Surplus population in-situ

Brick kiln labor and the production of idle time

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Pratik Mishra Post-doctoral Researcher, Lancaster University, UK p.mishra3@lancaster.ac.uk

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Abstract

The article follows how migrant brick kiln molders are affected and adapt to short and long periods of suspension of work. In brick kilns near Delhi, involuntary idle time is revealed as an important modality of surplus extraction. While idleness is prevalent within many forms of work, idle time in the brick kilns operates at the intersection of other relations, namely, piece-rate wages, debt bondage, and capital's control over social reproduction space and time. It enables capital to flexibly move workers in and out of paid labor while extracting unpaid work and acts as an in-situ mode of rendering workers relative surplus population. Through enacting literal wagelessness and perpetuating wageless life, the article reads idle time as a time regime of capital, breaching and producing instabilities within workers’ life and leisure.

Introduction

If we don't take the peshgi [wage advance] for the next season, we will starve. The money we will take back from the kilns this year will barely last us 10–15 days.

(Shiva)

Twelve-year old Shiva was clear-eyed yet nonchalant in describing his family's economic precarity at the end of the brick kiln season of 2021–2022. Eight months ago, in October of 2021, he had come to the brick kiln in Khanda with his father, mother and four sisters (three elder, one younger) from Nalanda district in Bihar. When they arrived at the kiln, his family had to immediately start making their house for the season. Molders in brick kilns in North India mostly live in small, bare mud houses called jhuggi (shanty, slum) erected in just one or two days, made up of unbaked clay bricks and roofed with a sheet of corrugated metal. After making the house and flattening a patch of farmland in front of it, the pashaar where they mold bricks and lay it to dry, Shiva and his parents got to work. A mound of moist clay is dumped on their pashaar, and they make small lumps from it, put each lump into an empty mold, and invert the mold to lay the rectangular block of clay on the flat soil to dry.

The family had molded bricks for only 10 days when rains unexpectedly started and damaged the bricks they had left to dry. Over the next three and a half months, Shiva's family only worked a few days as sporadic rains kept interrupting work. The owner stopped supplying soil, and they had to wait for the pashaar to dry before molding could begin. They were idle throughout this time, sustaining their expenses out of the maintenance allowances, called kharcha, provided every fortnight by the owner. The family had taken an advance called peshgi of 60,000 Indian rupees (six hundred pounds sterling) from the owner before migrating and had spent the entire amount in Bihar itself to repay debts taken for Shiva's sister's hospitalization as well as for household expenses in the last month (September). When Shiva made this statement in June, roughly after eight months in the kiln, he knew his family had only managed to mold around 100,000–120,000 bricks where they would otherwise have molded 180,000 bricks in a season. This wasn't enough to repay the sum of the initial peshgi plus all the fortnightly kharchas and have sufficient cash leftover.

Indeed, when the family's belated hisaab or final accounts happened on July 2nd, they were found to be at tut (deficit), which means their piece-rate wages for all the bricks they had molded over eight months was one thousand Indian rupees less than all their debts. The owner bore the travel costs back to Nalanda in Bihar (a bumpy tractor ride to Sonipat and then general class train travel) but offered no take-home wages (the remaining debt was written off).

When back in Bihar, Shiva and his father Karu will only stay a few days before heading to Punjab to work as farm laborers for one month or one and a half months. From the wage rate at seven hundred Indian rupees per day, they expect they would be able to save 20,000 Indian rupees over the period (Shiva will not be paid as he will only help his father and learn the work this year which will be his first time doing farm work in Punjab). In Bihar, Shiva's pregnant mother and elder sisters would be immediately engaged upon return as well in the work of sowing rice in the local rice fields (as Dalits from the Musahar caste, the family has no agricultural land). The one month of sowing work paid in rice grains would be enough rice to last the family a year. Soon after, the family will take the peshgi for the next season and use the money for expenses, as well as for further repaying the debt for Shiva's younger sister's operation (Karu had spent 135,000 Indian rupees on her hospitalization for “brain fever”, perhaps encephalitis).

Several structural factors of entrenched poverty—landlessness, caste discrimination, an apathetic state, and lack of social security—are implicated in the current predicament of Shiva's family. But the immediate source of distress when I met Shiva was the frustration of returning from the brick kilns empty-handed after migrating for eight months and hard labor. This happened as a consequence of the involuntary idle time imposed upon the family.

Involuntary idle time, or idle time within this article, refers to periods when workers are unable to mold bricks because of lack of access to means of production and is distinct from leisure. The article understands idle time as a specific and significant manifestation of exploitation in the brick kilns, embodying one of numerous forms within the heterogenous relations of surplus extraction that characterize informal labor in the Global South (see Introduction this theme section; Banaji 2010; Bernstein 2006). While idleness is prevalent as a temporal experience within most kinds of employment, in the brick kilns its specificity and power derives from idle time operating at the intersection of other labor relations, namely, piece-rate wages, debt bondage, and capital's control over social reproduction space and time. The conjunction of these labor relations plus how much involuntary idle time workers must contend with within the work season, both as sporadic disruption of work and as extended periods of suspensions, makes idle time a highly salient relation of labor exploitation. The article establishes how idle time in certain forms may enact a political economic relationship beneficial to capital, where capital is able to cheapen the cost of social reproduction of labor and regiment their work-life. There is also the oft-realized possibility of the over-production of idle time, spurred by external factors like rainfall or regulatory bans on kiln firing, that heighten precarity for workers to an extent that is no longer in the interest of capital. These external factors are not exogenous to the labor regime as workers’ vulnerability to such circumstances are systemically produced wherein owners are able to offload the burden of risk onto workers through wagelessness, control over ability to work, and indirect control over how idle time is repurposed. I read idle time as a time regime of capital breaching and producing instabilities within workers’ life and leisure.

