‘How the Other Half Lives’ Photo Exhibition

Here at MEM we are very much looking forward to the upcoming photo exhibition, ‘How the Other Half Lives’, taking place in Ambience Mall, Gurgaon next week.

This exhibition will take consumers on a journey to the other, less visible, rarely talked about side of Gurgaon and give them an insight into the lives of the workers behind the products that they buy in the mall.

Although workers are the backbone of industry in India, they enjoy little of its successes. In their world, long working hours, poor pay, exploitation and substandard living conditions are the norm. It is a world where covering the most basic living costs is a constant struggle, where buying medicine for a sick family member means going into debt.

However workers and consumers are inextricably linked through the products that they make and buy. By  introducing consumers to the lives of workers who live within the same geographical area as them this exhibition will encourage consumers to think critically about this link and provide opportunities for consumers to get involved in the struggle to improve these conditions.

This exhibition wants to close the circle, bringing those on the edges inside. It wants to encourage consumers to meet the other side of Gurgaon, gain an understanding of the difficult conditions workers endure and in doing so take the first step of a long journey in solving some of these complex problems.

The opening of the exhibition will take place on Monday 28th May at 5pm in Ambience Mall, Gurgaon. It will also include a puppet show developed by ‘Creative Stars’, a theatre group of workers’ children, which tells the story of a worker in Gurgaon based on the children’s own experiences.

The exhibition will be open to the public daily from 11am – 8pm on Monday 28th May – Friday 1st June.

We hope to see you there.

For photos from the exhibition please see here.

May Day

As a celebration of the international labour movement, May Day is an important day for workers throughout the world, commemorating the hard earned workers’ rights after years of struggles. It is also a time to remember the  challenges facing the workers’ movement as we move ahead.

This May Day, Mazdoor Ekta Manch and Garment and Allied Workers Union (GAWU) celebrated the day in Gurgaon, Haryana.  Hundreds of workers, families, and children celebrated a day that usually goes unnoticed in the Gurgaon area. Many young workers and children who have never before celebrated May Day as a historic international working class day, joined in to raise their voices in pride, recognising the many victories of workers around the world.
The Workers’ Children’s Theatre Group,called  ‘Little Stars’, organised through Tarang (workers’ cultural programme), did a magnificent performance showing the story of  the migration of a worker from a rural to urban area in search of a livelihood.
 The main event of the day was a gripping cricket match between locally organised teams of workers, with enthralling commentary which was thoroughly enjoyed by all!
Dalit leadership was prominent among speakers and participants – taking pride in their heritage and urging all of us to transform the society we live in. GAWU (Garment and Allied Workers Union) Executive Committee members were interviewed by TV channels.  Workers sang revolutionary songs, written by a GAWU EC member.
Mazdoor Ekta Manch and GAWU joined our voices with yours and others around the world on May Day against the labour violations that take place here in Gurgaon, as well as other such exploitations and violations that take place around the world.

Public meeting on Wage Theft

Here at Mazdoor Ekta Mach, we organised a public event and seminar on 2nd March 2012 to accelerate the wage theft campaign. This event took place in Zila Parishad Hall (John Hall), near Rajiv Chowk, Gurgaon. A number of trade union leaders, labour lawyers, local people, workers and officials of government department participated in this event and shared their views about wage theft and poor conditions of workers.

The event began with a welcome address from Ms. Anannya Bhattacharjee, President of Garment and Allied Workers Union. She welcomed all the participants and guests and introduced about the objectives of campaign. She also encouraged workers as well as present guests from civil society to stand against any kind of exploitation of workers and wage theft. Moti Singh, Treasurer of Rajput Mahasabha, warmly welcomed the idea to stop wage theft and promised that he will always stand in support of workers’ rights and the hall of Rajput Mahasabha will always be open and welcome any event on workers’ rights issues.

Later the event was addressed by Comrade Yogesh, a worker of the automobile industry and a member of Inqualabi Mazdoor Kendra. He shared his views and encouraged workers to protest against any kind of wage theft. He emphasized the need to extend the campaign on wage theft to other areas of Haryana as well. Deepak, a worker from the automobile industry and member of Inqualabi Mazdoor Kendra, said that we should follow Marxist ideology to start any workers’ struggle. He showed a great concern for the issue of wage theft and support for the campaign.

