On barriers

“ಕನ್ನಡ ಗೊತ್ತಿಲ್ಲ!”
Kannada gottilla!

 “हिंदी नहीं!”
Hindi naheen!

These two phrases have pretty much made up the entirety of my direct interactions with garment factory workers as my co-interns and I interview people to get a sense of what sorts of projects to work on this summer.

Angela, Stephanie, Siddharth and I are all working at Shahi Exports in Bangalore under the guidance of Chitra Ramdas in the Organizational Development (OD) department. OD sets itself apart from Human Resources because while HR handles day-to-day issues such as compensation management and grievance redressal, the OD team works with the Good Business Lab to design, test, and implement long-term interventions that improve worker welfare while bringing the company a return on its investment.

For example, in 2007, Shahi partnered up with Gap, Inc. to pilot a soft-skill training program called PACE (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement) for its female employees, which comprise the vast majority of the labor force in the Indian garment industry. After voluntarily attending lessons about financial literacy, time management, reproductive health and various other topics, graduates of the program were more likely to come to work on time, show fewer signs of stress, and be significantly more productive compared to workers who had not yet completed the program. Because of this, Shahi management decided to scale the program up to all of its factories and now runs it as an independent initiative that is wholly funded by the company.

PACE has been such a success because although it was designed for the direct benefit of female garment workers, it aligns perfectly with Shahi’s business strategy. After all, less absenteeism and attrition + more productivity = more profit!

Here is the main question that my co-interns and I will be facing this summer: how can we design and implement an inexpensive intervention that will have a positive impact on workers while making a strong business case to company management?

Which brings me back to Kannada gottilla. Even before I had begun to conceptualize a potential project, one particular challenge I noticed was the communication barrier that exists across the factory floor. This issue has many different components:

  1. First is the obvious fact that I don’t speak Kannada (or any Indian language) and am coming to India with my own cultural biases, which limit how much I can directly interact with Karnatakan garment workers.
  2. Next, Shahi employs many migrant workers from North Indian states, such as Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and Jharkand, who aren’t able to speak Kannada either, which often leads to difficulties both in and out of the production line.
  3. Even if workers and staff speak the same language, employees are not always comfortable giving feedback to management—instead, many issues are uncovered by outside brand auditors who come to inspect Shahi’s factories.
  4. Because the jobs it offers range widely in required skill level, the garment industry is able to employ nearly anyone. However, because of this, many workers in entry-level positions lack a formal education, have limited literacy skills and may not able to comprehend written signage.

After having the opportunity to speak to a diverse range of employees at several of Shahi’s units, I noticed that many workers had difficulty recalling important information about their wages, insurance deductions, the grievance process, and various work benefits… which is a shame, because I was actually very surprised at the number of programs introduced by OD or outside brands at Shahi which could potentially have enormous benefits for both workers’ welfare and the company’s bottom line.

However, I think that there is a lot of room for improvement as far as making workers aware (or perhaps just remember) of their rights as well as what resources are available to them. I’d like to develop a standardized, integrated induction system by modifying existing training methods and developing visual and auditory materials that will help all workers retain more information regardless of native language or literacy level. My “business reason” for choosing this project is that if employees are more aware of where to go for help on a specific problem, they will be significantly less stressed and therefore more productive during working hours. In addition, brands will be more likely to work with Shahi when workers are better able to communicate to third party auditors what sorts of benefits they take advantage of.

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A friendly HR manager shows us a wall depicting various committee members for one particular unit (all Shahi factories have committees that deal with topics such as safety and sexual harassment). However, I got the impression from some workers that many people do not even know what committees are there or what purpose they serve!

This will, of course, bring its own set of challenges, in large part due to my dependency on a translator when interviewing workers to collect data about what sorts of media and techniques are best at transmitting complex information to busy and tired laborers. I will also have limited input on what exactly is verbally covered during non-English induction sessions. The next step will be to form design focus groups to gather frequent feedback on any material that I would like to test, and to brief trainers on how to use these materials effectively. I’m also planning on conducting a “sensory audit” of a couple factory floors to answer questions such as what sort of signage already exists, which directions people face when working, and which particular locations are quietest within factory grounds.

The OD staff at Shahi has been incredibly helpful to us interns as we’ve tried to put together a comprehensive picture of how the company works, and with their continued support, I am incredibly excited to dive headfirst into this project and see what I can accomplish in the next few weeks. I’ll keep you all updated on my progress, but until then, wish me luck! 🙂

About Piotr Wojcik

Penn Urban Studies c/o 2020 ~ intern at Shahi Exports, Bangalore, in summer 2018