The article understands idle time as enabling capital to flexibly move workers in and out of paid labor (while extracting unpaid work), and thus acting as an in-situ mode of rendering workers as relative surplus population (RSP) within the brick kiln. Within the discussion of RSP in the informal economy particularly the work of Jan Breman (1996), there has been emphasis on the constant precarious circulation of workers between the urban and rural spheres. Less attention has been paid to the processes of immobility and suspension within the worksite. Involuntary idle time exists as an important lived experience of work for kiln workers, the corollary to “forced labor”, a much-discussed consequence of debt bondage in brick kilns. Both experiences belie the characterization of the “doubly free laborer” (Marx 1976: 899) as the sole subject of capitalist production and draws attention to the wide variety of forms of labor compatible with capitalist production (Banaji 2010: 359).

The political economic analysis of idle time as merely lack of income within wageless employment is inadequate as the experience of it is mediated in what workers otherwise do within these periods. I demonstrate the ways by which idle time is produced as well as how kiln workers are affected and adapt to periods of suspension of work. The article engages with the anthropological literature on idleness as leisure, boredom, waiting, and anticipation—experiences of time that are more prominently centered within studies on the unemployed (Jeffrey 2010; Ralph 2008) than within studies of employed workers (among several exceptions, see Annavarapu 2022; Millar 2015; Schmitz 2020). Where they have engaged with idleness, anthropologists of work have nuancedly pointed out the ambivalence and specificity of the experience of idle time within different work settings, underscoring the productive and agentive dimensions of idleness within work alongside its disruptive and frustrating aspects. In relation to these nuances where idleness, voluntary or enforced, may be assimilated within accepted or valuable forms of living, I read idle time in the brick kilns as having a much more extractive and coercive character.

The article is drawn from 12 months of qualitative research of which 11 months comprised my doctoral fieldwork in the years of 2018 and 2019, along with one month of post-PhD fieldwork conducted in 2022. The fieldwork was conducted in Khanda village of Sonipat district, which is part of the Delhi-National Capital Region (or Delhi-NCR) urban agglomeration. Khanda is located in the second largest brick kiln cluster, supplying bricks to Delhi-NCR and has over 60 brick kilns employing more than 30,000 migrant workers, who live and work in the kilns for eight months of the year. The research was conducted through unstructured individual and group interviews, mainly with migrant brick kiln workers in Khanda but also with kiln owners,1 labor contractors, and local villagers. While I hardly had any access difficulties from the kiln management for interviewing workers, the overwhelming majority of my respondents are male brick kiln workers, and I struggled to interview enough women workers, who are equally as numerous as men within the molding profession. This struggle was not only because, as a male researcher, it was difficult to find women who were willing to talk with me but also that my interviews with women were often co-opted by male molders. My interviews would happen in open spaces such as the pashaar workspace or near the kiln shops, where there would inevitably be one or more men around when speaking with a woman worker. It would generally happen that a man would co-opt a question in the interview and take over as the main respondent, while most women would retreat within the conversation from that point. In such cases I would generally not persist in seeking the woman's answer, for cultural reasons. This article, reflecting idle time and use of idle time for social reproduction, has greatly benefited from interviewing the few women with whom I had a comfortable rapport. Nevertheless, the arguments in this article are hampered by a limited understanding of the experience of idle time among women brick molders, and more broadly, of the gendering of processes of social reproduction in the brick kilns. The article admittedly continues in the tradition of a “male-biased attitude to the study of labor” as stated by Jan Breman in Saith (2016).

In the following sections, I explain the context of brick kiln work, and how molders may generally be positioned as RSP vis-à-vis both the possibilities for mechanization of their labor as well as the non-normative2 nature of their employment comprising conditions of debt bondage. Further the article discusses the anthropological literature on idleness within work exploring the possibility of comparing meaning-making and effects of idle time across different forms of work. Within the ethnographic section, I categorize idle time produced in the brick kilns into two rough forms, namely everyday idle time and extended idle time. I further describe the different political economic relations implicated in their production and how these forms of idle time are experienced separately as well as cumulatively by workers. This is particularly useful in understanding how workers may strategically repurpose idle time toward social reproductive chores or meaningful leisure, or also in coping with periods of extended idleness, may flee the kiln or stay and resign themselves to anxious waiting.

