Ambiguities and Paradoxes of the Decent Work Deficit: Bonded Migrants in Tamil Nadu


  • Isabelle Guérin IRD – Université Paris 1 Sorbonne
  • Sébastien Michiels Université Montesquieu - Bordeaux IV
  • Subramanian Ponnarasu French Institute of Pondicherry
  • Govindan Venkatasubramanian French Institute of Pondicherry



brick kiln, capitalism, debt bondage, eco-type systems, labour standards, modernity,


This paper examines the brick kiln industry in Tamil Nadu as a case study to highlight the discrepancy between normative categories of decent work and workers’ experiences and subjectivities. It highlights the extreme vulnerability of circular migrants while stressing the diversity of circulation channels and how these are both shaped by and constitutive of distinct eco-type systems and village economies. The paper also shows how employers and labour recruiters exploit many different forms of agricultural decline, and how they influence and take advantage of workers’ constraints, expectations and aspirations. It is argued that debt bondage in the brick industry is supported by the decline in agricultural labour and lack of social protection but also partly by the growing consumption needs of labourers. Paradoxically, increasing aspirations for equality and integration are helping to reproduce the conditions for capitalist exploitation and extraction of surplus value.