In workers’ shoes

Two weeks ago, Amy, Chan, Kendra, Anant and Chitra (our two bosses) as well as doctor Leena (who looks after various factories in Shahi) flew to Orissa, a lesser-developed rural region North East of India. During our few days there, we visited local villages where migrant workers come from, as well as training centers, where new, young, female recruits receive sewing and soft skills training prior to integrating into one of the Shahi sewing units in Bangalore. After forty days of training and a two daylong bus ride, these women finally arrive to their hostel, their new home for the time they work at Shahi.

Our aim during this trip was to observe and learn about the living and training conditions of the Orissa migrant workers in their home state, and to pay special attention to certain features. For example, Amy, Chan and Doctor Leena’s focus was to investigate these women’s perception of heath, as well as their nutrition and hygiene habits. Upon joining Shahi, many of these women indeed suffer from moderate to severe health issues, (one of the most prevalent being anemia). These health issues damage their wellbeing as well as their productivity and have a strong impact on attrition. On my side, I was conducting a more holistic observation. I am designing a buddy scheme (partnering incoming migrant workers with a more experienced workers to help overcome adaptation problems – see previous posts), and I was intending to use this Orissa trip to get a general sense of the discrepancies that exist between their living and training conditions over there and their living and working conditions in Bangalore. This would help me further answer certain questions such as “Which aspects of living and working are more/less difficult for them to adapt to?”, and thus “In which respects/ domains would a senior buddy be helpful to the junior buddy?”.

In the first training center we visited, Anant, Docteur Leena and I were trying to interview a group of 20 girls and have them answer a couple of questions about themselves: What do you think you will miss the most when you leave Bangalore and come to work to Orissa? What aspect of your future life are you worried about…? etc… But we encountered the same difficulty that we had already so often encountered in Bangalore: getting answers!   We arrive with a list of questions, ready to get grand answers. But, the girls in front of us act shy and will not open up. They will answer with one word. If we are lucky…with a sentence. It is tiring and frustrating.

However, having these emotions and acting so impatient also makes me feel a bit conflicted. I am aware that these girls also have it hard but I am still overly demanding. Most of them are barely over 18 years old, they have just left leave their village and their family for the first time and are now training for a job they have to learn from scratch. They are about to leave the rural region of Orissa were they lived in mud houses for the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore. I cannot speak for the upbringing and education they have received, but I do know for a fact that these girls’ education does not make them accustomed or comfortable to think and speak about themselves. In fact, a lot of the girls in Shahi were brought up this way. Survey’s conducted on a large sample of workers show that many of them place their family’s wellbeing in front of their own.

Furthermore, we have observed that women, in particular from rural regions, are subject to many cultural expectations, and are brought up to follow certain behaviors such as being reserved, obedient and hard working…

Maybe repeating these facts to yourself and trying to mentally visualize their upbringing can help you empathize with them and understand why many of them are so afraid to talk to us when we summon then on personal facts? It does help for me …but for about 3 minutes, (the time it takes me to mentally run through all these facts plus 2 minutes (not quite enough for me give myself credit for !).

This is certainly not the most interesting or original example I could have given, but it is certainly little experiences like these that have made the following well known idea pop frequently back into my mind this summer : It is impossible/ extremely hard to get into someone’s shoes unless you yourself get to experience what they have experienced. Most of them time in the Shahi workplace, we as interns have to take all these decisions which we think will improve the wellbeing of these girls. Making these decisions is hard. We will never be able to fully empathize and therefore must rely on interviews, observations, lessons learned from past welfare initiatives, and sometimes even on intuition… I myself have had to use similar sources of information to design the buddy system. I have done my best to understand the needs of the junior buddies but my assessment will probably still be a little off.

I am grateful to have done this trip to Orissa and to have visited these training centers as well as villages where employees live. I figure it is one extra step towards empathizing fully with these girls. An individual is composed of infinitely different facets, but grasping yet another one of these facets is always an improvement…

Here are some photos of the village in Orissa where a few Shahi workers live

Orissa pic 1 Orissa pic 2

young girls just coming back from school

young girls just coming back from school

Orissa pic 3

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About valdhaut

I'm in the college, class of 2017. I'm majoring in Physics and minoring in Computer science. I'm interning at SHAHI exports this summer.