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’)