Relative surplus population in relation to mechanization

Marx's notion of RSP holds it as a “population which is superfluous to capital's average requirement for its own valorization” (Marx 1976: 782). RSP exists only in relation to the specific mode of production in society and develops in relation to productivity of labor. Thus, the “higher the productivity of labor, the greater is the pressure of workers on the means of employment, the more precarious therefore becomes the conditions of their own existence” (ibid: 799). A key form in which workers are rendered surplus is thus through the increasing use of machines in the production process.

The abysmal level of mechanization we see in brick kilns in India today is possible through having to resort to the supply of cheap labor from migrant and racialized populations. At a time where automation through robots and artificial intelligence threaten to take over complex job roles and replace several forms of labor, the manual labor of brick molding in India stands out as an anachronism. Already in 1850, an English expert had remarked on the mechanization of the molding process what still rings true today:

The substitution of machinery for manual labor in the process of moulding has long been a favorite subject for the exercise of mechanical talent; but although a great number of inventions have been patented, there are very few of them that can be said to be thoroughly successful. The actual cost of moulding bears so small a proportion to the total cost of brick making that in small brickworks the employment of machinery would effect no ultimate saving, and, therefore, it is not to be expected that machinery will ever be generally introduced for brick moulding.

(Dobson 1980, cited in Lucassen 2008)

Jan Lucassen (2008) notes that brickmaking units in Europe, the United States, and Canada completed the switching over to labor-saving machines in the first quarter of the twentieth century, while in India manual brick molding still persists over a century later. This cheapness of labor in relation to machines has been maintained by employing seasonal migrants from areas of widespread poverty and from among social groups (Dalits and Adivasis) marked by a long history of domination and subject to a process of internal colonialism (see Chauhan 2022; Shah and Lerche 2020).

The cheap nominal cost of labor as well as super-exploitation by other means as idle time constitutes a key reason for the persistence of manual brick molding. Even if molding of bricks by machines is currently rare in Delhi- NCR, use of these machines does exist as a clear possibility that sets limits upon the potential class politics of molders. Zygmunt Bauman reflected (2004:12), “To be declared redundant means to have been disposed of because of being disposable.”

The analytic of wageless life

Contextualizing workers as RSP in relation to mechanization would suggest that the labor kiln molders perform is redundant, and they approximate the social class of the “outcaste proletariat”, in Mike Davis's understanding, who are “a mass of humanity structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation” (2006: 128). However, this cheap manual labor underpins the production of millions of cheap bricks for the globalized construction industry of Delhi-NCR within the making of industrial parks and office buildings, as well as subsidizing self-built housing within the informal settlements where 76 percent of the city's population lives (Government of Delhi 2009: Table 1). As Kathleen Millar (2018: 8) noted in the case of waste-collectors in Brazil, if such collectors were deemed “superfluous to capital accumulation, then it becomes impossible to ask how the materials they collect are tied into a 200-billion-dollar global recycling industry.” In contesting superfluity as an overarching condition for kiln workers, it is important to understand the particular capitalist relations within which they are bound. I delve here into the exploitation of workers through debt and immobility in the brick kilns, relations that are rooted as much in the social reproductive sphere within the kiln as in the sphere of production.

Returning to the account in the beginning of this article, Shiva, and his family's predicament of being on the edge of starvation within days of returning from productive employment evokes the image of economic bare life—stripped to an abstract exchange value, stripped of land, liberty, and livelihoods—embodying Marx's conception of laborers virtually being paupers under capitalism. Even as workers subject themselves to the madness of economic reason (Harvey 2017), the exchange value of their labor does not ensure even their basic long-term reproduction:

If the capitalist has no use for his surplus labor, then the worker may not perform his necessary labor; not produce his necessaries.…He can live as a worker only in so far as he exchanges his labor capacity for that part of capital which forms the labor fund. This exchange is tied to conditions which are accidental for him, and indifferent to his organic presence. He is thus a virtual pauper.

(Marx 1973: 604).

The cheapness of labor in the brick kiln not only is constituted through the low piece-rate wage but also inheres even more so in the conditions of what Michael Denning (2010) calls “wageless life” within the kiln. Following Denning (2010), the article seeks to de-center waged labor and take wageless life as the substructure to which multiple layers and facets of surplus extraction are anchored, and that enables production. Doing so reveals that the conditions of wageless-ness in the brick kilns derive from two key relations—firstly, the lived experience of the debt bondage relation and its protracted wage payment structure, and second, capitalist control over the conflated space and time of social reproduction within the kiln. It is within the centering of these two conditions that the political economy of relations, like idle time, come into view. Idle time thus emerges not only as a literal moment of wagelessness but also as embedded in and perpetuating the conditions of wageless life among brick kiln workers.

The nuances of these two conditions of labor are not enough to explain wageless life. Indeed, brick kilns are also marked by other relations marking its informality and non-normative nature of employment including the persistence of caste-centered division of labor, informal labor recruitment through unregistered labor contractors, and widespread prevalence of family labor including child labor. Furthermore, Denning understands the starting point of wageless life as located not within productive employment, but within the forces of dispossession through which workers come to be radically dependent upon the market. This again brings to attention the marginalized caste groups, predominantly from the states of Bihar (mainly Musahar, but also Pasi, Kewat, Beldar, Chamar caste) and Chhattisgarh (Satnami, Rohidas caste) to which brick molders belong to and the long histories of dispossession of such communities. Wageless life thus emerges at the juncture of these histories and in the present conditions of labor.

