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Marginalised labour and UBI in India

India’s 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers and garbage collectors lead lives of extreme poverty, indignity, marginalisation and invisibilisation. Caste, material deprivation, and inadequate hygiene burden them with multiple layers of stigma, and their livelihood regularly features on lists of indecent and exploitative work. It’s also dangerous. As informal labourers working in hazardous environments without protective gear, they are at high risk of not only sudden injury but also long-term musculoskeletal and respiratory disease.

Yet they are, by any definition, essential workers. Formal collection in India is often haphazard, unsegregated, and incomplete, so it is only due to informal waste pickers and garbage collectors that significant amounts of waste get properly sorted and recycled.

‘Waste pickers’ remove rubbish from public spaces or community bins, while ‘garbage collectors’ spirit refuse away from households, shops and restaurants. Some work under contract for the municipality and receive a small wage from the state. For home pickup, collectors charge (and struggle to get) as little as INR 50 ($0.67) per month from each household. And all make money by selling waste up the chain to recycling companies. The communities cooperating with the WorkFREE project have people engaged in both types of work, along with domestic work, manual labour and other menial jobs, and the average household income for a family of four is around INR 10,000/- (approximately $135).

Since this activity requires no formal education and little in the way of financial resources, it attracts the poorest and most vulnerable. Waste pickers in Hyderabad highlight how most have chosen this work because they lacked meaningful alternatives. The combination of poverty (structurally understood), lack of skills and education, and caste identity force them into and hold them within such work relationships. Thus even as the work is essential from the perspective of the city, it is frequently carried out under the ‘compulsion’ of not having meaningful alternatives. In this context, waste pickers and garbage collectors are emblematic of the types of ‘unfree’ labour that UBI advocates argue would gain the ‘power to say no’, and thereby achieve greater agency and dignity in their labour choices, if they were guaranteed a regular income sufficient to meet their basic needs.

Ethical commitments mean that we will not go into detail about the communities connected to the WorkFREE project. Luckily doing so is not the only way to provide a rich picture of the context in which our research takes place. Below we have curated a selection of articles from the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery archive on informal and exploited labour in India, as well as on UBI in India. Working through them will, we hope, not only illuminate the situation but convince readers to seriously consider the merits of introducing a countrywide UBI in India.

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