The first wrong assumption I had about India was that almost everyone, at least everyone in big, metropolitan cities, spoke English.
Boy was I wrong when my co-intern Steph and I were trying to catch our bus from Delhi to Agra on our first day in India and our Uber driver, not understanding us saying we were already late, decided to stop for gas on the way. Then we couldn’t find the bus stop and the only word the people nearby us understood was “Agra,” so we got directed to (and impulsively decided to board) a random bus headed for Agra that wasn’t our intended one. Then there were the numerous times I threw my phone at my co-intern Siddharth begging him to speak to the person on the phone in Hindi because I couldn’t understand. And then there were communication barriers every time we wanted to speak to a worker at Shahi’s factories. It was especially hard when we went to the migrant workers’ hostel one Sunday to interview them about their experiences moving to the city and working at a garden factory. I really should’ve learned Kannada, or at least Hindi, but I’m a little ashamed to admit that I gave up learning after the first lesson on the free app I downloaded because it was too difficult.
I soon found that my communication struggles persisted even when the language I was using was English. At work, I assumed that since we were interns coming to fix Shahi’s problems, all of the department heads that we spoke to would just open right up and give us all the information we needed. In reality, the questions we asked were met with vague, circuitous answers that sometimes made me wonder if I had asked a different question than I intended. Here, my American straightforwardness and impatience had no place; I had to learn to navigate cultural differences in communication and openness to get the answers I wanted.
My struggles in conversation also reflected the communication barriers at Shahi between workers and staff and management. My co-intern Piotr and I both found from our research that information often gets lost in transmission between different levels of people at Shahi because there are not many direct communication channels. In particular, I found there were problems with the grievance system that prevented both workers from reporting their problems and their grievances from being properly redressed. On one hand, some workers were scared to communicate their problems to staff, and on the other hand, some of the work HR was doing to solve workers’ problems weren’t being communicated back to workers. There were even some grievance channels that workers didn’t know about or weren’t familiar with. As a result, small problems that workers had were not fixed in time and eventually blew up into a large crisis in one unit. Thus, after a discussion with my boss Chitra, we decided my project was to:
- examine all of the grievance reporting mechanisms, which include suggestion boxes, helpline numbers, worker committees, welfare officers, HR personnel, counseling cells, and help desks
- identify the problems in the grievance reporting system
- figure out ways Shahi could improve them.
Throughout the experience of conducting a multi-unit survey of workers, analyzing survey results, conducting research on innovative grievance handling methods online, and creating material for workers’ committees, I was able to compile all of my research and work into a report and deliver a presentation for the OD (organizational development) team and Shahi’s Board of Directors on what steps they should take next.
However, the process had its challenges. My third assumption was that I could go somewhere and easily diagnose the problems and fix them in a matter of just two months. I had naively expected that I could come up with ideas and have them immediately implemented and everyone would be on board to improve worker wellbeing. However, in reality, it took a lot of time for ideas to be approved by factory heads because taking workers away from the production line meant time and productivity lost. It was difficult to combat with production people’s profit-driven attitudes, and there were times I felt like the work I was doing was pointless because I could never change attitudes. But what I learned is that I can’t expect to suddenly change mindsets and fix everything in just two months. Solutions take observation and time and reflection, not impatience. The countless trainings and programs the OD team was doing for the benefit of the workers was evidence already that change was happening. My goal is that my recommendations, when implemented, will hopefully make grievance reporting more accessible and simpler for workers so they know where to turn when they have a problem.
So my key takeaways? Clear communication/understanding is really very important, and I should stop making (or at least try to make fewer) assumptions.