Locating idle time along temporal experiences of work

Idleness in the kilns can be located alongside the significant literature on the temporal experiences of suspension, immobility, boredom, and waiting within precarious forms of labor in contemporary capitalism. Focusing on the experiential dimension is crucial because, according to Millar (2017), subjectivity and experience are essentially linked to questions of political economy within the study of precarity.

A key question on the experience of idle time is to understand if such time becomes assimilated (even if grudgingly) into the rhythm of a form of work or is taken to be disruptive of it. In a recent article, Sneha Annavarapu (2022) captured the diverse ways in which migrant cab drivers in Hyderabad relate to time, especially through understanding different forms of waiting experienced by drivers. While waiting—for customers or in traffic jams—was a big part of the job for drivers, it was regarded as an inevitable and productive process toward developing as a city driver, toward attuning oneself with the temporal rhythms of customers and the city. This fits with anthropological analyses, which regard waiting as an active and not passive, residual or lost time, and how waiting becomes part of the daily micropolitics through which “forms of being in the world and spaces of belonging are elaborated” (Masquelier 2019: 5).

Waiting and suspension may appear as rupture but may also be fashioned within everyday living as valuable. This aspect is especially present within Millar's (2015) analysis of how waste-collectors in the dumps of Rio de Janeiro combine the time of labor and other activities of life, thus dissolving work and life into a form of “woven time” in the dump. For Millar, this rhythm emerges from the grueling conditions of wageless work in the dump but nevertheless constitutes a valuable form of living for workers often preferable to regimented schedules within other professions.

Unlike the instances above, it is not the case that idle time, even if tolerated, is considered in such valorized terms by brick kiln workers. There are several reasons why idle time in the brick kilns may be experienced differently from idleness within other forms of employment. For one, migration to the brick kilns represents a state of total employment for brick kiln workers. Being away from home is perceived as a state of “working” even if they are not economically productive (see also Schmitz 2020). The rhythm of brick making has no productive relation with waiting (unlike for cab drivers). Idleness, especially when extended, manifests as a “stuckedness” or frustrated waiting for workers (see Hage 2009).

It is further understood for some workers as a lack of freedom to stay in line with an internalized moral project of productivity, as they express resentment over not only loss of wages but also losing the bodily rhythm and purpose of making bricks. In researching construction sites in Delhi, Adam Sargent (2019) noticed how notions of a good owner or labor contractor for migrant workers draws not only from promptly disbursing wages or kind treatment but also from providing workers as many opportunities to work as possible. Workers expect to make bricks as per their capacity and willingness to labor, while involuntary idle time disrupts the scheduled breaks that workers plan and value.

In the following ethnographic section, I demonstrate how idle time within limits is productive toward cheapening labor costs and regimenting the workday. In conceptualizing the dormitory labor regime, Chris Smith and Ngai Pun (2006) show how dormitories attached to Chinese factories act as apparatuses of disciplining and surveillance toward regulating the leisure period of workers and contribute to extending and intensifying the workday. Hannah Schling (2017) similarly looks at how the dormitory regime of electronic manufacturing in the Czech Republic produced a temporal coherence between workers’ temporal rhythms and the just-in-time production demands of electronic goods. The cramped dormitories impose a feeling of disposability upon workers, and mobility was produced through bare and regimented living conditions where “there is only so long as you can stay before you just need to get out of here.” Idle time in the brick kilns may not appear in the same way that waiting for work in the dormitory appears for Schling—as a disciplinary performance of surplus labor. Nevertheless, idle time has important disciplinary and material consequences upon workers that I discuss in the following section.

Temporal scales of idle time

This ethnographic section is organized through classifying idle time into its two temporal forms or scales: everyday idle time that is short and sporadic, and extended or lengthy periods of idle time. The classification allows the article to address the different political economic processes that produce, extend, and exacerbate vulnerability to idle time. Everyday idle time is mainly caused from unexpected rainfall, while extended idle time, referring to weeks or months of idleness, may be due to various reasons, including continuous or frequent rainfall, regulatory bans on brick firing, unprepared condition of brick kiln, and so on. It also allows to recognize workers’ adaptation to idle time of different forms. Everyday idle time is generally repurposed toward important social reproductive tasks that bridge critical deficits of provisioning within kiln life, while extended idle time may exceed such time required for reproduction tasks and appear more as aimless time or may be spent pursuing other avenues of local employment.

Everyday idle time

Everyday idle time is most importantly caused by rainfall, which spoils the batch of bricks laid out to dry and leaves the pashaar or molding space wet. This forces workers to remain idle until the pashaar dries out and is flattened again after removing any spoiled bricks. While rainfall may be deemed an external factor, vulnerability to disruption of work over rainfall and the economic loss of sitting idle is structured through the labor regime. The piece-rate system of wages, for instance, structures vulnerability to rain while a productivity-agnostic, time-based system of payment would have insured workers.3 In highlighting the way everyday idle time is produced, I specifically focus on a technological change within the process of molding where the use of machines to replace the manual labor of preparing clay has increased workers’ vulnerability to idle time and regimented their working hours to the drying cycle of clay mounds.

