Minimum wage violations perpetuate modern-day feudalism on Assam’s tea plantations
Posted by Joseph Wheeler on September 3, 2014
Recently had the opportunity to be published in the Hindustan Times as the co-author of an op-ed developed with Francesca Cespi Feruglio during my time with Nazdeek as part of my research fellowship with India China Institute.
Colonial-era labour structures, faulty trade union practices and corporate greed are responsible for unjust wages… The current state of the plantations is nothing short of modern-day feudalism—taking the migrant population, placing it in social isolation and ensuring the people live in abject poverty with little to no access to education, health, food or an alternative livelihood. Plantation owners eliminate any opportunity for social mobility.
As part of their ongoing mission to bring access to justice closer to marginalized communities in India, Nazdeek was recently awarded a Grant from Every Mother Counts, a non-profit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.
Nazdeek, with the support of Every Mother Counts, is working to make pregnancy and childbirth safer for women like Sonali to ensure they receive the maternal health care they are entitled to.
In India, 50,000 women die from pregnancy and childbirth related causes every year; this accounts for 17% of all maternal deaths globally, more than any other country in the world. Culturally accepted discrimination against women—particularly poor women from lower castes and indigenous communities—drive India’s high rate of maternal deaths.
Key members of the Nazdeek staff were essential in the landmark case that first recognized maternal mortality as a human rights violation and the right to survive pregnancy as a fundamental right protected by the Indian Constitution. Expanding and protecting women’s access to maternal health has been a central tenet of Nazdeek’s work. Funds from Every Mother Counts’ Impact Grant will enable Nazdeek to train activists and lawyers to document maternal health and infant health rights violations and use legal advocacy to demand better healthcare for mothers.
I has a chance to create the following photo series to kick-off Nazdeek’s work with Every Mother Counts. The amazing photographs were provided by Rajan Zaveri and Carlo Ghidini, I did content selection and photo-editing. The series is meant to exposes the current barriers to maternal health care on tea gardens in Assam, India.
Every month, Nazdeek will be releasing another storytelling piece highlighting the impact of their projects in Delhi and Assam. With the help and support of Every Mother Counts, Nazdeek will continue to combat violations of maternal health rights and work to put an end to preventable maternal deaths in Delhi, Assam, and across India.
Continuing on with my work for Nazdeek creating visuals for their current campaign to assist tea plantation workers in Assam, India, push for an increased minimum wage, I was tasked with creating an infographic that shows what portion of tea workers wages are deducted–unlawfully–from their net income versus what they are entitled to according to minimum wage and labor rights law in India.
The core concept of the infographic was simple: highlighting that while 94 rupees per day was already an unbelievably low wage after deductions and taking into account modern costs of living, tea workers incomes were actually unlivable.
One of the initial ideas for the graphic was to show total daily income, with deductions pulled from one side, and cost of living from the other. The remaining space would be what workers are left with, and if the too overlapped it would show that workers actually have to buy less food than is medically needed to sustain healthy living–which is what inevitably is happens–or begin taking on debt.
The problem was, using cost of living standards put forth by the Indian Labour Conference in 1957 and the Indian Supreme Court the base cost of living was calculated to be 330 rupees per day, over three times what tea workers earn. The differential was so big that we agreed it would be distracting from the core focus of this infographic, which was unjust deductions from workers net incomes. The final product reveals that over 25% of workers daily income is lost to illegal deductions made by tea plantations. See the full res version here: Income Breakdown
I then created a second graphic, using the guidelines set forth in the Indian Labour Conference, breaking down the 330 rupee minimum daily wage that workers were entitled to. This graphic was meant to justify the 330 number, and explain why this was the bare minimum workers could feasibly earn to reach the most basic standard of living. The style mimics the Income Breakdown graphic, as these two are meant to be used together to get our message across. Check out the full res version here: Proposed Min Wage 2
Nazdeek is currently involved with an ongoing campaign to increase the minimum wage on tea plantations in Assam, India. Due to colonial-era wage policies, tea corporations have been able to pay workers only 94 rupees per day, roughly $1.57 USD. Nazdeek has done significant work and research in this area and they hoped to develop an infographic to raise awareness about this ongoing injustice.
