The pursuit of justice seems to mark my every moment at Penn. I study PPE with a concentration in distributive justice, and take courses that examine the political history, current tensions, and philosophy of global and national liberation movements. I am on the board of the Penn Association for Gender Equity, volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union, and this semester joined the burgeoning Student Labor Action Project – all three of which aim to provide justice to marginalized groups.
Thus, when I read about Shahi Exports through CASI’s internship program, I was excited to get to work. Shahi Exports is India’s largest garment manufacturing company, and employs over 100,000 people, with women comprising 80% of their workforce. I work under the Organizational Development (OD) team, which works with brand partners and NGOs to create programs for the development and improvement of their workers.
At Shahi, I work on projects to improve labor conditions and worker wellbeing. Julia and I are working on a menstrual hygiene project aimed at finding healthier and more sustainable menstruating habits for Shahi. Shreyoshi and I are working on a project to encourage more female supervisors in the factory, continuing with the project of Stephanie Wu, who was a Shahi intern last year. We are specifically looking at the motivation element by finding reasons women do not pursue the position and ways to encourage women to seek these jobs.
I am also interested in developing a human rights policy for Shahi, and updating their worker handbook with human rights language. By incorporating human rights language into Shahi’s existing commitments and programs, I hope to create and demonstrate a stronger commitment to the wellbeing of Shahi’s workforce.
Last year, one of Shahi’s units went on strike. Most of them felt disempowered in a system that did not take their feedback or concerns seriously. Having a strike makes workers feel like they have a say, and I hope that having a rights policy can empower workers with the language to stand up for themselves. Through this project I aim to facilitate their political consciousness and rights consciousness.
While I am incredibly excited to work on these projects, interning is not without its challenges. Shahi is first and foremost a business, and like most businesses, production interests are viewed as most important. Other interests, like the programs OD try to implement, are sometimes thought as too costly. Worker wellbeing is often framed as something important for productivity instead of being important for its own sake, and it can often be frustrating to see the value of a human life demeaned in such a way.
It’s very easy to get swept up in the bureaucracy of a company as large as Shahi. We spend most of our time disconnected from the workers as we sit in the cool breeze of the OD’s office in Unit 7. Even our lunch canteens are segregated, so we usually only see staff as opposed to factory workers. Often times this can make it harder to focus on what workers actually need, as opposed to the ideas I think they should want. At these moments, I’ve often had to check myself and listen instead of assuming that I know better.
But even listening poses another challenge – there is a language barrier. Every movement is meant to be about the people, and they are the ones who should be at the forefront, directing what actions should be taken. However, because I don’t speak Kannada, I am unable to directly communicate them, and can only do so with a Shahi OD employee, which may be frightening for them and thus lead to understandably less truthful answers.
Even though there will always be more work to be done, I am encouraged by the universality of human interaction I find here at Shahi. There are many times workers, or the cleaning staff will stare at us foreign Americans, but most of them always return my smiles, my waves, and my greetings. I’m just a random intern from a random school in a random country, but these are the people who will have the most to gain and the most to lose from Shahi’s programs. In between sipping chai made by the housekeeping staff and enjoying flowers watered by gardeners, it’s hard to feel like I’m truly doing anything to improve anyone’s life. But during those mutual smiles, a infinitely small gesture, I try to convey big things: the value of their presence and a recognition of their importance. Perhaps this is enough – for now.