One of the major tasks within brick molding is the preparation of the clay for molding. The word for the method of preparing clay manually is called lathganja with lath meaning leg. Molders, from a single family or group, would dig a shallow pit and put a mix of soil, water, and sand in it. One molder, generally a man, would then stand inside the pit and use his legs (lath) to work the clay and make it pliable for brick molding. The soil used in this method would often be dug up by workers from the same or nearby fields where they are molding bricks on the pashaar, so that molding then operates in a completely decentralized manner. This labor would be the first activity of work in the morning, and once the clay is prepared, it would be shoveled out of the pit and gathered into one or many soil lumps from where molding into bricks would take place.

There is another traditional method of preparing clay where bullocks are used to move a heavy stone roller over a wet soil mixture. This method is called pakmel and is not very prevalent anymore. A recent method of preparing clay is also called pakmel but uses specialized mixing machines. In Khanda, almost all brick kilns over the last decade (since 2010) have switched to pakmel as it frees up workers’ time and allows for higher productivity and overall upscaled production (see Mishra 2020). The soil with sand and other ingredients is processed in the mixing machines, and the prepared clay is transported by tractors throughout the kiln and dumped as large mounds on each pashaar.

The new pakmel method has established the centralization of clay supply for molding. This centralization allows owners control over the rate of molding, being able to start and stop the supply. When owners expect rain from checking weather apps, they pre-emptively block the supply of clay. Given that any brick that gets damaged by rain while drying is still counted in the workers’ wage, owners avoid this loss and offload the risk upon wageless workers. Such control was harder to achieve within the decentralized system of lathganja where workers could ignore orders and claim wages if bricks were damaged. Now, some owners stop work two days in advance of rain prediction and workers may lose up to a week between stoppage of work and drying and clearing of pashaar.

The supply of clay in large mounds also effects a regimentation of work time where workers are bound to the drying cycle of the wet clay. While molders generally work through setting their own rhythms of work and their own targets, of either molding a certain number of bricks or for certain hours, pakmel clay has reduced some of that autonomy. It is much easier to work with freshly dumped wet clay from the machines than later as the clay is drying, especially in summers when drying happens fast. Workers have to intensify their work efforts during the time when clay is freshly dumped. A molding household may receive several dumps of clay at once every two or three days, and then have to try to finish the clay in time.

The pressure of making the work rhythm compatible with the leftover clay mound disproportionately falls upon women. Molders take three days of break for every 12 days of work, called the pandrahi (fifteenth) or kharchi (for the stipend they receive in these three days to go to the market and buy essentials as well as spend on alcohol). The work-holiday divide on the twelfth day is more pronounced for men who go to the market, indulge in alcohol or fishing or other forms of leisure, while women work for an extra one or two of these days to cover the leftover clay that would otherwise dry out. Pakmel clay thus represents an intensification of the labor regime by producing a gendered regimentation of working life and the flexible production of idle time.

Everyday idle time is repurposed to a large extent toward social reproductive tasks by workers. Here I reference not so much the extra time available for everyday chores as cooking and cleaning, which is already built into workers’ working schedules (especially of women and older girls), but rather time for longer activities that would not be easily accommodated within a period of regular work. These tasks performed in idle time bridge critical social reproduction deficits that arise from the bare material provisioning for workers in the kilns. I argue that they not only facilitate but also enable basic social reproduction in the kilns. Here I deal with two tasks in particular—workers extending and repairing their bare housing, and the act of collecting firewood—both of which are time-consuming tasks performed when workers are sitting idle. I argue that the repurposing of idle time here represents a double benefit to capital—capital can offload risk of unproductive idle time onto wageless workers, as well as benefit from workers’ self-provisioning to reduce the cost of workers’ social reproduction. In the context of brick kilns where immobile workers are dependent upon the kiln owners (and contractors) rather than the market for provisioning of basic requirements like housing and firewood, kiln owners get away with inadequate or substandard provisioning simply because of workers’ own creative efforts to bridge these critical deficits.

Take the case of housing. Workers build the house that they would stay in for eight months of the work season within a few days of arriving at the kiln. They erect the temporary structure of the jhuggi from unbaked mud bricks, roofed by corrugated metal sheets and tarpaulins, in one or two days. The jhuggis are built as temporary shelters because the land on which they are built adjacent to the pashaars is only leased by owners for a single year and maybe relocated next season. Abandoned jhuggis from the last season are also not reused because they may become habitats for snakes and scorpions over the monsoon.

The jhuggi is built as a bare, low-height, one-room structure out of only eight hundred or one thousand unbaked bricks that the owner allows to be used while being counted in their wages. The core structure of the jhuggi is almost uninhabitable and represents a highly degraded standard of housing. The jhuggi is incrementally built and repaired during the work season, reflecting the way houses are built in informal urban settlements. The addition of a shed to store firewood or a walled outdoor kitchen space for cooking makes it more livable. While workers make these additions out of rejected and low-quality bricks accumulated through the season, everyday idle time is also a key ingredient in bridging this basic requirement.