I started by catching up on the research Nazdeek had already produced and found an interesting comparison of wages in Assam tea gardens compared to wages in Kerala–another major tea producer in India. Workers in Kerala earn roughly 3 times workers in Assam. This drastic differential in income gave me the idea to produce an infographic that would place daily wages side-by-side to show audiences how much less Assamese tea garden workers were receiving, while simultaneously highlighting the fact that tea garden workers in Assam earn less than state minimum wage. Here are some initial concept sketches:
I then it would be very powerful to visualize the difference in income with actual stacks of money (or at least icons of the rupees), imitating the visual language of the viral motion graphic Wealth Inequality in America.
My concept then developed into this simple bar graph, built up with stacks of rupees, to display the difference in income. Also, since this graphic was to be disseminated to an international audience, I wanted to ground the comparison to something familiar to the average western consumer. I thought placing the cost of a package of Twinings tea, sourced from the gardens in Assam, might shock viewers into understanding the gravity of this income disparity.
My next step was to design the rupee icon that would build the majority of this graphic. I needed something that was recognizable, but simple enough to not distract from the graphic itself–since there would be dozens of these icons stacked in each column anything too complicated would cause eye strain. Color was the most important aspect to make the rupees simple but immediately recognizable.
With the rupees designed, the first draft of the graphic came together nicely, but the colors were too bright (it was looking a little like monopoly money). I also wanted to include a little more information about the issue, and the folks at Nazdeek wanted to more overtly highlight the fact that tea workers in Assam were earning less than the minimum wage.
I was able to tone down the colors, and make the rupees look a little more distinct, by adding a hue of the orange-brown clay color that cover everything in India, and stains most notes. I added the minimum wage call-outs as Nazdeek requested, and included a blurb about the social issue context. I also added a legend to help with legibility and identify the exchange rate used to produce the graph.
Overall, I am very pleased with how the final draft came out. (View the full resolution graphic here: Income Comparison) We are hoping to reach out to news media outlets later this week with a series of other graphics and a write-up to try to get this information published and begin a discussion about increasing wage for workers in Assam.
On August 3rd, Nazdeek brought together 25 passionate community members from two informal houing settlements–Gole Market and Nangloi–to kickstart training programs dedicated to advancing the maternal health rights of women living in these slums. I had the opportunity to document the workshop: read on →
All forms of media representation are simplifications of a real world object for the sake of conveying information. From maps, to icons, to photographs and even language, representations serve to summarize something in order to convey complex information in a concise and understandable way. Without representations conversations would be completely impossible; we could have no shared understanding of objects in reality. However, as necessary as they are there is a potential danger when our created representations are presented as fundamental truths—especially when dealing with representations of groups of peoples.
A stereotype is a specific representation that is created, intentionally or unintentionally, to affiliate groups of people with predetermined characteristics. A stereotype works to limit the range of characteristics that one assumes is possible for a certain type of person. Whenever you see someone who you affiliate with that group of people you will assume they are characterized by the facets of that stereotype. This fixing of meaning is detrimental to both the cultural perception of that group, as well as those individuals’ self-image and conceived potential. Presenting limited representations of groups of peoples via tropes or stereotypes—whether that is along the lines of race, class, nationality, gender, or sexuality—begins to blur the line between perception and reality, effectively redefining how the viewer understands the world around them.
When working with international advocacy media, like I am with Nazdeek as part of my ICI fellowship, it is important to be aware of the representations that are being presented to the rest of the world, and to avoid falling into the same old stereotypes that might affect others’ perception of the people we are working with. For example: I had the opportunity to visit the Kathputli Colony earlier this week. Kathputli Colony is an informal housing settlement in Delhi that is scheduled to be demolished as part of a slum clearance/urban redevelopment plan by the government. While it definitely fulfilled many of the stereotypical characteristics of a Delhi Slum that I had been exposed to, I was surprised to find a community of individuals who were proud of their homes, and passionate and informed about their rights—some of who have even been to Europe, Canada and the US. Even more inspiring was the pride they held for their professions; Kathputli is Hindi for “puppet” and most of the residence are puppet makers, wood-carvers, musicians, or street-performers. While the label of slum-dweller might be applicable, these individuals had far more interesting stories to tell than the images that simple stereotypes might initially invoke.
