Thursday, January 05, 2006

Status quo and labour surpluses

While I was commenting on a Michael Higgins post, I realised that this was a topic that I had to write about. I had blogged a similar example that occurrs in Bangalore.

We paint lanes with our hands, sweep roads with brooms and clean windows with buckets and wet cloth. Why? We pull rickshaws and handcarts, we use 3 people where we can use 1. Why? It is a wonder we still use buses with engines and trains that run on diesel and electricity. It is also a wonder we use tractors when men could done the job.

Surplus labour is part of the answer, which makes it cheaper to hire people than machines. Back in the 70s (80s, more likely), there were strikes against "computerization". I am still not sure how our railways got the computerized ticketing implemented, but thats for some other day. Bombay municipality had dozens of demonstrations and strikes over the introduction of "mechanical sweepers" and if I am not mistaken, they were consigned to the scrap heap. I am surprised that bank unions did not oppose ATMs or online banking sites. Ditto for shops and how they did not oppose online shopping sites.

Today, however, jobs have multiplied and every bank (almost) is on its own network and ATM network and so on. The work that would take 10 persons to do can be done far better by one ATM. Similarly, our roads would be a thousand times cleaner with a few mechanial sweepers. Road construction could be faster as could drawing lanes or laying rails.

Trouble is, we tend to view men as men or one man as one man, not as one man who can do so much by himself or as one man who can do so much if he had a machine. Starting from sweepers to the army, we have still not grasped the importance of multipliers. The army however, thanks to it not being unionised and (largely) depoliticised has realised the importance of force multipliers. But we still continue to waste labour. Unions take pride in controlling ever larger numbers of people and do not want that to diminish in any way. And then again our politicians love status quo (preferably the status quo which has them in power) and will not tamper with anything that smells as tampering with their vote banks.

Our labour policy disallows hire and fire with the result that many industries never hire too many people in the first place, thus letting them fill the ranks of the unemployed. All this plus a high cost on importing labour substituting machinery has ensured that we use primitive human intensive methods for many of our tasks which are out of fashion since the time the pyramids were built.

Imagine what we could do if every one of our sweepers had a mechanical broom or we used machines better for constructing our roads? But we wont, because our politicians and corporators or municipal unions wont let us. Machines dont vote, therefore they will veto any thing that reduces or threatens to reduce the number of people under their sphere of influence. With some technical training our labour force will become a force to reckon with unlike the manual labourers they are now. Point is who will do it? Companies dont have the incentive to do it since they cant hire and fire at will. Institutes cannot open and do it since most of these guys cannot pay for it themselves. Companies and institutes will not tie up for obvious reasons.

If we could make machines with this labour and bring down the cost of such labour saving equipment we could get out of this underdeveloped third world morass of infrastructure that we are struggling with.


Sanity Starved said...

Very well written and thought out. I like your views on this blog. Will visit again.

AkaRound Peg said...

Not only do we have brooms with which we sweep roads, we have brooms that force the sweeper to bend over double to do the job.

At the IISc I pointed out to one professors, they could at least give the sweepers brooms with long handles that makes for sweeping in an upright position.He just laughed it off.

What you say is true, at the end of the day quality of work is sacrificed.