I had not heard of Shahi Exports, and chances are that you may not have heard of it too. It is in the news for all wrong reasons. Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) has recently published their well-researched report titled ‘Worker Rights Consortium Assessment – Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd. [Bangalore, India] Findings and Recommendations’. It is shocking to say the least. WRC found that Shahi Exports is engaged in a campaign of ‘vicious repression and retaliation against workers’ exercise of fundamental labour rights – which included physical beatings; death threats; gender, caste, and religion-based abuse; threats of mass termination; and the expulsion from the factory of 15 worker activists.’
It is a case of violence perpetrated by Management of an organisation. Yes, you got it right; violence perpetrated by Management. The report notes incidents with shocking details and with names of managers, supervisors and workers involved. Those who have closely observed the labour scenario will not be surprised at ‘management by violence’, but one rarely finds a well-documented report on such a subject.
The website of Shahi Exports tells us ‘Shahi – started in 1974 at Delhi, Bangalore operations began on 1st July 1988 with 250 associates and 104 machines. Expansion by 60 times by last 30 years.’ And they also make a statement about people, like almost all websites do – it is important because their claim and facts are diametrically opposite! Here is what they say: ‘Our People make the difference: We believe in corporate leadership, the success is responsibility with freedom to work is transferred to every individual with a collective teamwork.’
Summary of Violence and Violations
The violence began with formation of a union by workers. What followed is a long tale of violence. I am reproducing below the summary of findings of violations in the report to keep it short:
The WRC’s investigation determined that Shahi engaged in the following violations of workers’ fundamental labor and human rights at the Unit 8 factory:
• On March 27 and 28, 2018 – Surveillance, interrogation and attempted bribery of, and threats against, a worker who is a union supporter;
• On March 29 to April 2 – Threats of mass termination of workers and incitement of other employees against workers who are union supporters;
• On April 3 – Surveillance and sexually-based verbal abuse of, and attempt to suborn false testimony from, an employee who is a union supporter;
• April 4 – Death threats, threat of false imprisonment, incitement of violence, physical assaults and batteries (which also resulted in theft of workers’ personal property), and verbal abuse against 10 different workers, with discriminatory reference to workers’ sex, caste, and religion, all of which were committed and/or directed by Shahi managers and supervisors; and
• From April 5 to the present – additional threats of violence and discharge against any factory employee who engages in associational activity, suspension of 15 employees, including the 10 workers who were the victims of the assaults and other abuse on April 4.
As discussed in this report, all of this conduct violated workers’ rights under university and brand codes of conduct, Indian law, and international labor standards.
They Managed The Press
The Press picked up the story, but Shahi Exports was quick to influence them.
Read this excerpt from the report:
Shahi also attempted to suppress media coverage reporting its management’s responsibility for the violence at the factory. The locally-based English language newspaper, Deccan Herald, on April 5, published an article on the violent attack led by company managers on employees, whose contents were generally consistent with the findings of the WRC’s subsequent report. According to the journalist who wrote the article, his reporting was based on contemporaneous interviews with factory workers, and a visit to the hospital where the injured workers were being treated.
On April 7 , however, the Deccan Herald removed the April 5 article from its website, and published a second article, in which Shahi’s management was cited presenting the company’s claim that the violence was the result of inter-employee conflict which occurred outside the factory. From interviews with Deccan Herald staff, the WRC learned that this substitution was made by the newspaper as a result of pressure from Shahi – applied both directly and through requests from members of the newspaper’s board. The Deccan Herald journalists told the WRC, however, that, despite Shahi management’s pressure, they stood by their original reporting of the incident as an attack on workers directed by the company management.
Who Are The Owners And What Is Their Standing?
Shahi Exports is a supplier to big names like Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Esprit, Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Shahi Exports earns more than USD 850 Million in annual revenue and employs 3000 workers.
Their Managing Director is Harish Ahuja. He made a news when he bought a bungalow in Delhi for Rs 173 Crores. In another event the family came in limelight because the owner’s son Anand Ahuja married the well known actor Sonam Kapoor. Anand Ahuja is a Director on the Board of Shahi Exports. He graduated in economics and international relations from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2010, he went to Wharton to pursue MBA, but didn’t complete it.
There Are Several Issues Here:
There is institutional violence here. Several issues come to mind while reading this report.
The modern industry demands order and conformity. Every organisation has dozens of ‘SOP’s or Standard Operating Procedures. Organisations prescribe how an activity is to be performed [and there is no other way acceptable] in great detail. This is evident in the auto industry. Now it is seen in almost all industries.
While order is prescribed in great detail for work, the area left untouched is the people processes or the ‘civilised processes.’ Communication exercises in the industry continue to be top-down exercises and not the other way.
Failure to institute these processes has roots, in my opinion, in deeply feudal ways of the entrepreneurs. Once the feudal culture develops in an organisation, which promotes conformity if not total subservience to the ‘owners’, even managers tend to act flashing their power and bullying when they can. In Shahi Exports several instances of violence have been cited in which their managers or supervisors are involved.
But in final analysis who runs the show? The violence mentioned in the report is so shocking – it is based on sex, caste and religion. [**“This woman is not fit to be a worker. Her caste is meant to burn dead people and that is what she should be doing. Beat her and throw her out.” – Statements by Shahi supervisor and production manager regarding workers assaulted on April 4, 2018 // **“We made a mistake in giving a Muslim an appointment in this factory. You have given birth to a son who wants to shut the factory and render all the workers jobless.” – Shahi Human Resources Manager to a female employee whose son was one of the employees beaten at the factory on April 4, 2018.]
If managements lay down do’s and don’ts clearly to all employees such violence would not take place. In other words the management of Shahi Exports cannot wash its hands off the incident – they are clearly culpable.
On another note, if owners believe [well-founded surely] that they can ‘manage’ the Government machinery, they get emboldened to use power and violence. Government’s will to bring the guilty to the book, no matter what his standing, can alone be the deterrent.
Organisations must define values to live by, and Government must clamp down on violence, enforce law and order. One tells you what to do and the other tells you what not to do! Unless both exist, violence at workplace cannot be controlled.
Vivek S Patwardhan