Representations, especially if they are meant to empower those they represent, need reveal the complexity of any given social issue, acknowledging the aspects of a stereotype that might be valid while be nuanced enough to reveal that individuals have far more depth than what stereotypes present. Moving forward, as I work to develop media projects for Nazdeek regarding slum clearance, maternal mortality, and fare wage I need to be wary of the ways in which the people Nazdeek are working with are being represented to the rest of the world. These projects have a lot of potential to raise awareness about the issues Nazdeek is addressing, while simultaneously advertising their amazing work, but they carry the heavy responsibility of mindful representation. This will be a great challenge, but is something I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be spearheading for the organization in the weeks to come.
In the process of planning my research project and experiencing my first few days in Delhi, I am starting to learn that adaptability is a crucial capability for working (and living) in India. Due to a change in schedule, the project I had planned on assisting with during my time in Delhi has been pushed back. This change is coming after an already significant shift in research focus from the project proposal I submitted to India China Institute to become a research fellow almost a year ago. Uncertainty is a reality of working in the real world, and when working with a small—three person—NGO like Nazdeek (the office I am consulting with for my research fellowship) flexibility is a necessity for success. After a series of discussions with the Nazdeek staff about what projects I could contribute the most to during my short time in India and how they might fit into my research requirements, we have identified three project that I will be developing for Nazdeek covering both of the primary campaigns they are involved with.
First, I will be developing a flier to be distributed among workers on a tea plantation in Assam. Assam produced close to 1/6th of the world’s tea, but legislation and customs derived from colonial era indentured servitude forces garden workers to live in abject poverty—making less than $2 USD per day for their work. Nazdeek has been working with an activist group in Assam to push for an increase in pay to reach a livable wage for the plantation worker. The current flier they have been distributing is predominantly text, which Nazdeek knows is not the most effective way to reach the garden workers. I will work on creating some infographics, re-designing the flier to increase legibility, and re-conceptualize the content to be more directed at the needs and interests of the worker; all of this will hopefully raise awareness and activate the community around the push for a wage increase.
Second, I will be working to create a series of infographics regarding the wage campaign in Assam that can be distributed digitally on social media, press releases, and newsletters to help Nazdeek raise awareness for the issue of unjust wage in Assam and promote the work they are doing nationally and internationally. These documents will be marketed towards an international audience, and will need to work as standalone images as well as in series when presented together. This is an interesting cross road between advocacy and advertising, but when the work Nazdeek is doing is so grounded in activism the two are essentially one in the same. An effective media series, in this case, will raise awareness of the issue and Nazdeek, hopefully drawing in support (financial and otherwise) for both the cause and the organization.
Finally, the largest project I will be involved with comes from a grant from Every Mother Counts—the event that inevitably shifted the timeline of my previous research project—funding Nazdeek’s work on maternal mortality in Assam tea plantations and in New Delhi slums. The grant will provide funding for Nazdeek to run workshops helping build the local capacities of women in Assam and Delhi to address human rights violations regarding maternal health, and train a network of lawyers in Delhi and Assam who will work with these women to pursue justice. The grant, however, require that Nazdeek produce a series of 12 “stories” over the course of the next year profiling individuals effected by the project. These stories can cover anyone (mothers, activists, lawyers, family members, health care providers) involved or effected by the work Nazdeek is doing, and can be told in any media—video, photography, or short story). I will be working on developing a feasible strategy for creating these stories, including a timeline of production, some content guideline, who to profile, interview questions and narrative arcs for each story, and which medium will be most effect. I will also be working on producing the first story to be submitted to Every Mother Counts—due mid-August—and released alongside Nazdeek’s announcement of the grant funding. This is a spectacular opportunity for me to explore both communications strategies and production of advocacy media. Although it is not what I originally signed on for, this project with Every Mother Counts encompasses almost all of the areas I am interested in pursuing as part of a professional practice, and I feel like I can really help Nazdeek (as a group of human rights lawyers) by bringing my expertise into this project. I am excited to move forward with all of these projects, and hope to post some reflections on the experience and process work as the content gets developed in the next few days.
