Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Responses to 'Fiercely disappointed'

I'm grateful for having wise friends who responded to my last blog in ways that moved on my thinking.

From a friend with Pakistani heritage:

i wonder if you are judging the organisation too harshly - not in terms of their patriarchal and class hierarchy, but i think what the manager says is fair. In the wider social setting - doing the work that the women in the canteen do - they probably would have a lot less "pay" for longer hours (i am guessing). The fact that they work half a day (by local standards) enables them to work elsewhere also. Working many jobs is not uncommon in developing countries. I have a cousin who works 5 jobs. He leaves home at 6am and returns at between 1-2am. 7 days a week. Its not living as we would like to think of it - but the reality for the majority of the world.

I guess i am saying be careful not to judge people by your own standards of living...


From a friend who works for a labour rights NGO:

I would say that you should definitely NOT talk to funders, at least not until you have actually spoken to the workers themselves to see if they actually want you to crusade on their behalf.

Writing to funders could have several consequences: one is that they decide to up their funding to ensure a minimum wage is paid, more likely they will either ignore it or possibly pull funding. their funders are likely to react to an international observer contacting them as a potential PR issue, and defensiveness is very often the approach.

I know it's disappointing - we want the groups we work with to replicate the justice they are calling for in their own structures, but this is often not the case. You need to look at an issue as a whole - where would the extra money come from - higher fees for food, more funding (from where?), from cutting the number of staff? Are staff at higher levels paid really high wages and could they take a pay cut to ensure minimum wage for canteen staff?

As you said in the email while they are discontent with their salaries they also feel some sense of ownership over the project, and maybe they feel that they are willing to work on a semi voluntary basis. This is where the real difference between the palm companies and the social group lies. People are often willing to make sacrifices for something they believe is for the good of themselves and their families, but why should they do the same for a multi national company that doesn't give a shot about anything but extracting the maximum profit they can.

So I would say that the only thing to do for now is try to have this discussion with workers themselves, but you need to understand the financial workings of the organisation too. In that way you can hear if they have their concerns or demands and provide them the information they might need themselves to push for higher wages. If they want to do that, then maybe you can have a role in supporting and facilitating this process. Social justice is often not just a matter of numbers, but a matter or process. If workers can speak to their managers and raise their issues, and more importantly their concerns can get heard, then that's really what's important. I would say this is where you might have a role. But be careful of taking actions that could really make things worse, and make sure that if you do take action in solidarity, it is based on the wishes of those you are showing solidarity with and not on disappointment with reality or simple outrage at injustice.

Hope that helps - sorry if I misunderstood and you've already done these things.


I had the following reactions to my friends' emails:

- Primarily I've been worrying about how much sleep my friend's cousin gets.

- I agree I was judging the organisation by my standards and the ideal that people should at least be paid the minimum wage. The reality is that even the state doesn't pay all its workers the minimum wage. I guess the economy as it is just doesn't support it.

- I've transferred some of my anger at the injustice in this organisation, to the injustice out in the world in general. Seems fairer not to just pick on them. These same problems are everywhere. Actually this organisation has a reputation for walking the talk more than most. At least it includes its beneficiaries in its structure, and meets with them. Unlike many of the more paternalistic NGOs here, which spend their time meeting with other NGOs.

- I was quite amused/shocked to realise that while I had spoken to a few of the coordinators about this, I never spoke to a single cook about anything at all. We generally just smiled shyly at each other. Various reasons for barriers - class, communication, confidence... So I would have been making that classic mistake of speaking out on behalf of people who hadn't asked me to. Which led me to feel compassion and empathy for the managers cos this behaviour is unfortunately normal and I'm no angel either.

- From what I know of the people concerned, writing to the managers is unlikely to bring about anything positive. And writing to funders is very risky as well as inappropriate. Given I have now left the area so I can't go back and talk to the cooks, I conclude it's better for me to accept there are some things I have no power to change.

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