Exploring the work & lives of crematorium workers.

AuthorSelvaraj, Patturaja


Our engagement with a crematorium in a major city in Western India as a workplace is to provide an illustration of how the employment relationship is increasingly becoming dehumanised. Yet workers do not passively consume the adverse changes made to the employment relationship. In spite of their powerlessness, they resent the changes and resist it. Through our engagement with the workers, we wish to show, what expressions these resentments and resistances take. By doing so, we hope to add to the debate around the nature and character of the resistance of workers.

What has led to the de-humanization of workplaces is the ideology of unbridled managerialism--one that Harney (2009) calls as 'extreme neo-liberalism'. This ideology advances the argument that protective labor laws are bad for economic growth, and therefore they need to be dismantled (Besley & Burgess, 2004). Doing so will lead to more economic growth and more employment. Taking this argument forward, Nayyar (2009 September 24) writes: "... it's impossible to hire labor on a 'permanent' basis, as is required by our labor laws which frown upon 'hire and fire'. It may seem cruel to equate human labor with physical goods but the economic construct is the same--trade is good and free trade is optimal". And how exactly the 'optimal good' of free trade can be introduced into the employment relationship is illustrated by Brockner, Grover, Reed & Dewitt (1992). They argue that if job insecurity is increased from low levels to moderate levels, then the work effort of workers improves. This argument is in line with the expectation of Greenhalgh & Rosenblatt (1984: 443) that productivity would increase with increasing job insecurity. Then how can empirical results be explained where productivity does not improve with increasing job insecurity? Jordan, Ashkanasy & Hartel (2002) hypothesize an answer--the aberration of productivity not improving with job insecurity can be explained by the fact that if employees lack emotional intelligence, then they do not respond to job insecurity by improving their work effort.

It is this managerial commonsense of manufacturing optimality by producing insecurity that is at the heart of contracting out services. Jobs with security, reasonable pay, benefits such as housing, health and pensions disappear, and instead, temporary, insecure employees are made to perform with extremely adverse employment relationships. Our study attempts to understand how workers respond to such managerial common sense, where they are made to perform in an atmosphere of insecurity, low pay, precariousness and diminishing avenues of resistance such as the presence of a strong trade union movement. The retreat of the state in an overall culture of privatization and deregulation leads to deteriorating employment conditions and diminished avenues for formally accessing justice.

When the grand and mega level discourse of free trade and optimal good intersects micro and meso discourses (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000) of everyday precariousness, then workers still try to create safe spaces where discourses of resistance can be articulated. The way these safe spaces are forged can provide us with interesting insights into the strategies of subaltern resistance. So long as the human being refuses to be domesticated by the grand discourses of optimality, avenues of challenge and contest remain open, and from the grass roots, new ways of organizing society may emerge. When the grass roots with their carefully crafted safe spaces overlap, new ways of organizing resistance against injustice may flourish. Through this study, we seek to understand what is happening in the grass roots in response to numerous subjugating discourses that are acquiring dominant positions.


The workers with whom we engaged were working in a crematorium, where many services were being contracted out. Till a decade ago, the crematorium was fully managed by the XYZ Municipal Corporation (XMC) in a major city in Western India, and all the workers were on the pay roll of XMC. All the workers had employment security, reasonable wages revised regularly through collective bargaining, healthcare and housing was provided by the employer and other benefits such as pensions were also available to them. Since skills pertaining to working in the crematorium were conserved within caste based groups, the employees belonged to families who had been associated with the crematorium for many generations. So there was a good possibility of the children of crematorium workers taking over the jobs of their parents. But with the contracting out of services in the crematorium, employment security, pay and other employment benefits diminished. Also, with the modernization of the crematorium, a new set of skills such as operating electric and gas pyres coming into play, it was no longer possible to assume that the children of crematorium workers would find good jobs in the future in the crematorium as XMC employees. For the moment, some employees continued to be on the rolls of XMC, and given their intimate association with the crematorium for many years (and generations), their employment contracts were not altered. They were assured of their jobs and benefits until they retired. Yet the old sense of autonomous functioning was no longer present for them, and they had to consult the various contractors for various day to day matters. The contractors also listened to these employees on matters such as recruiting contract workers, as given their intimate knowledge, managing the crematorium was then easier. We engaged with them in unstructured conversational interviews and assured them of confidentiality. We turn their names in this article anonymous and provide some of their narratives below.

Ajay, Municipal Corporation Employee

I have been working in the crematorium for more than ten years. We work in the afternoon shift from 2 pm to 10 pm. I stay a little far away from the crematorium. I have my dinner only...

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