A similar observation can be made for firewood provisioning. On days after rain, one can see a stream of male workers rolling empty or full (with branches) wheelbarrows on the main village road passing through Khanda. The village farmlands of Khanda have sparse vegetation, and only villagers are allowed to collect firewood while workers are prohibited and may be beaten if caught. For workers, firewood is only available on government lands on the banks of a large canal in Sheri Village, which is 2.5 kilometers away from the village center of Khanda. Collecting firewood there is also not free of conflict as local villagers also collect from these banks, and irrigation department workers patrolling the canal often stop workers from cutting large branches with machetes and force workers to use smaller sickles to cut small branches and twigs. The activity of self-provisioning firewood thus represents a high investment of time, effort along with conflict risk for brick kiln workers.

The alternative for workers is to buy firewood from the shops or have it supplied by the labor contractor or the owners who deduct from workers’ wages, eight hundred Indian rupees for roughly 15 days’ worth of firewood for a household. This is a significant expense given workers’ meager wages. Thus, everyday idle time is used by workers to collect firewood as a way to cheapen their social reproduction. Even extended periods of idle time may be used toward building the shed and then stocking as much as a few months’ worth of firewood. It is noteworthy that the compulsion of supplying firewood is as much for owners as for workers. Nevertheless, owners manage to get away with this basic need, putting the onus of self-provisioning on workers or deducting from workers’ wages, thus cheapening the cost of social reproduction through idle time.

Extended idle time

Extended idle time refers to a lengthy idle period when idleness is no longer useful and is experienced much more as the aimless time of waiting. We may take extended idle time as applying for idleness for a period of a week or more, but offering a straightforward duration for this concept is also not productive since the experience of extended idle time as unproductive is related to other factors such as its temporal location within the work season. A short period of idle time toward the end of the work season may be unproductive for workers as they may regard further tasks futile. On the other hand, long idle periods at the beginning of the work season may still be useful toward social reproduction tasks such as stocking firewood, as mentioned. The discussion of extended idle time thus also brings to the fore experience of temporal location and draws much more in relation to the debt bondage system.

Extended idle time of a few weeks to a few months may be created from a number of circumstances. A common reason is frequent spurts of rain or continuous rain making the pashaar unusable for long periods. State regulation can shut work in the kilns. The brick kilns within the territory of Delhi-NCR are now routinely shut for a few weeks or months in the winter as part of regulatory measures to alleviate hazardous air pollution levels in the national capital. The actual enforcement of this ban is variable. In my first year of fieldwork in the winter of 2018, the kilns were instructed to be shut down as per policy, but apart from two weeks around the festival of Diwali when pollution peaks, the kilns were able to disregard the order. In contrast, the enforcement of the ban on oven firing was much more stringent in 2019, and all the kiln ovens were closed for three months between November and January. While the ban is on oven firing, most owners without deep pockets or space to store inventory of unbaked bricks, also stop the supply of soil and restrict brick molding activity in this period. In 2019, the stringent enforcement of the ban caught both owners and workers unawares, and workers went through a three-month long period of idleness precipitating a crisis. The COVID-19 lockdown, which happened in the later part of the same 2019–2020 season, also enforced another period of extended idle time, though discussion of its impact is beyond the scope of this article. Other circumstances may produce idle time such as when a drunken fight led to the murder of a kiln worker and work was stalled in the kiln for over a month during police investigations.

There are also more systemic moments when capital deliberately and directly produces extended idle time. One such systemic moment is in idleness produced through early arrival of workers at the kiln site before the conditions for work, or even of stay, are ready in the kilns. Seeking to lock in workers as early as possible, kiln owners often mislead the labor contractor, or in connivance with him, to call workers to the kiln in advance of clearing the fields by tractors or making other preparations ready so that molders can start work. In some cases, molders who arrive early do not even have materials to build their houses upon arrival and must make do with erecting a tent-like structure with tarpaulin for a few days. Workers may sit idle for two or three weeks before they can even begin preparing the pashaar or jhuggi for work.

Another systemic moment of extended idle time is produced toward the end of the season when workers are forced to stay against their wishes, by delaying the disbursement of the hisaab and keeping hostage their wages of the whole season.

I met Karu at the end of the brick season in mid-June 2022, when he expressed how he was being kept against his wish in the kiln: “We will see how long the owner keeps us here. People are more tired due to the heat now in the last stretch of work. If we sit for one month in our village in Bihar, we will recover from the tiredness. We will eat better food there than here, also eat and rest without work.”

With summer at its peak and the end of the brick season upon them, workers had lost patience with making bricks. For molders, returning from the kilns signifies a time of rest and recovery at home. The owner was making them stay till the first week of July, when they would have liked to return a month earlier. Karu and his household weren't very productive from lack of interest. Against the two thousand bricks that their family of three molders would make on a normal day, they only made 250 to 500 bricks in June. Karu also knew he was in tutti or deficit owing to continuous work interruptions from frequent rains in that season. He wasn't expecting to take much back in nikaas (or earnings) home to Bihar.

