A reflection by Shalin Gor, Consultant at Good Business Lab.
As I sit here on my balcony, overlooking the eerily quiet remains of a once energetic market that has been muted by social distancing policies, I can’t help but think of the choices which have led to me being 4,150 miles away from home.
The joy of waking up to my grandpa brewing masala chai like a druid, watching my grandma waddle to her throne, and then sitting by her side to observe the house dance through their morning routines like a ballet, are feelings that I yearn for every single day.
Comfort, love, family.
Why did I give that all up to move to India? It is a question that I ask myself all the time, especially when my nose is tucked deeply in the armpit of an interestingly scented local on the Delhi metro.
In my view, life, and the adventure of it, is nothing more than a series of choices, acted upon with uncompromising conviction.
Do I miss my family? Absolutely.
Do I miss getting paid in Pounds? Oh, you bet I do.
But do I ever regret making this move? No, not at all, because there was a point in time when this was the only thing I wanted to do.
Pressing pause on a career in management consulting to pursue my passion of telling stories and making videos for organizations committed to improving the world, was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up on. The stars aligned when my cousin, Achyuta Adhvaryu — a Professor of Development Economics at University of Michigan — was looking for someone to create video content for his not for profit start-up, Good Business Lab (GBL), which is based in India and on a mission to prove that worker wellbeing is good business. We set up a call, exchanged pleasantries, shook virtual hands, and before I knew it, I had my bags packed and was bidding farewell to my parents at London Heathrow Airport.
As I stepped off the plane at Indira Gandhi International Airport, I took a long, deep breath of that heavy, sweaty and weirdly comforting post-Diwali Delhi air, and instantly knew that I had arrived. I jumped into an Uber, disappointed my driver with painfully fractured Hindi, and was then inaugurated at my first of many roadside dhabas — which was the beginning of a culinary awakening, but that’s a story for another time perhaps.
GBL is a family of ridiculously educated individuals on a mission to prove, through rigorous economic research, that putting worker wellbeing at the heart of business operations is not just a good thing to do for the workforce, but that it also has real financial returns.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is often seen as a luxury: a way to sprinkle some goodwill over the company’s yearly report and an excuse to post some poignant content across social media to make it look like they are one for the people. Although, thanks to grassroot initiatives such as Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg fighting for real action to be taken on climate change, companies have been forced to put CSR on the agenda, but it will only be taken seriously once the business world is convinced that expenditure on CSR initiatives has real returns and is not just good rhetoric.
To make their case, GBL has partnered with Shahi Exports — India’s largest garment manufacturing firm and employer of over 120,000 workers spread over 60 factories. These workers are predominantly from far away villages, hidden in the forgotten regions of the world where people would only imagine visiting to capture footage for charity adverts.
And in these places, people are just born into bad luck.
A very small number of people have the luxury of finishing high school, and most are often pulled out to help on the farm, or to do odd jobs just to have something to chew on in the evening and avoid the grumbles at night. Unfortunately, the prospects for girls in such situations are often even worse: pulled out or not even given the chance to go to school, sequestered to their home to do chores, or married away in their teens as part of a quid pro quo.
To escape from such nightmares or forced away out of necessity to earn and send money home, many young people tie up their most valued positions in a bindle and set off to the big city, in search for a job with nothing more than determination and desperation on their CV.
With a high demand for manual labor and low skill entry requirements, the garment manufacturing industry is a popular destination for such migrants.
As portrayed in the media, garment manufacturing factories aren’t exactly the pinnacle of workplace cultures or typically associated with having great worker wellbeing programs. It is a high volume — low margin operation, with factories heavily focused on team outputs and process efficiency, and when in competition with other developing countries for orders from retail brands who look for the cheapest manufacturing deals to keep prices low for customers like you and I, it is easy to overlook the individual working on the sewing line who is doing the same mundane task all day on minimum wage, and is constantly worried about making ends meet, because of the money they need to fork out for their family back home, rent, food and drink, and other living expenses.
I suppose it is natural to lament these workers and smother them with sympathy in the hope of offsetting our privilege, but we will never truly understand how they feel about their situation, and that’s because it comes down to perspectives.
For the worker, they could be overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to go from almost nothing to something, whereas for me having comparatively everything to see that they have barely anything, my heart often aches for their outlook.
Moving away from home to a new city with no friends, working in an often-intense environment, and trying to navigate their new world whilst carrying the baggage from the previous chapter, can be detrimental to their mental health, and multiple research studies have confirmed that loneliness and poor mental health is prevalent amongst migrant workers.
My migration was out of choice rather than for survival, driven by a sense of adventure and to avoid a midlife what-if scenario. However, for most of the factory workers, their migration is out of pure necessity.
Move or die.
Hustle or struggle.
Whenever I miss home, I can skip along to a hipster coffee shop, take a seat on a fashionably uncomfortable wooden chair and indulge in a poached egg and avocado on toast.
But this isn’t the case for worker 6669 on sewing line 2754 in factory 022.
In crazy times like these when we are forced to work from home and limit human interaction, a social void is created which gets filled with unsafe levels of alone time and introspection, and it is a shame that it has taken such a crisis to teach me something so basic and obvious. Although my situation is a stark contrast to those who I write stories on, by being a migrant in a new city, I have learned to understand that nobody is immune to feeling lonely.
Nobody is immune to having dark days.
No battle is insignificant.
But while I have the privilege to sit and write a blog about it, many people will have to put a mask over their stiff upper lip and continue risking infection to go to work, because they need to stamp in to get paid.
Tough times like these serve as harsh reminders that everyone is facing their own battle and that there are many who are less equipped to fight them than others. Fortunately for me, on dark days, I can always find solace in knowing that there is a hot cup of masala chai waiting for me at home.