The event was chaired by prominent social activist and leader Swami Agnivesh. He marked his deep concern with workers’ problems of wage theft and shared his long experience, highlighting positive examples of his case, battle and campaign against bonded labour. He addressed and encouraged workers to join this campaign for a successful outcome. He wished for a successful campaign ahead through the leadership of Mazdoor Ekta Manch.

An eminent labour lawyer and leader of CPI (M), Rajendra Pathak, shared that when people stand up for workers’ rights then they may be trapped by industrialists. When he raised his voice against exploitation of workers he was framed through being falsely charged for criminal cases. He has been framed in eight criminal cases including a murder case. We should be careful to lead movements but never hold back from it. We will start campaigns in a more organised way. This campaign could be a more powerful weapon to organise workers and convince them to struggle. Anil, a famous labour leader of Gurgaon and head of local unit of All India Trade Union Congress, congratulated Mazdoor Ekta Manch for the campaign on a basic and common problem of workers and promised to support the campaign.

Dr. Rakesh Chamar, a doctor from the ESI department said that we always motivate campaigns for the well-being of workers. We will make workers in ESI department aware about the campaign.

A very good and sensitive play was performed by the children of Tarang Kala Kendra which was based on wage theft. The play was directed by Ms. Nayika Nagpal. It received huge applause and praise. Labour leaders and lawyers have their blessings to this issue based play and entertainment. They also gave a prize to the children. Media persons also came to cover the event and reported about it.

We were very encouraged by the success of this event and hope to hold further awareness raising events in the future.

The final hurdle…of the first race!

We’re now in the last week of this stage of the campaign and it’s a busy one! At the start we aimed to talk to 2000 workers that are being affected by wage theft and get them to sign the workers’ memorandum and inform 2000 members of the public about the problem of wage theft and ask them to sign our online petition. Our aim is to have reached these targets by May Day to present both petitions to the Minister for Labour and Employment.

So far the campaign has been going very well. Over 1500 workers have signed the memorandum and over 1700 members of the public have signed the petition. We have a lot of work to do in the next week but we’re confident we’ll reach our targets.

Here’s some of what supporters of the campaign have been saying:

‘The manufacturers/owners should be ashamed of themselves by putting profit before people & stealing from the poorest (of the poor).’

‘This is total exploitation of an already badly paid work force. Is this how India is becoming one of the worlds wealthiest economies, by treating it’s poor as slave labour ?’

‘Protection of the rights of low paid workers is fundamental to any decent society.’

‘To support grassroots initiatives for global justice and to show support for workers in countries from which we buy goods. Also to promote awareness of where our products come from and the impact of lifestyle choices in the global North on less developed countries.’

We know that achieving workers’ rights in practice is a huge struggle and this one campaign alone cannot fix all the problems in the garment industry. We see this campaign as a starting point from which to build support to continue the struggle in various ways in the future. We are at the final hurdle of our first race but we have many more races to run, so while it’s an end of one phase, we hope it’s also the beginning of a strong movement to support workers in achieving their rights.

Please take a couple of minutes to sign the petition and share it with any of your friends who you think would also like to support the campaign.

Gurgaon: One City, Two Worlds

When stepping off the metro at MG Road one sees new shopping malls, fancy apartment buildings, high rise office blocks and all around is the much portrayed vision of ‘shining’ Gurgaon, where an emerging middle class enjoys the benefits of India’s high economic growth. However this is just one part of the picture. The less visible background of the picture is bleak. Just minutes from ‘shining’ Gurgaon lies masses of poverty and decrepit housing, inhabited by a community of workers who are exploited in the bid to achieve these impressive growth rates.

Gurgaon has experienced rapid growth over the last number of years, transforming it from a relatively poor, agricultural area to one of the world’s largest urbanised industrial zones. However as with other areas in India the gains of this growth have not been shared evenly among all those contributing to it. Much of the manufacturing takes place in export processing zones, which are large industrial areas created to attract foreign investment through tax incentives and exemptions on legal regulations, including labour laws. This increasingly unregulated export-led growth has provided huge wealth to investors and industrialists as well as millions in profits for many well known western retailers. Yet the workers, upon whose cheap labour this model is based, enjoy little of its success.