Advocacy media is an undeniably effective way to start a dialogue around issues of social inequality and discrimination, but has the potential for detrimental misrepresentation when done tactlessly. While effective media campaigns can raise awareness of issues on a global scale, the fear of falling into the “Sally Struthers” trope of dehumanizing your subjects is always a dangerous possibility, especially in the context on international work. Advocacy media that focuses too heavily on the direness of human circumstances often objectifies the people it intends to help in a way that is not only demeaning, but perpetuates harmful stereotypes that shape global perceptions. These misconceptions, along with the entire construction of the “third world” label, only serve to sustain Eurocentric hegemony and international class divides. Stereotypes such as these are dangerous, self-fulfilling, prophecies that can be detrimental to the development of communities facing systemic ethnic, racial, gender, or class based discrimination.
One of the most effective ways to create representations of people facing inequality without dehumanizing them as hapless victims is to promote the creation of advocacy media through self-representation. By empowering local activists and community members to begin to use media resources to tell their story to the world, rather than having outsiders portray their community through externally produced representation, we can promote reform and raise awareness without facilitating the neocolonial class divides and the trope of the “third world” victim. Similar to participatory design—a core practice of my program the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, the core goal of this form of media activism is to help people help themselves rather than build sympathy for the destitute “other.”
This is one of the core reasons I am so excited to be working with Nazdeek this summer in Delhi to help build frameworks for educating community members and activists on media documentation for advocacy. Nazdeek has noted the importance of media as part of the advocacy process that can shine light on abuse, highlight corruption, and aid in the process of legal empowerment. With Nazdeek, we have an amazing opportunity to help disseminate knowledge of how and when to use media to document rights violations in cases of police brutality and wrongful eviction in Delhi slums—the project that Nazdeek will be focusing on this summer. Proper media documentation of these issues can be used not only as a way to expose corruption and rights violations, but also as a way to build strong visual evidence for the litigation process, helping to ensure that victims can pursue proper legal redress.
This form of grassroots media activism is a fundamental first step in ensuring underserved communities can develop self-sustaining agency and begin to benefit from the fundamental human rights they are entitled to. Rather than showing the world a group of underprivileged individuals with limited options, we will work mobilize a community to push for internal action in the hopes of combating these instances of systemic inequality in a sustainable manner.
I think this project is going to pose a lot of difficult challenges, especially as a white, male, western, outsider, who is only going to be there for a short amount of time. There is an issue of trust that I am sure will be a challenging hurdle to overcome when working with communities in some of the poorest areas in Delhi. These are already instances that I have begun to encounter just in the process of reaching out to advocacy groups—local activists seem to be wary of westerners who are interested in social change, as I am sure past instances of “advocacy” have been demeaning and generally exploitative. But I am so fortunate to have been connected to a passionate and impactful organization such as Nazdeek, and I hope that I can really benefit the work they do during my time in Delhi this summer.
The Faculty Research and Curriculum Development Grants will support new or continuing research, curriculum development and student engagement on India and China by faculty in any division of The New School. Six Faculty Research Awards read on →
RURAL-URBAN TRANSFORMATIONS: REMAKING THE RURAL IN SHENZHEN, CHINA THURSDAY, MARCH 1, 2018| 6:00-8:00 pm BARK ROOM (ORIENTATION ROOM) 2 WEST 13TH STREET, ROOM M-104 NEW YORK, NY 10011 A Public Talk with MARY ANN O’DONNELL With read on →