Karu along with six to seven other workers from the kiln had, however, found a different work arrangement in the village for this period. A local farmer needed labor for applying manure on his field and had contacted Karu on one of their idle days when the pashaar was wet from rain. Workers in the brick kilns become available for odd jobs at low labor cost in these idle periods. Even after the pashaar had dried, Kaaru preferred to work at the farm in Bidhlan, being paid with ready cash of three hundred Indian rupees for three to four hours of work,4 as well as two quarter bottles of country liquor. This put him at odds with the Munshi (the accountant/manager) whose diktat from the owner was to ensure that workers worked in the brick kilns whenever the pashaar was dry. The Munshi would come to check on work in the mornings and evenings while Kaaru would leave in the afternoon to work in the field and come back before dusk to avoid being detected. Karu would still have frequent quarrels with the Munshi on being detected and on being delinquent in making bricks (his wife and son were molding bricks as usual).

Extended idle time is sometimes repurposed toward local, daily-waged jobs, and thousands of idle brick workers become a source of cheap local labor in the village and neighboring areas. However, there is much supply–demand mismatch for such periods given that the length of idle time is often unpredictable; there are less opportunities for short-term odd jobs, and owners set up barriers to deter workers from taking up alternative employment.

Much of extended idle time for most workers is spent aimlessly and experienced as moments of suspension and waiting. Male workers spend their time gossiping and playing cards; they often go fishing in nearby ponds. Women, with additional tasks of cooking and maintaining the household, find time on idle days to nap in the afternoon and also go in groups to collect greens from nearby farms (like sarson or mustard greens and bathua or amaranth). Such activities do facilitate social reproduction but are additional and not necessary toward bridging deficits as with the earlier examples of extending housing or collecting firewood. Indeed, workers often state that time spent idle turns out to be more expensive than time spent working, as the monotony of idle time pushes them toward consuming alcohol and meat to make time meaningful versus working periods when they would reserve such food for fortnightly leisure breaks. Involuntary idle time also interferes with scheduled breaks of leisure such as the three days every fortnight available to molders, or even important festivals such as Holi when workers shorten the festive period to a single day instead of three.

Extended idle time thus precipitates a feeling of catch-up and anxiety over accumulating debt from the borrowed peshgi and the kharchas adding up. The time of “waiting”, reminiscent of cab drivers’ experience of the COVID-19 lockdown in Annavarapu (2022: 195), feels like “stopping” during an extended idle period as aspirations for taking money home are dashed. During extended idle time, workers additionally engage with the calculus of staying versus fleeing. This means predicting their brick-count for the rest of the season and the prospect of falling short of the debt and weighing this against clandestinely fleeing the kiln and starting work over elsewhere, including a kiln in another region. The act of fleeing is not straightforward, especially for workers with families, and leaving the kiln does not guarantee escaping the debt as a powerful labor contractor may still catch hold of workers in their native village and extract repayment.

Still many workers do flee out of frustration with sitting idle, and this is a key reason for which extended idle time, unlike everyday idle time, is not productive toward cheapening labor costs or regimentation. Extended idle time in deed presents a risk of loss of capital to owners. A fleeing worker, especially at the beginning of the kiln season, represents not only the loss of the peshgi or initial debt advanced by the owners but also the loss of production capacity for the kiln, as it is not easy to find replacement labor once the regular work season has started.

Conclusion

The article presented involuntary idle time as a key relation of surplus extraction in the brick kilns, one that operates at the intersection of debt bondage and capitalist control over workers’ social reproduction space and time. Because of the wageless nature of employment in the kilns, the impact of idle time disproportionately falls upon workers’ wages and is an important reason for which workers often return empty- handed after a full season of work in the brick kilns. Short periods of idle time are repurposed toward social reproduction tasks that manage the bare provisioning for life in the brick kilns and are beneficial to capital in cheapening the social reproduction cost of labor. Idle time can thus be either neutral or advantageous for brick kiln owners, and this explains why involuntary idleness is so pervasive. The usefulness of idle time may only be exhausted within periods of extended idle time created out of conditions such as continuous rain or state regulation, where idleness not only leads to unused production capacity but may also increase the risk of frustrated workers fleeing the kilns, representing a loss on wage advances as well as future production capacity for the work season. The surplus population in the kilns within extended idle periods may as well present an opportunity for local villagers to extract odd jobs with little pay.

Workers experience time lost through idleness as not just a condition of wagelessness, but as the prospect of accumulating debt and reduced earnings to return home with for the monsoon season. The experience is mediated as well through the moral economy of work where certain forms of systemic idle time generate greater resentment on loss of autonomy, such as being made to stay back at the end of the work season, while others are generally accepted as the way of things such as wageless idle time from periods of rain. By exploring the political economic as well as the experiential dimensions of idle time, the article deepens the analysis of how precarious workers within informal labor in the Global South are rendered surplus on a flexible basis.

Notes

1

Kiln owners in Khanda were generally outsiders to the village, belonging to Delhi or Sonipat. They were almost all from the erstwhile agrarian Jat caste. Labor contractors are generally small contractors belonging to same caste as workers recruiting from their village and kinship group, though there are a few large labor contractors with hundreds of workers under them.

2

Non-normative work here refers to forms of work outside the standard employment relation (SER) and is interchangeable with work in the informal sector.

