Labour With Care

Since my last post Accepting Inefficiencies I’ve been looking at and thinking about the State-of-Unorganized-Labour in India. Phenomena like the breaking down of communities, unraveling of the social fabric etc were vague concepts in the past. Now they are staring at me every day.

Many experienced farmers told me about the life of labourers that they had observed when they were young: the labourers got little pay, yet all their needs were met – primarily by the community around them who considered it as their duty to help these service providers. Farm workers, barbers, washers, health care workers (human and veterinary), masons, plumbers, carpenters, sanitary workers, even teachers and priests – all felt cared for. They never ran out of food, clothing and shelter. They never had to feel ashamed and beg for resources needed during resource heavy life situations (births, deaths, weddings etc). Though they were not treated as equals or had much choice in who they worked for, they were very much part of the community and received financial and emotional social security. And that helped them do their work with dedication. Overall, they seldom let their clients/masters down and vice-versa. At least in the region of India I grew up, feudalism had given way to a relationship of always-on mutual care.

Starting with my Dad’s generation, people have started mediating all values through money. A labourer could grab another’s work by cutting down the price. A worker’s pay was cut if he could not work for the agreed number of hours due to some personal constraint. After a while, all that the employers cared for was only their money’s worth of labour. And all that the employees cared for was only their labour’s worth of money. Since money cannot represent virtues like trust, loyalty, work-ethic, honesty, quality etc, the employers could not buy them. Since money does not compensate for virtues, the employees did not sell them. The result is, over the last 40 years, employers have reduced their expression of care for their labourers – not because they do not want to but because they have chosen the wrong medium to show it. In turn, labourers have become indifferent to their work, their employers and even to themselves and their families.

Around 25 farm workers planted about 8000 trees in our farm. I do not know the names of 20 of them. I did not sit with them in a circle and inquire about their life, their families and their well being. I did not even introduce myself to many of them. I bought their service with cash. I had a strictly professional relationship with them which ended when they left my farm. I had done exactly what everyone else has been doing. I deserve what I got (or not) for the money.

We did a little better with our construction workers. We bought their medicines, hats, slippers, gloves, practiced yoga together, shared farm produce, celebrated festivals together, happily became their assistants every now and then and gave them days off to watch movies. They valued these perks, yet they could not break out of their inertia and embrace forgotten virtues. Used to being reduced to a commodity in the market, they behaved accordingly when demand peaked.

It seems like one can no longer buy any service in India from unorganized labourers. Each labourer offers a product whose features and characteristics cannot be discerned immediately. Once you have bought a labourer’s work, it is very hard to improve or change anything as he is only offering a self-standardized product. It is their way of responding to a society in which the money they hold in their hands is their only security. Just one employer showing some care isn’t going to cut it. In fact, the care was seen with suspicion by most.

So, we are determined to break out of professional relationships with anyone whose product or service we seek. We would like to invite them in our lives with all their aspirations and worries. We’d like to establish a relationship with them based on care and service that goes beyond the value of their service to us. We have attempted this in the last year and some of it happens naturally. And we’ve been exploited quite a few times. But the struggle seems to be worth it.

To anyone who interested, please send us ideas that could help us change this transactional game into one that creates a community.  If possible, send us lists of rituals, practices and rules that we could engage in that helps the process.

Examples:

Ritual:
Always create a sense of a good beginning for any work. “Well begun is half done” as the saying goes. So I want to sit with the worker(s) and do a mutual introduction, talk about why I am doing something for which I need their help, share some useful/inspiring stories and show gratitude in words or gifts.

Practice: Treat the worker as if he is a volunteer gifting his service.

Rule: Whenever there is any difficulty, communicate clearly and firmly and with a lot of respect.

Update: Our construction team came back just in time before the rains. And they completed the ‘very difficult sir’ task of giving a thin concrete coating over sloping bamboo roofs quite effortlessly. We hope they’ll stay to finish.

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