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INDIA: Globalisation Works, Unequally

by Raji LakshmiInter Press News Service (IPS)
December 3rd, 2005

Driving past the architectural creations in chrome and glass that make up this city, it is easy to believe that globalisation has arrived at this corner in the state of Haryana where, barely a decade ago, farmers tilled and buffaloes grazed.

Today, thanks to a slew of questionable concessions offered by the local government to global investors, Gurgaon is on the addresses of some the world's best-known names in garments, automobiles, and information technology (IT).

Puneet Kumar is satisfied. This top manager at WIPRO Technologies--a leader in cellular phone design--moved to a posh residence in Gurgaon this year to be closer to his new place of work. ‘'We need to be living and working in an environment that is compatible with the best in the world now.''

A salary that bears no relation to India's per capita income of 800 dollars allows him to maintain a lifestyle that is comparable to any IT professional in the West.

But not everybody is as satisfied. The glittering facade of this city, built on the success of exports and trade, hides abused workers and dissent.

"What kind of a life do you think we live?" says Sunita, who works in a leading garment export unit, in response to queries from IPS on the situation of workers in Gurgaon.

Sunita works standing up for 12 hours, cutting thread continuously except for a 15-minute lunch break. Visits to the toilet elicit nasty glances from the supervisor, she says.

The work--from sewing on the buttons to cutting the thread or cloth--is mechanical and fragmented so that the worker's involvement in the final product is limited. The garments are meant for a European clientele.

Women with small babies face a tough time. They have to rush home--which is usually in a nearby cluster of huts hidden from view--, feed their babies, and rush back. "There is no other option but to work this way," says Mohsina, another worker.

Health and psychological problems are plentiful among the women, but no one seems to care.

The inspector that supervises labour conditions in the plant is treated like a guest by the management, says her colleague. "We hardly get to know when he comes and when he leaves."

Government coldness towards the plight of workers was apparent in July, when workers of a unit owned by the Japanese automobile giant Honda were brutally beaten up by local police for going on strike and demonstrating near the factory gates.

About 63 persons were jailed, and many suffered severe injuries. The police singled out the workers' leadership.

What saved the workers was intervention by India's communist parties, on which the centrally-ruling coalition--led by the Congress party--depends to stay in power. They secured the release on bail of the workers, but the state government is yet to withdraw cases pending against them on a wide variety of mostly trumped-up charges.

Worker's representatives feel that the local government has been openly siding with the management of export units. "As soon as there is any sign of a union being formed, the administration tries to clamp down on its activities. A phobia is being created that something untoward might happen if workers are allowed to unite," said Satbir Singh, Haryana state secretary of the Centre of India Trade Unions (CITU).

According to CITU president, M K Pandhe, workers employed in IT and IT-enabled units, such as call-centres and business process outsourcing (BPO) outfits, are more vulnerable to exploitation because existing labour laws do not apply to them. ‘'Typically the workers in these units work a gruelling 12-hour shift, and are shown the door if they talk about unions.''

The revenues from software and services in 2005 are expected to be around 17.9 billion dollars. Besides, India exports seven billion US dollars worth of garments annually.

Meanwhile, auto exports in the April-October 2005 period were up 33.4 percent from the same period of the previous year, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM).

At a draft national policy unveiled in June, the industry sector was envisaged as a ‘key driver' of economic growth.

However, little can be expected from the new legislation in terms of improving labour conditions: the draft, for example, includes a proposal to do away with visits by state inspectors altogether, and introduce instead a mechanism of self-certification by unit owners.

Behind the shine, ferment thrives in several parts of Gurgaon, and workers are increasingly regrouping and demanding the right of association.

Talking about the "Honda affair", D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) said: ‘'we want labour laws to be uniform and not be selectively applied to any particular industry--export-oriented or not.''





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