On Work as Family

It’s 9.30am on a Friday morning and the rush-hour traffic is moving relentlessly in all directions. From afar, a smiling face enclosed inside a green motorcycle helmet drew closer as it stopped outside the local hospital in south Bengaluru. In response to my request for a conversation, Surya* a now-retired engineer and ex-employee had suggested I also meet with his ex-colleagues. They have worked as geologists, engineers, and technical experts, at the public sector iron-ore company established in Kudremukh in 1976. While they’ve currently retired from active work life, some have spent close to three decades working for the company. Surya and I are soon on our way to the company colony that was built to house the employees, which today houses even non-company affiliated residents.

During our conversations, Surya reveals his son works as an engineer at a multinational firm. While the job is well-paying, Surya opines that it lacks the “connection” that he and his colleagues associated with their public sector employer, which was “just like family”. This phrase comes up again when I meet Surya’s ex-colleagues who, like many others in the 1960s and 1970s, contributed first-hand in shaping postcolonial India’s nascent mines and minerals industry in Karnataka, and elsewhere. As the anthropologist Jonathon Parry (2003) has pointed out, under the first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision, heavy manufacturing projects were integral in propelling the newly-Independent India towards “modernity” by strengthening its domestic industries. These industrial projects were also envisioned as spaces that would build “national integration”, as they would employ workers from different geographical corners and linguistic backgrounds to work together towards the nation’s progress.

How does a company become “like a family”?

On one hand, both the family and company units are similar in that they tend to be hierarchical. For instance, in the former, individuals have precise (e.g. breadwinner) and diffuse roles (e.g. care-taker), while roles are necessarily precise and organized in the latter. Yet, in a company, people are necessarily paid for their labor-time through salaries, promotions, incentives, and so on — while individuals are rarely, if ever, paid a salary for the labor of belonging to the family unit. For instance, work by women in sustaining family life through cooking for the house-hold, child-rearing, or decision-taking is not typically compensated. Yet, in characterizing the company as family, Surya and his friends emphasize the affective bonds among themselves as if they were kin.

Recounting their work-life, the ex-colleagues cast themselves almost as a pioneer collective: whether it was huddling under tents during the heavy coastal downpours; or the struggles involved in early iron-ore extraction feasibility tests; working multiple shifts; or even taking on work outside of their official job descriptions in order to “get the job done”. It seems to me that their experiences of daily work performed in Kudremukh’s remote, hilly and challenging landscape, may be one reason why this “like family” solidarity is emphasized. Work and livelihood then, becomes much more than the act of labor that one is paid to do, it is also how employees and workers make claims to identity and belonging.

*Names are anonymized to protect the privacy of my informants.

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About Pooja Nayak

I am a doctoral candidate in the departments of South Asia Studies and Anthropology at UPenn. This summer, I will be conducting my dissertation fieldwork in south India. My work aims to understand the ways in which life and landscape are altered when an industrial mining complex is overwritten as a national park.