Travels thru’ India – Sweatshops & Workers

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In the past 7 months, I have had the opportunity to visit several industrial parks in the two most industrialized and entrepreneurial states in India, namely Gujarat and Maharashtra. I would like to share some of my observations with you.

Most of the industrial parks house small manufacturing units that employ anywhere from 15 to a 100 people. All sorts of plastic and mechanical components are manufactured here which eventually are sold in domestic and international markets.

There are three types of employees, adult men, adult women and teenagers. The men tend to do the work that requires more brawn, like lifting heavy parts or working near furnaces and the women and young teenagers are mostly involved in finishing operations like cleaning and packaging.

The machines used to manufacture these components are often semi-automatic, much like an automobile line. Workers are needed to load and unload product at frequent intervals. The employees are semi-skilled and for their efforts they receive approximately Rs.100 to Rs. 150 a day for men and Rs. 80 to Rs.100 for women. That’s approximately $2 to $3 per day. There are 2 shifts, each lasting 12 hours with two ten minute breaks for tea and 30 minutes for lunch. There are four off-days a month.  Some of the workers are migrants from the more impoverished states of India and often sleep in the same factories where they work.

Most of the units are covered with a layer of black grime, a combination of dust, oil and some unknown substance. Chemicals are strewn all over the place and the air in these factories feels heavy with fumes from machines.

This is not a scene from a Dickens novel, but is in fact the real status of a majority of small scale manufacturing sector in India.

I asked some of the workers how they manage to work for such long hours in these conditions. Their response is often a shy smile, a nod of the head with their fingers pointing towards their stomach. Yes, we all have to eat, an unfortunate necessity for existence.  Many of the migrant workers are happy to have a job where they can earn enough to support their families that are left in their home states.  They save assiduously and send home anywhere from Rs. 1000 ($20) to Rs. 1500 ($30) per month, critical funds that are needed to provide food and other essentials for their families.

The factory owners claim that they need to control costs in order to compete with cheap imports from China and that they cannot afford to clean up their factories or offer higher wages.

Sure, the workers could organize and demand better wages and conditions, but most of them are temporary workers and often do not have the wherewithal to launch a coordinated effort. Labor laws and workplace safety laws exist, but enforcement is a huge challenge mainly due to corruption and a shortage of labor inspectors in a country that has millions of such units.

Intellectuals are of the view that this is a part of industrial development and that every country goes through the sweatshop stage. They argue that businesses need to grow and gain profits that will enable them to pay more and maintain cleaner factories. Furthermore, a job today is much more valuable than none. I have been told that I must not apply my “first world” concepts at this point in time of India’s development.

What should we (i.e the development community) do about all this? Should we stick to our mandate of selling valuable products and services to the BoP and just ignore this? Can we try to influence governments? Can we insist that the products our social enterprises produce have to be manufactured in clean factories where labor laws are followed?

What are your thoughts?

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5 Responses to “Travels thru’ India – Sweatshops & Workers”

  1. Premal Says:

    Hi Karthik,
    I like the quesitons you are asking. However I also feel that there are so many such unanswered questions that it’s nearly impossible to address all of them at the same time or through the same efforts.

    Here are some questions that I have which are along the same lines:
    a. Govt. in India bans child labor however has no policies or plans in place to take these children to a place where they can acquire essential survival skills or make them employable. Let alone the fact that the only source of income for the family is from what this child is earning. I am not advocating child labor but I’m asking a question – should banning child labor be the only thing that should be done?

    b. Govt. declares rural electrification for India – but the plan never sees light. Should companies like D.Light exist in this case or should there be some entity trying to hold the Govt. accountable?

    For me Acumen is trying to answer a few questions and hence focusing on providing critical goods and services to those who don’t have access to these goods or services.

    Yes more can be done for sure…

  2. kjanakiraman Says:

    Premal, thanks for your comment. I agree with you, the problem is massive in scale and overwhelming.

    Since the development community works on the ground and is exposed to issues first hand, we have to find a way to convert our observations into practical and effective policy ideas that can be implemented by governments, mainly because governments have the scale and leverage that social enterprises will never have.
    AND/OR
    Our insights have to be shared with the activist organizations and the press to ensure that existing programs and schemes are implemented effectively.

  3. angry indian Says:

    Dear Karthik,

    The developed world is partly, or greatly responsible for these sweatshops. If you guys want them to improve, the first world has to stop their un-ending greed for more things, things and things. More cars, more cool sneakers, more nonsensical items, and the better, easier life, which you guys love out there, but wont give up or adjust for anything. The scene in India today is much like england during the industrial revolution. While I agree that its sad and unjust, and i also agree that working conditions must improve, please, no ‘first world’ concepts or advice is needed, thank you.

    its amazing to see how developed countries are so quick to point fingers at the so called ‘third world’ (which developed nations have been only to happy to create, and want to keep it going so they can enjoy the good life), while they often don’t see the mess in their own backyard.

  4. Karthik Says:

    Dear Angry Indian,
    Thanks for your comment.
    Let me clarify. These factories are producing industrial goods that are locally consumed and are not producing t-shirts and sneakers. So, this is an issue where the blame cannot be pinned on richer nations.

    The issue here is beyond first world or second world. I think it’s about employee safety, employee welfare and dignity. Just because England followed a particular path to development, does it mean that India has to follow the same path? Why can’t we do better?

  5. J PAUL Says:

    Good Reading

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