Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Dignity of Your Workforce

Because of India's caste system, employees in India can have issues reporting in to a senior staff member who comes from a lower caste. Foreigners don't have any caste, but can be seen as either not applicable or unclean, depending on the caste of the person you are meeting. I've seen countless indignities forced upon members of the workforce based on their positions in the company and these other societal issues.

Every office has "tea boys" or "office boys" that run errands for staff, fetching lunch, picking up laundry, what-have-you. These "boys" can be any age, but many start very young. I've watched elder men slicing up apples and serving tea to really rude junior staff, not even acknowledging their presence unless to yell at them. They think it makes them look important to THEIR junior staff. Not so. You just look like an idiot.

I'm usually pretty friendly with this low level of staff because no one ever seems to interact with them, tea boys, cleaners, security guards... It's a shame. They're human beings and deserve at least a friendly hello just like any other worker. They're part of your team, no matter what level they are in your office structure. Without them, the office couldn't function. They should be treated as part of the team.

I once moved into a new building at a company I worked for a while ago here in India and noticed that the washroom cleaner was squatting in a corner on the floor. She wouldn't even look up at me. I'd say hello, and I'd get a very quiet, "Hello maam," while she continued to look at the floor. First - why is it necessary to have full time cleaners you ask? Bathrooms here are typically a nightmare. Water all over the floor, toilet paper either missing or fallen on the floor, soaken wet (if available at all), unflushed toilets, hair in the sinks... seriously, ladies, you're not the only one using these stalls. Clean up after yourself when you leave. Be considerate of your fellow workers.

Because of this, many offices have bathroom staff. Just to clean up after people who think they're "too good" to clean up after themselves. Second, I really felt it was unnecessary to force this young girl to sit on the floor, so I asked the admin guy to get her a stool. He refused. "Madam, she is a cleaner. No chair required." I insisted. He said to talk to the CEO. I went and got her a stool myself, which she happily accepted. It lasted two days. The admin guy removed it because, "She'll start to put on airs," he said.

Until a week ago, I thought this was typical only to very traditional old school Indian firms, but then a friend told me that she had recently been visiting the subsidiary of an American car manufacturer here in India and while using the restroom, saw the same thing. I have a problem with that. I'm sure that if the people at the company in the US knew about this, they would immediately put a stop to it. Americans don't treat their staff like that - we'd have all sorts of issues, societal and legal, if we did this. It could be a PR nightmare if this information were leaked out. Americans are very sensitive to child labor, indentured labor, and slave labor issues - just ask Nike.

I'm not passing judgement, but I'm frustrated. India does so many things well, but one of its main challenges that I see, is empowering its workers, not from a union point of view (which is another problem here), but from a "team" point of view. Your company is only as good as its weakest member. When you continually stratify staff into certain levels and only see them as going up to a certain point based on caste, religion, or state where you were born, you could potentially be missing out on the vast talents that they may be able to contribute to your organization.

For me personally, since I have no caste and my skin is white, I can enjoy stepping to the front of the line, as people will let me go first whenever I approach. They immediately see me as a "guest", and here in India, "a guest is next to god." While that is an awfully nice premise to work with, I prefer to wait my turn, as I'm really nothing special and shouldn't be treated like that. They've been waiting longer than me. But people feel uncomfortable when I wait because I'm not working within their societal rules and one of us ends up both feeling uncomfortable no matter which option I choose.

I love India. The lifestyle, the natural beauty, the amazing people, all have built castles in my heart. Someone asked me the other day, when I said I had no intention of moving back to the US, if I planned to apply for Indian citizenship. I immediately said, "No". It's not that I don't love it here, but I self-identify as an American and the most problematic? Visas! I travel a LOT. Indians need a visa to go just about everywhere. The mountain of paperwork is incredible. As an American I rarely need to apply for visas - only Brazil and Myanmar have required it, other than India. So I'll be keeping my American citizenship for the near future, thank you.

What are your thoughts on life in India? How do you interact with foreigners? What's the most difficult aspect of life here in India as an expat? I look forward to your comments.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

All the News

RebelMouse has come up with a neat embed script that enables you to curate across the "interwebs" and post in one place. Kind of awesome. Actually, all sorts of awesome.