As shareholders at supermarket giant Tesco grappled last week with the question of whether to award more rights to the chickens sold at their British stores, trade unionists and campaigners were raising the plight of another species, the workers in Tesco’s Indian supply chain.
Garment workers in Bangalore, southern India, are often cooped up in windowless sheds for up to 18 hours a day, denied water in case they need regular toilet breaks, and paid as little as 16p an hour.
Those who raise the question of workers’ rights or join a union are routinely threatened or sacked.
KR Jayaran from the Bangalore Garment and Textile Workers’ Union told Socialist Worker that factories supplying British supermarkets were springing up all over the city, dragging in workers from the surrounding countryside.
“Many of those who are making goods to be sold in Tesco are very young women, often illiterate, and desperate to earn money for their families.
“They are forced by lack of money to stay three or four to a small room, in which they must sleep in rotation according to their shift.
“Some are earning just £1.25 a day, but the cost of living in Bangalore is extremely high as the city is the centre of India’s software and call centre industries.”
Mr Jayaran said that despite factory bosses doing everything they can to undermine the union, collective organisation of garment workers is growing at a rate of knots.
“A few years ago, we had only one or two union members in each factory. But recently numbers have mushroomed and we now have around 3,500 members across the city.
“Last week we organised a strike of 1,200 garment workers at the MB Group. The company, by laying off workers in quiet months only to re-employ them when orders come through, regularly breaks our labour laws.
“But our strikes, combined with the pressure on the supermarket chains from the adverse publicity in the West, is making the garment bosses scared to go on the offensive.”
Meanwhile multinationals are greedily eyeing the “Indian market” as the next possible global growth area for supermarkets – a move that threatens to wipe out millions of street traders and small shop owners.
Research by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations found that small retailers can expect to lose almost a quarter of their business when an “organised retailer” moves in nearby. This has resulted in scores of protests involving up to 20,000 small traders at a time.
Laws and taxes that make it uneconomical for large ventures to operate across different Indian states currently restrict the growth of supermarket chains. But big business has been putting the Indian government under intense pressure to “liberalise” the market.
Now many multinational chains, such as Marks & Spencer, are working in tandem with Indian corporate giants like Reliance to open up new stores in wealthy areas in the hope of being able to take advantage of any future change in the law.
A host of Indian marketing companies say that their research proves that supermarkets’ long opening hours – and gangs of security guards to keep the poor and slum dwellers well away – will attract India’s young professionals because it is a convenient way to buy life’s essentials.
It seems no one asked whether those who work in these bright retail parks for such extended hours, and those who toil in darkness in gloomy sheds making goods to put on the shelves will find supermarkets “convenient”.
Surely it is time that “organised retail” came face to face with “organised labour”.