SOAS University of London

Department of Development Studies

Worker-Contractors: Refiguring low-level labour market intermediaries in contemporary India

Geert De Neve (Sussex), Richard Axelby (SOAS, University of London), Brendan

Date: 7 July 2017Time: 11:00 AM

Finishes: 7 July 2017Time: 5:30 PM

Venue: Faber Building, 23/24 Russell Square Room: FG01

Type of Event: Seminar

The professional labour contractor is a key mediator in India’s informal economy (Breman et al 2009). The concept of the labour contractor is generally associated with what the International Labour Organisation terms a ‘triangular employment relationship’ in which the legal employer is separated from the person for whom work is carried out (Barrientos 2013). This definition covers a range of possibilities: beyond the initial act of recruitment, a contractor’s responsibilities may extend to providing advances, arranging travel, paying costs of transport, food and shelter,  negotiating wages and directly paying their workers for the work they do for someone else. The contractor’s role may end with the delivery of labourers to an employer or they may take on a supervisory role while working alongside the workers they recruit. This diversity of activities is reflected in the range of names by which they are known in India: third-party recruitment agent, labour intermediary, gang-leader, jobber, mukkadam, kangani, sardar, arkati, maistri.

Located between employers and workers, mediating the divergent needs of both while attempting to extract rents from one or the other, the contractor’s position is often precarious and ambivalent. Emblematic of the porosity of boundaries between class positions, many contractors at the tail end of value chains that extend into volatile global markets start out as workers and “keep ‘falling back’ into the position of wage labourer” (De Neve 2014: 1303-4). Despite a growing recognition of the significance of labour contractors in India and beyond, there remains a paucity of studies revealing the social identities and personal trajectories of these kinds of contractors and the intimate processes of exploitation to which they contribute (Picherit 2009: 262-264; Mosse 2007: 43-44). Extending debates on this topic would make a valuable contribution to understandings of India’s economy and global value chains beyond the subcontinent. Moreover, such work also has the potential to contribute to debates around the kind of “figurations of labour…needed to tell effective stories about contemporary capitalism” (Tsing 2009: 154), providing material for a rethinking of the role of diversity in the global economy and a reappraisal of theoretical narratives based on abstract, generic figures of capitalist and wage labourer.

A one-day symposium to be held at SOAS on 7 th July 2017 will examine the role of low-level labour contractors in contemporary India. Contributions will focus on the formation and working practices of contractors to consider the following topics and questions:

  • What kinds of insights does a focus on the widespread use of labour contractors yield in relation to the (changing) nature of subcontracting and outsourcing in contemporary South Asia?
  • What new forms of labour recruitment and mediation have emerged in the context of Indian economic liberalisation?
  • What do low-level labour contractors contribute to global supply chains?
  • In what ways do labour contractors allow companies to avoid legal obligations to workers?
  • What role is played by kinship and other social relations in the recruitment of labour?
  • How does the position of contract labour differ from that of permanent workers?
  • What is the role of labour contractors in linking informal and formal production processes?

For additional information on this symposium please contact Richard Axelby ( and Brendan Donegan (

Contact email: