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On site in India: Larissa, FEMNET member, works at Munnade and CIVIDEP in summer 2014

FEMNET member Larissa has been on site in India for a four-month internship at our partner organization Munnade since the end of May 2014.

She talks about her work as well as her experiences and impressions.

Hello,
I'm Larissa, I'm studying International Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies. As part of this master’s program, I wanted to do an internship in India. Because I am interested in questions of global justice, more precisely in the effects of our western lifestyle on the people of the so-called production countries. The making of our clothing is a pretty good example of this.

From the Indian partner organization Munnade in India heard and applied for an internship. It soon became clear: I was going to India, to Bangalore in the state of Karnataka, the Silicon Valley of India, as I read. Many international IT companies have their headquarters here, as well as call centers of American companies in which well-trained, young people work.

I learned very quickly that Bangalore is not just India's IT capital. Many clothing factories are also based here. Almost all major brands, such as H&M, Adidas, Hugo Boss, but also C&A, have their clothes sewn here. The working conditions in these factories are bad, sometimes unreasonable; the wages far too low, even if they mostly correspond to the legal minimum wage. This is currently 252 rupees per day, which is not even 3.10 euros and is nowhere near enough for halfway acceptable living conditions.

That is why four brave women, Rukmini, Yashodha, Saroja and Saraswathi founded Munnade in 2004. When I first met them in Bangalore, I learned that they had worked as seamstresses in factories for years. They tell of the pressure of having to sew more and more clothes in less and less time. From insults to the supervisors and the management of the factories, from the many unpaid overtime, the long work without adequate breaks - not even to be able to go to the bathroom - the lack of medical care in emergencies, the bad air and the lack of light in the Factories. At first they only hint at worse cases such as sexual harassment or miscarriages due to overwork, but now they openly talk about such cases as well. Rukmini and the others were bothered by experiencing all of this on a daily basis and hearing it from the colleagues.

But they have succeeded in founding Munnade and tackling these grievances. The organization of workers is still very difficult and Munnade is still not recognized as an official union by the factory owners. Even so, she has been able to develop some influence over the past few years. The women tell of cases in which they were able to settle disputes between workers and factory management and negotiate compensation payments. I learn that Munnade representatives have even been invited to a series of expert talks held by the Karnatakas Ministry of Labor on the new labor legislation.

With all the unimaginable things I experience, it is good to see what Munnade can do and change the lives of workers and their families. I am very happy to work with these courageous women. I support them v. a. when communicating with international actors and that part of their public relations work that takes place via the Internet. But V. a. give me deep insights into your work. Through their reports, activist meetings, but also the everyday office work, I learn about some of the numerous problems and challenges, but also about small and sometimes even big successes of Munnade.

Besides my internship at Munnade, I am too Intern at Cividep, the "Civil Initiative for Development and Peace". This NGO works to improve working conditions and laws. That is why she supported Munnade with the foundation and for several years with the financing. There is still a very intensive cooperation between the two organizations.

In addition to the clothing sector, Cividep also works in the electronics sector, which is mainly based around Chennai, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Dell and Samsung, as well as some of their suppliers, produce here. Nokia also had cell phones manufactured for seven years, but is now moving to Vietnam. As a result, not only do thousands of Nokia workers lose their jobs, but also many of the suppliers who partly follow Nokia and also relocate their production.

In addition, Cividep also has projects in the tea and coffee sector. In addition, Cividep is currently starting a project for home workers in shoe production in Tamil Nadu. These are extremely underpaid and also suffer from the social effects of their status as untouchables, the lowest level in the Indian caste system. This and the associated discrimination against the lower castes is prohibited by law, but unfortunately still plays a major role in everyday life.

Another important topic for Cividep is corporate social responsibility and the networking of relevant actors.

I am mainly working on a study on "living wages", life-saving wages that Cividep is currently collecting. We want to compare wages in the electronics and clothing sectors. These are in fact quite different and with the study we would like to find out how the workers and work can use them to get on with their lives, what is particularly lacking and what wages they actually need in order to lead a decent life and to be able to cover their basic needs.

Further links:

  • A short film that is well worth seeing and impressively presents the work of the Munnade women who are also involved in the “Garment Labor Union”, or GLU for short.
  • The Cividep homepage is very informative. In particular, I warmly recommend the documentaries and short films available there on the problems in the clothing and electronics sectors, which can be found under Publications, Videos & Pictures, to those interested.

 

 

 

Update August 2014

My day-to-day work is currently mainly determined by the study 'Beyond Reach: Decent work a mirage for electronics and garment sector workers in India' by Cividep. The study deals with the topic of life-saving wages in the textile and electronics industry in India. Gradually, the responses from the workers surveyed are being received by our translators. It is my job to sift through the answers and to prepare them for the analysis. In doing so, I can already develop some assumptions, it will turn out later whether these are correct.

It is not at all easy to insert the individual fates behind each answer sheet into the analysis grid and then to move on to the next one. The answers are usually very meaningful and reveal a lot about the difficult living conditions of the workers. Often I am so touched by the individual fates that I cannot just leave it where it is. Then I am happy when my colleague Antony is around and I can first ask him questions about the new information. He then tells me more about the living conditions, describes what is meant by one or the other statement and gives me a lot of interesting additional information, e.g. about the state health system for the workers. Fortunately, this works quite well, the employers have to make a contribution to the state health system for every employee, and this then enables the employees to visit hospital free of charge. However, most of them lack the time for the hospital, and very few people can afford the luxury of being away from work for several days and thus risking employment.

But the worst thing for me is the low wages. At the same time, I see how high the cost of living is for people and that many have to go into debt just for living expenses. Some people organize themselves into self-help groups within the neighborhood so that they can give each other interest-free loans. But many others have to borrow from banks, or worse, informal moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. These debts are getting higher and higher because of the interest and the ever increasing need for money for everyday expenses - a hopeless vicious circle.

Nonetheless, many of the respondents say that they are happy about the employment in the factories, because that way they have an income at all, even if it is nowhere near enough for even the most essential expenses. For me this is difficult to accept and I always feel the need to discuss these problems with Antony. Every time I get more and more grateful that Cividep exists and that at least this small organization is doing something about these problems. It's really good to see how active my colleagues are here and how intensively they network with other organizations around the world to tackle these problems.

Your collaboration with Munnade also still makes a lot of sense to me. On the one hand, Cividep benefits from the fact that Munnade is even closer to the workers and directly shares their everyday reality. On the other hand, Cividep can support Munnade very well, especially when it comes to structural and organizational work. This is currently in the foreground, the Munnade women are very busy with organizational activities. In addition, they are currently receiving some internal training courses to improve work processes and work together more efficiently in a team. That sounds very exciting, but due to the language barrier - no one speaks English and I can't speak Kannada - I couldn't help very much. That's why I'm currently focusing on my work at Cividep.

I feel at home in Bangalore now. Many things that were new and unfamiliar at the beginning now seem normal to me. This applies first and foremost to traffic. Measured by German standards, it is probably very chaotic in every Indian city. But Bangalore is particularly blatant, even by Indian standards. This is because this city is growing every day due to the large number of immigrants looking for work. Of course, Bangalore is nowhere near as big as Delhi, but here, too, the distances are (meanwhile) long, as the streets have long ceased to cope with the exploding population. But somehow I got used to the constant traffic jam, as well as the constant horn. Because here is not honored in exceptional cases, but actually always and everywhere to draw attention to the fact that you exist, otherwise you will sometimes be overlooked. That's why I'm now very happy when my rickshaw driver honks the horn, which always annoyed me at the beginning.

Other everyday situations that are different here are now completely normal for me and I no longer have to ask someone for every little thing or use the Internet, this feeling is very good. This particularly applies to finding ways. It's not that easy at all. There are no overviews that reveal when which bus line goes where. In theory, a rickshaw takes me anywhere I want to go, similar to a taxi (sometimes a driver refuses to go to other parts of the city, then you have to find another), but in practice you have to have very detailed information about the Have a destination, such as known landmarks and precise directions from there to the destination address. Because street names and house numbers are pretty worthless in India for location information. That was quite difficult and complicated for me at the beginning, but now I already know many places I want to go or have developed strategies on how I can still find places I don't know very quickly with my rickshaw driver.

 

Update September 2014

It's time to say goodbye. I find it unbelievable how quickly the time has passed. This feeling is mainly explained by the exciting time I had here. I learned a lot through my internship and of course my everyday life here. Much was or is not easy to understand and certainly not to accept. Not only in terms of the situation of the people I was able to meet through my internship. General social life has also often presented me with challenges. A friend who lived in India for some time had warned me about how hierarchical Indian society is (still) structured and how it functions. So I was somehow forewarned and prepared for it, but nevertheless it scared me and angry again and again in individual situations. Of course, this applies even more to dealing with women. At the same time, this cannot be generalized. I have always met very impressive, open people and not every Indian woman is oppressed by her husband or her family and limited to her classic role. Fortunately, I was able to get to know some women who did have their own lives with goals and desires for which they could stand up.

I would also like to mention the absolutely fascinating Indian culture. THE Indian culture doesn't exist anyway, this country is far too diverse and multifaceted for that. And that is exactly one of the factors that make this country so interesting for me. Regardless of whether it is about languages, religions, ethnic groups, music, clothing or food, everything is very different. This applies to the individual states and regions in India, but especially to Bangalore. Because this city is a melting pot of all these aspects, as many people immigrate from all over India every day. In addition, there are a comparatively large number of international people, so it is very fascinating to watch who is on the streets of Bangalore. Of course, there is also a socio-economic segregation here, but this does not prevent housing estates consisting of quite simple huts (perhaps one would call the slum) from developing alongside well-off middle-class housing estates. Or the other way around. And that works. Just like the coexistence of various religious groups. And that is what many people in Bangalore seem to be very proud of. Because whenever I express myself impressed about this diverse coexistence and even togetherness in India, I get to hear that this is definitely a specialty of Bangalore.

When I look back on my internship, I can only be happy that my application has been accepted. I've learned a lot, not just about factual knowledge. The encounters and conversations with the workers and activists from Munnade were even more instructive, as were the questions and discussions with my colleagues from Cividep. They were all on hand to provide advice and assistance, and some of them gave me very personal insights into their lives and the general situation in Bangalore. All of these have been very valuable experiences in understanding the problems and challenges surrounding labor rights in India. But in addition to the big picture, I was also able to get to know individual people and their very personal situations and that enriched me immensely.

It is always difficult to summarize and describe the time in a country, and this is all the more true in India. It is certainly even more heterogeneous and multifaceted than other countries. But I can definitely say that my internship at Munnade and Cividep has been very worthwhile for me, both professionally and personally. And I am very grateful and happy that this time was made possible for me.