This can easily be illustrated by looking at the cost of living for workers. The most basic cost of living is estimated to be between 2750 – 3850 Rupees for one worker and 5800 – 8500 Rupees for a family per month, while workers earn 5000 Rupees per month. These figures include rent, food, electricity/gas, transport and clothing but do not include medicine, education, family expenses or savings. It is clear that workers’ wages are not sufficient to cover their basic needs.

However poverty wages are not the only problem for garment workers. They also experience problems with temporary contracts, systematic exclusion from social security benefits, repression of trade union organising and problems in accessing state provision of basic services. Workers are denied the most basic of social and economic entitlements meaning that making ends meet is a daily difficulty for many workers in Gurgaon.

Workers are not necessarily producing for the cheapest brands either. Many companies they work for supply to higher costing brands, some of which can be found in shopping malls in Gurgaon. These shops all sell clothing at a price which should allow for a living wage and decent working conditions and yet workers continue to be exploited in the pursuit of profits.

What happens between these two worlds in Gurgaon could make a huge difference to the lives and futures of the garment workers there. Consumers must be aware of this other exploited world so close to their own, but have they realised that the lifestyle they enjoy is based on a system of exploiting cheap labour from this other world so nearby? Do they realise that every ‘bargain’  they buy is made possible because a worker a few miles away has not been paid the correct wage? When this realisation comes to consumers what will happen next?

Will consumers decide that it is wrong that workers are treated so poorly and paid such low wages, while the companies they produce for make millions in profits every year? Will they stand up to support workers and and challenge this unequal system? Will they decide that they don’t want to be complicit in this exploitation and call for changes to ensure the gains of the system are shared more equally among all those contributing to it?

Or will they just continue shopping?

(for a more detailed report on living conditions in Gurgaon see ‘Taking Liberties’)

Nadia’s Story

Nadia and her husband both work in the garment industry. Together they earn 10,000 Rupees (less than €150) per month. They have 4 children. Nadia wants her children to study but is finding it difficult to educate them due to their low wages.

Nadia suffers from the same problems as her male colleagues. She feels that the biggest problem is the deductions taken from their wages for a Provident Fund, which provides a pension for workers. They are given no proof of this payment, meaning they cannot benefit from their entitlements. She believes the Profident Fund needs to be used properly and that this would make a difference to them. Other problems experienced in their company include forced overtime paid at the single instead of double rate.

On top of these problems she is also paid less than her male counterparts simply because she is a woman. On average Nadia earns 20-30 Rupees less than the male workers in her company. This is a significant amount considering she earns 200 Rupees (less than €3) per day.

When she has enough money Nadia would like to move back to her home in Uttar Pradesh and start her own business, but she can’t save money because of her low wages.

Amir’s Story

Amir moved to Gurgaon 10 years ago. He has been working as a tailor in his current company for the last 4 years. He works 50-60 hours of compulsory overtime each month. If he refuses he’ll be fired. He is paid at the single rate for overtime work. He knows he should be paid at the double rate but is afraid that if he starts raising questions about his legal rights he will be fired.

He is not happy with his living conditions. He lives in a small room with his wife and two children. His landlord has a ration shop and he is forced to buy his food from this shop which is more expensive than the normal market. The shared toilets are dirty and the water is not clean. He earns about 5000 Rupees per month. His rent is 2000 Rupees. The remaining 3000 Rupees are spent on food, his children’s education and clothing for his family.

Deductions are taken from his wages for Employee State Insurance (ESI) and the workers’ Provident Fund (social insurance, benefits and pension). He doesn’t know where these deductions go but he doesn’t benefit from them. If someone in his family gets sick they can’t go to the ESI hospitals as he doesn’t receive a payslip or any written proof of the deductions he has paid. So Amir is forced to borrow money to pay for medical care and gets into debt as his wages are not enough to cover these expenses.

Amir doesn’t have any future plans as he feels that things are out of his hands. He can’t go back to his home town as there is no work there, but he also can’t survive on what he earns in Gurgaon.