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’)

Connected through our Consumerism

It’s quite likely that something you’re wearing at the moment was made in Asia. Most of the world’s garments are produced in Asia but the garment workers here are paid very poorly. The working conditions they endure include long working hours and forced overtime, for very low wages, without receiving their social security entitlements. This is despite the fact that the garment industry is worth about US$147 billion per year.

As consumers we are inextricably linked to the workers at the other end of the supply chain. For every item of clothing we buy we have a connection with the person who made it. However for a t-shirt you buy in the shop that costs $22.50, the garment worker that made it receives just 64 cents, while $16.88 remains as profit for the company. It’s clear to see how companies can easily afford to pay workers decent wages and still make a profit, without this necessarily costing the consumer any extra.

There’s nothing inevitable about the exploitation of garment workers. The feeling of guilt that we sometimes have as consumers when we buy a cheap item of clothing and pass a thought for the conditions in which it was made doesn’t need to be so. Unfortunately we have become used to companies exploiting their workers and often feel that there is little we can do to rectify these problems. However it is entirely possible that the connection between consumers and garment workers could be transformed into a positive one. That every time you buy clothes in a shop you feel that your money is being used to promote decent livelihoods in poorer parts of the world, that the person who made your clothes is really receiving a fair share of the price you see on the label.

This connection between consumers and garment workers means that consumers have real power (and arguably a real responsibility) to stand together with the workers who make our clothes and demand better conditions for them. In many garment factories trade unions are not permitted, making it difficult for workers to organise and demand their rights. There is huge fear among workers about standing up for their rights as those who do stand up for themselves are often threatened in the workplace or are even fired.

We know that the main concern of companies is their bottom line. All their activities from cutting costs, to advertising campaigns are aiming towards maximising their profits. This is exactly why we need consumers to start creating a fuss about the conditions for those working in the garment industry. Companies may not listen to workers, but as consumers are the suppliers of their profits, they will listen to us. So the more of us the better!

The Vetan Chori Band Karo / Stop Wage Theft campaign is currently working at the grassroots level, empowering workers to stand up for their rights. Workers in Gurgaon are signing up to a memorandum demanding their rights. This will be presented to the Minster of Labour and Employment on 1st May 2012. Workers are asking him to use his power to enforce the minimum wage laws. We have also started a petition for consumers to sign in support of the workers’ struggle. Please take a couple of minutes to sign this petition now and use your power as a consumer to act for positive change.