3

This relation of unpredictable or heavy rainfall to idle time portends worsening exploitation under conditions of climate change. In India, severe rainstorms (more than 150 millimeters of rainfall in a day) have become nearly twice as frequent between 1951 and 2022 (Roxy et al. 2015).

4

The farmer pays six hundred Indian rupees per tractor-trolley of manure. Karu works in a team of eight people who spread three trolleys worth of manure on the farm in four hours.

References

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    • Export Citation
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  • Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted lives: Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge: Polity

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  • Roxy, Matthew Kell, Kapoor Ritika, Pascal Terray, Raghu Murtugudde, Karumuri Ashok, and B. N. Goswami. 2015. “Drying of Indian subcontinent by rapid Indian Ocean warming and a weakening land-sea thermal gradient.Nature Communications 6: 7423.

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Contributor Notes

Pratik Mishra is currently a post-doctoral researcher at Lancaster University, UK, within the ESRC-funded project Hazardous Sanitation Labor in Bangladesh and India. The project draws connections across labor, caste, coloniality, and urban infrastructure in relation to the history of manual scavenging in South Asia. He did his PhD in human geography from King's College London. His thesis looked at the everyday politics of labor within a brick kiln cluster on the outskirts of Delhi. The research draws strong connections between the fields of labor geography (worksite based social reproduction and seasonal migration), urbanization in the Global South, and political ecology. E-Mail: p.mishra3@lancaster.ac.uk ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6195-2839

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Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Annavarapu, Sneha. 2022. “The weight of waiting: Suspended mobility and deferred aspirations amongst cab drivers in Hyderabad.Social Change 52 (2): 187202.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Banaji, Jairus. 2010. Theory as history: Essays on modes of production and exploitation. Leiden: Brill.

  • Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted lives: Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge: Polity

  • Bernstein, Henry 2006. “Is there an agrarian question in the 21st century?Canadian Journal of Development Studies 27 (4): 449460.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Breman, Jan. 1996. Footloose labour: Working in India's informal economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Chauhan, Komal. 2022. “Why do Dalits migrate? A case study of neo-bondage in Western Uttar Pradesh.Contemporary Voice of Dalit 14 (1): 95102.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davis, Mike. 2006. City of quartz: Excavating the future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso Books.

  • Denning, Michael. 2010. “Wageless life.New Left Review 66: 7997.

  • Dobson, C.R. 1980. Masters and journeymen: A prehistory of industrial relations 1717–1800. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

  • Government of Delhi. 2009. Delhi economic survey 2008–09. DOE Affairs, Government of Delhi.

  • Hage, Ghassan. 2009. Introduction. In Waiting, ed. Ghassan Hage, 124. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

  • Harvey, David. 2017. Marx, capital, and the madness of economic reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Jeffrey, Craig. 2010. Timepass: Youth, class, and time among unemployed young men in India. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Lucassen, Jan. 2008. “Brickmakers in Western Europe (1700–1900) and Northern India (1800–2000): Some comparisons.In Global labour history. A state of the art, ed. Jan Lucassen, 513571. Bern: Peter Lang.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marx, Karl. 1973. The grundrisse. London: Penguin.

  • Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital: A critique of political economy, volume 1. New York: International Publishers.

  • Masquelier, Adeline. 2019. Fada: Boredom and belonging in Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Millar, Kathleen. 2015. “The tempo of wageless work: E.P. Thompson's time-sense at the edges of Rio de Janeiro.” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 73: 2840.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Millar, Kathleen. 2017. “Toward a critical politics of precarity.Sociology Compass 11 (6): e12483.

  • Millar, Kathleen. 2018. Reclaiming the discarded: Life and labor on Rio's garbage dump. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Mishra, Pratik. 2020. “Urbanisation through brick kilns: The interrelationship between appropriation of nature and labour regimes.Urbanisation 5 (1): 1736.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ralph, Michael. 2008. “Killing time.Social Text 26 (4): 129.

  • Roxy, Matthew Kell, Kapoor Ritika, Pascal Terray, Raghu Murtugudde, Karumuri Ashok, and B. N. Goswami. 2015. “Drying of Indian subcontinent by rapid Indian Ocean warming and a weakening land-sea thermal gradient.Nature Communications 6: 7423.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Saith, Ashwani. 2016. “A defiant sociologist and his craft: Jan Breman an appreciation and a conversation.Development and Change 47: 876901.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sargent, Adam. 2019. “Moral economies of remuneration: Wages, piece-rates, and contracts on a Delhi construction site.Anthropological Quarterly 92 (3): 757785.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schling, Hannah. 2017. “(Re)production: Everyday life in the workers’ dormitory.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, November 17, https://www.societyandspace.org/articles/re-production-everyday-life-in-the-workers-dormitory.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schmitz, Cheryl. 2020. “Doing time, making money at a Chinese state firm in Angola.Made in China Journal 5 (3): 5257.

  • Shah, Alpa, and Jens Lerche. 2020. “Migration and the invisible economies of care: Production, social reproduction, and seasonal migrant labour in India.Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 45 (4): 719734.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, Chris, and Ngai Pun. 2006. “The dormitory labour regime in China as a site for control and resistance.The international journal of human resource management 17 (8): 14561470.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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