When we walk into posh branded stores or super/hypermarkets, in malls or the vendor stores in open street corners and pick a garment, pair of shoes or a rice bag exclaiming “Wow! Great Price” or “cheap”, have you ever asked yourself, “I wonder how they make it so affordable or dead cheap?” For some serious considerations one must really ask, how much is its real cost? What is the raw material cost? How much is the labour cost? And how much is the profit margin? Especially, in a world of price wars, who actually gets to pay the greater price and how? Is it you? Is it the business or is it the poor?
Just to take from experience on our basic staple — rice processing. In certain pockets of northern districts of Tamil Nadu and southern districts of Andhra Pradesh, you will find many rice mills employing people from certain particularly vulnerable tribes. If you closely study the socio-economic situation of these tribal families, they are landless tribal groups earlier living on ‘poromboke’ land (government owned land) and in banks of lakes and water bodies, they are illiterate with no concept of math or numbers, date or time, uneducated and unskilled, falling far below any human development indices. They have no official documents to prove their identities or existence like the common man does — they do not have the basic birth certificate, ration card, voter ID or marriage certificate. They have no permanent job, and constantly move around in search to get the bare minimum to subsist on, so they do not have an official domicile. Officially for all purposes of accounting them, they do not exist — faceless and nameless — so no one would even know or be perturbed by their disappearance.
Being undocumented, they neither have access to financial institutions, institutional anchoring or to the local moneylender. Targeting these tribal families, labour brokers and the owners of these rice mills entice them with a cash advance of few thousand rupees, decent shelter, good working conditions and a good wage enough to pay back the cash advance – all promises in the verbal.
However, when these families are taken inside the rice mills, they are not paid any wages or paid just barely enough to buy rice and basic vegetables. The tribals can’t ask for wages or for accounts of their earnings. Any challenge or insinuations of wage theft will be summarily met with threat, violent use of force or generally dismissed as being deducted against the original advance issued.
But how much is the wage due each member of the family? How is being deducted? How long — in hours and months — does one have to work to repay the debt and accrue earnings is unknown to the workers. Their freedom of movement is highly restricted – workers can’t just walk away, as these rice mills are guarded by men who keep an ever watchful over them. Even if they want to go to market, most often the wives and children are kept as collateral security so that any effort to escape is preempted. Beyond these, if they do find the courage to escape with their loved ones, they are easily tracked, as they do not have a place to go other than their earlier place of stay or they end up in another rice mill. Once they caught by the rice mill owner, they are brutally beaten up back-and-blue in front of other labourers, to teach a strong lesson and psychologically terrorise them into submission.
It is a growing realisation based on the reported incidents, that when there are attempts by the poor to escape or exercise a certain level of assertiveness, violence takes on brutal forms — of beatings and chopping of limbs hands etc. Take the case of Diyalu and Nilambar, tribals from Orissa taken to a brick kiln against their will and who got a chance to escape only to be caught and have their hands chopped off. Or take the case of Chamru working on a construction site, who dared to ask for his wages and the labour agents chopped off his fingers and toes as punishment. Both stories were reported in mainstream media.
Fortunately, for some if they do manage to escape and have a chance to report to the police or authorities, and if they end up with insensitive officials unaware of their vulnerabilities, their cries fall on deaf ears and the case gets dismissed labelling them as cheats who are trying to exploit their owners or labour agents by not paying the advance. The officials do not want to hear these stories further and many times families are sent back ‘home’ where their labour agents exploit them further, recirculating and re-trafficking them to other locations of opportunity.
The children are the worst affected, they will not get an opportunity to go to school, they are malnourished. The working conditions are hazardous, as some infants and children succumb to burns from fire or boiling water from the rice mill. Owners use children as collateral to stop families from escaping. In some cases, with no safety standards, children have drowned or been electrocuted. Some women have had their foetus die in the womb due to overwork and malnutrition. Infant mortality is very high. If they survive all these, at one point, the debt (cash advance received) will be levied on the children and they force them to work for the inherited debt.
This is not an issue of wage dispute or working conditions, they are the forced labour or modern-forms of slavery, which the Constitution of India in its Article 24 prohibits and calls to punish. The global estimates of such forced labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are 25million people in 2016. As per a Government of India announcement, it plans to rescue and rehabilitate 18.4million such people by 2030 as reported in the media.
In a price war waged between small business and large corporations, often the poor workers take a huge toll on themselves and their loved ones. Once, a lawyer defending the accused owner had argued in court that “if we pay minimum wage to all the labourers, it will destroy the business which is highly competitive or if all the businesses commit to pay minimum wage, then the cost of rice will increase very high and the poor will not have access to food.”
Affordable consumption must meet responsible consumption. Most often when we buy food and sweets for ourselves or our loved ones to consume, rightly knowing or being informed about the extent of adulteration and contamination and its harmful effects significantly matters in the choice of what we put on the table.
Cheapness and affordability should not be the sole consideration in consumer choice. I’m sure our country would put a ban or an embargo on a foreign territory which sponsors terrorism on our land. Or will we still buy goods from it just because it is cheap and good?
When Maggi Noodles makers Nestle allegedly fell short of food standards, there was widespread wake-up call and ‘responsibility’ behaviour owing to the emergence of awareness as Indian consumers. If only we all had that level of responsibility to care and make informed choices about everything we purchase or consume — we’d be able to protect those who carry the heaviest burden and pay the heaviest price — the poor and the vulnerable.