“When we three friends met on the last occasion, a very disturbing realization hit us,” I said to Lulu, my parrot.
When they get curious, parrots will move from one branch to another making chirpy sound before perching on your window. Lulu spoke to me from his high seat on my window, “What was that? Tell me.”
If you have played tennis and talked to the chair umpire, who is placed four feet higher above players’ head; you will appreciate this – the position matters. It is imposing. John McEnroe’s tantrums may have hurt the umpire, but the umpire’s word stands. He is the boss! His judgment is final. I wonder if parrots know this instinctively, but they never come to a man’s level.
“We three realized that we have never travelled by Mumbai’s local trains in the last fifteen years! Oh, how times have changed, will you believe that we travelled by local trains for full twenty five years before buying car?” I explained. “We realized that we have moved far away from the realities of everyday life of that section of the society of which we were once a part. I mean… it is as if that section of society is now a part of museum for you.”
“Such feelings impact your thinking. I was to hold a training program. It began on a different note as I opened up the subject.”
“Oh! What did you do?”
“I decided to check the realities. No, that is not the correct statement. I decided to sensitize them to the realities they may have ignored. So I appealed to them to think as if they are contract labourers and answer my questions.”
“What followed shocked me. I asked them why did they ‘become’ contract labour. ‘We are not educated, we do not have skills.’ One person said ‘Even if you have skills, nobody wants to offer a permanent job – so you have no choice.’”
“So they got in the shoes of contract labour….”
“Most of them have only helmet, no shoes! Ha ha!! And most of the injuries are on feet not so much on head. But let us continue with our story. ‘What do you think of the permanent workers union?’ was my next question to these managers. ‘Self-centered! They only think for themselves. They get fat pay rise, they are happy as long as we are paid minimum wages.’ ‘Many of them do not work – they get their work done by us. We have no choice, if they complain we will lose our job. We do their work – but they take their fat pay.’”
“I never thought they knew all this….” Lulu said as he nibbled at the chilly.
“Now the next question – ‘What do you think of the Company’s management?’ And there was uncomfortable silence. Then one said ‘We do not exist for them. They simply want to know how many are at work. Many managers use us for getting their personal work done, if you are in office. Managers come and go, we stay there!’”
“So they are ‘persona non grata’ as the HR-walas put it” Lulu said. “They refuse to recognize the person as a member of their team.”
“Yes, you said it. I continued asking them ‘how are you treated at the entrance gate.’ ‘Oh, the permanent workers go in first. We have to wait. We are thoroughly checked at the gate. Sometimes women feel embarrassed.’ ‘Some factories have a different gate for us. Otherwise we have to stand in a corner till the watchman calls us out.”
“There are no gates in the sky…. You should have asked them about the canteen.” Lulu observed.
“Yes. I asked them about it. They said ‘Very often they provide a separate canteen for contract workers.’ ‘The facilities there are basic minimum, if at all they can be called facilities.’ ‘This is actually very wrong because they do more hard work than the company workers.’ ‘More glaring discrimination is on shop floor. At many factories the permanent workers and the contract workers do the same job – in some cases a contract worker relieves the first shift worker in the second shift – there is obvious huge difference in pay. This is what hurts most…’”
“They put their finger on the real problem.”
“True. I asked their reactions to this invidious practice.”
“But don’t they see what is happening right where they work? How can they not do anything about it?” Lulu’s tone was sharper.
“There was silence. Very uncomfortable silence. Nobody wanted to bell the cat. But I think a point was made. I changed the line of questioning. I asked ‘Imagine a poor family of four – husband, wife and two children. They require a two room dwelling place, modest it may be. The children go to municipal school; they require adequate clothing and footwear, money to buy books, some recreational activity. So does the wife. They require two good meals a day as the man is employed in a manual work which strains him. What should be his monthly income to provide all this?’”
“And what did they say?”
“Somebody said ‘Ten thousand’ ‘Twelve thousand’ ‘Actually nothing less than twenty thousand.’ So I asked ‘how much you pay them?’ ‘Minimum wages – about six and a half thousand!’ One manager said ‘I had never really thought about this; the only question I asked myself was whether the company was paying them minimum wages and complying with the law.’ ‘And if we pay only minimum wages, his real wages do not rise at all over years!’”
“Unions in India are asking for ten thousand as the minimum wage. Not without justification.”
“Then I asked them the last question… I said I would give them a ‘half’ sentence and they have to complete it. So I said ‘being contract worker is like…’ They almost unanimously said ‘being a slave.’”
“So we have a lot of onlookers, not managers. They are aware of the facts but they do not do anything to change it. Union reps are also in the same boat. Interesting, indeed. Only human beings have this unique ability to shut their eyes to the reality.” Lulu said as he flew away.
PS: This is a true story but told in this format.