International Labor Day just whizzed past us. A day not too different from any regular Sunday for many of us. But the day has special significance for me. It reminds me of the time I had when I was working in a site in Mahua Khera, a teeny tiny hamlet lost somewhere in the map of India. That was the time when I was exposed to a whole new world. I came in close contact with laborers. I must say, whatever plans and policies we make, hats off to them, for it is they who – with their own bare hands ultimately give shape to the world as we know. All for a pittance of payment.
They create swanky malls, they build wide smooth roads, and they are the power behind the power plants. They build the huge warehouses and granaries. They put the 8 in your 8 percent GDP growth numbers. They are India’s greatest exports – building the modern engineering marvels of Dubai and other Gulf countries.
But not for him are the fancy Armanis or Lee/Levis. He will still settle for his own shabby cotton rags. Not for him are the BMWs and SUVs which will ply on those Expressways. He will smile travelling on a bus after bargaining for tickets with the rude conductor who would all the while be abusive. Not for him is the electricity produced from the power plants, which will power up your computers so that you can download your movies or lead the Conquistadors to the gates of the Huns in Age of Empires. He will have his own kerosene lamp, or the community bulb. Not for him is the exotic spread of Japanese or Lebanese cuisine in restaurants. He will happily gorge on his homemade food, which I know from experience tastes divine.
I must confess, the only laborers that I was exposed earlier were the fancy workers in Age of Empires, who would be obedient and work like machines. Somehow, the thought permeates our minds that the workers are like machines – and we expect outputs from them which are sky high. Thoughts like fatigue and tiredness of physical exertion are clouded by our cushy lives. I am glad, those thoughts were scrubbed clean by the wipers of life.
There were some lessons that the humble laborers taught me – which changed my perspectives and grounded all the high flying thoughts in my minds. Lessons like toiling hard, fixing a smile on the face, keeping it simple, communicating with simplicity, persistence and team work. If today I struggle with bull crapping on a topic, I owe it to them.
Many a time, I would stand in the shade with the drawing sheet spread out and telling a laborer what he has to do. He would not understand the technicalities; instead he would always ask the pertinent and relevant questions necessary for him to proceed with the work. Not for him were what the codes said, why the necessary details were needed etc. etc. He would have a simple view of life.
He would listen to all my whining of how crappy the weather was. But his smile probably hid the fact, that the weather had become his ally – and he could handle it. Indeed, I have seen workers slog it out in 40 degree heats, where steel literally burns and scalds. And also in freezing 5 degrees, where the limbs become too numb and stupefied to move.
He would be raring to get to work, so that he could at the end of the day, earn what can be described as the lowest salary possibly payable by the builder. All so that he can eke out his living and ensure that his family lives to see another day without starvation.
But the most important lesson that I learnt was – faith. The humble laborer does not trust contracts. He does not care for what the rule book says. It is the power of your words – the reassurance and empathy in your tone which comforts him. I had workers risking their lives while working for me, all for the timelines to be met – which were made up in the air conditioned confines of an office over copious cups of tea. It was a power which I, in my ignorance at that time, did not fully comprehend. Thank God, no accident took place under my careless watch. I will forever be grateful to god for his benevolence. For the worker, the only thing that matters is your word. Hell hath no fury like a laborer scorned.
It is scary for me to think, how people can exploit labor. It would take a really, cold, merciless and possibly dead heart to play with the humble labor. There have been many laws made to preserve their rights and impart dignity to their lives. But somehow, the managements still find convoluted loopholes to service their own greed and satiate their desire for power at the expense of those who are the lowest class in our society. There is a view among the corporate czars, that labor rights and development can not go hand in hand. And that the labor class exists to service their whims and be exploited. A very colonial kind of mindset it is.
The poor workers know not, that May Day is their day. But I hope that this year we all, in our own small way, strive to make the world a better place for them. All they need is respect and reassurance. Not too demanding are they! With an empowered workforce, we will surpass all projections of growth and progress. May the force be with them!!
P.S: I worked at a power plant in Uttarakhand, on the foothills of Himalayas. At one stage, I led a team of up to 50 workers – an experience for me like no other. It will rank as the steepest learning curve for an urban brat like me. The “He” above, can as easily be replaced by “She”, who were a lot more persistent compared to their male counterparts. Respect, definitely earned by them!