojan horse for privatisation, point to a staggering contrast in the language of the policy: while it contains mere 16 mentions of “public funding,” the word “philanthropy” is charitably sprinkled across 58 different places in the text. They allege that the government will not meet the 6% target by increasing funding for public institutions, but by advancing unregulated loans to private players instead. Faculty appointments will resemble the industrial strategy of “hire and fire”, and the leadership structure will mirror the corporate model of “board of governors”, marked by the conspicuous absence of elected representation from students, teachers, and staff that is present in the existing governing bodies of public universities .
The NEP, then, is only the latest in a series of emergent trends in higher education that point to its corporatisation. In a recent episode of Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj helps us identify when universities start following “the playbook for a corporate institution”: employment of contractual or part-time staff, employees who go on strike facing retaliation, exorbitant pay for executives, and enormous hedge fund-like endowments.
Perhaps one such shift that strikes closer to home is what Benjamin Ginsberg calls “the rise of the all-administrative university.” Private universities are recruiting and deploying an ever-growing army of bureaucrats – or, if the word is too reminiscent of a sarkaari daftar, administrators – whose aggregate role is to surveil every nook of space on campus. Ultimately, the entire university must be made to cohere with “a single, totalizing vision,” aesthetically embodied by the Ashoka brand of red-bricks-and-mortar architecture .
This rising tide of corporatism, that is infecting the soul of our universities, is accompanied by the phenomenon of contractualisation. The share of contract workers in the total employment in manufacturing alone has nearly doubled in the last fifteen years. According to the Labour Bureau’s Employment-Unemployment Survey (2015-16), this informalisation of the workforce has disproportionately impacted vulnerable caste groups. In a world of hyper-specialisation, there are many benefits of outsourcing activities deemed as “non-core” to contractual labour .
Not only are contract workers on average paid nearly half of what directly employed workers earn (despite a Supreme Court ruling that requires equal pay for equal work), they are also bereft of the social security benefits afforded to the directly employed ones. In the process, the employers are also able to strategically undermine regular workers when they collectively bargain for higher wages. At Ashoka, these issues of contractualisation of labour have resurfaced during the pandemic, prompting the VC to promise an investigation into a potential discrepancy between the leadership’s directives and the actions on campus
The cruel logic of the globalised economy is rife with misnomers. Functions carried out by security guards, sanitation workers, and maintenance staff are ostensibly “non-core activities” as if our university could operate without them. Downsizing decisions involving mass lay-offs of hundreds of workers are simply to “stabilise” the workforce, as we turn a blind eye to the instability imposed upon countless livelihoods and households.
Contract workers are living under fear of abrupt termination without the “relative job security and higher wages” enjoyed by salaried employees. According to G. Sampath, the social affairs editor for The Hindu, the main reason behind this disparity is the dearth of “access to collective bargaining” . This lack of access is because our labour laws fail to permeate from the realm of policy into the ground realities of the labour market.
The definition of “workmen” in the Trade Union Act expands to those not directly employed in a workplace, and this precedent was upheld by a recent ruling in the Gurgaon District Court . However, hardly any unions have contract workers as members with a vote. This is for several reasons: bigger unions are met with more vigorous opposition from the employer; managements evade and outright refuse to hear concerns of contract workers; and as a result, most salaried employees feel they are better off without sharing their bargaining power with the “hire-and-fire” staff.
The relevant legislation here is ironically named Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act of 1970. The act, which was supposed to abolish this practice, ended up propping up a legal framework that enables the expansion of contract labour and legitimises their exploitation, by creating a semantic distinction between “employer” and “principal employer.” It does, however, place requirements on principal employers to ensure the health and welfare of contract workers, and to verify that their wages are duly paid . In the event of any violations, as have allegedly taken place with several contract workers at Ashoka, the act creates provisions for complaints to be filed with and investigated by the Labour Department.]
Ashoka is neither the only, nor the first institution with these issues. When over 150 DU sanitation workers, some of whom had worked there for 10-15 years now, were terminated in May 2019 due to a change of contractors, they clapped back with protests, signature campaigns, and a hunger strike. Their complaints included caste discrimination, lack of safety gear and non-payment of PF/ESI benefits and compensation for overtime. Demands for reinstatement of the workers were met by “assurances” from the DU administration to “request” the contractor to “adjust” on “humanitarian” grounds, notwithstanding their own legal obligations. Sound familiar?
An identical story also emerged from Ambedkar University, where in June 2019, around 60 workers were laid off under similar circumstances of the contractor being changed, and they protested with the students for immediate reinstatement. In DU, the workers were joined by the students’ union, teachers’ association, and Bhim Army. Seeing the solidarity between workers and students in these two universities, I wonder why our bhaiyas and didis are regularly transferred from Ashoka to newer workplaces. The rotational movement of contract staff might help ensure they never stick in one place long enough to develop such a connection with the students.
Writing about the struggle for labour rights led primarily by workers from the Dalit community, a Pinjra Tod blogpost aptly noted how it “holds historic significance and possibility in the context of conditions of work and dignity of labour for the future of workers in universities.” Their call to action emphasised that “a strong, united and sustained struggle across universities is required to resist this onslaught!”
“Theka pratha ko todenge, itihas ki dhara modenge! Mazdoor chattra ekta zindabad! (Break the bondage of contractual work, turn the wheels of history! Long Live Worker-Student Unity!)”– DU contract workers on May Day 2019 
At Ambedkar University, the workers organised under the banner of Safai Kamgaar Union and with the support of student associations and youth organisations, took their grievances to the AAP labour minister, Gopal Rai . Shortly after, the administration agreed to reinstate all laid-off workers and even cancelled the third-party contract . As of now, the Ashoka administration is yet to provide any assurance about reinstating the laid-off workers. Perhaps we stand to gain by taking a page out of the story of contract workers in two public universities in Delhi.
Note : You can help the workers who have lost their jobs during this time of global crisis by donating to this fundraiser for the workers by the SG.The goal is to raise ₹10 Lakhs.
- Dr. Aditya Narayan Misra, “Draft NEP-2019: Declaration of Privatisation”, The Critical Mirror
- “Can India’s education budget fund increased spending in new policy?”, Business Standard
- MHRD Draft National Education Policy 2019 (Revised)
- Fredrik deBOER, “Why We Should Fear University, Inc.”, The New York Times
- Radhicka Kapoor and PP Krishnapriya, “Facts and myths on rise of contract labour”, The Hindu Business Line
- G. Sampath, “SC ruling on contract workers getting equal pay: on parallel tracks”, The Hindu
- Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970
- A Brief Summary of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, Delhi University
- “Ambedkar University sanitation workers meet Gopal Rai over loss of jobs”, Outlook
- Shruti Janardhan, “Ambedkar University reinstates 53 sanitation workers but allegations of casteism persist”, The Caravan Magazine
Deep Vakil (ASP21) was the President of the 5th HoR, and the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs in the 4th HoR. His OpEd column talks about public affairs at Ashoka, with particular focus on student politics. Views are personal.