Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!

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Handing Walmart a Big Whooping Defeat in India

Best_Price_Walmart_India_BhartiYangon   Walmart with tail tucked firmly between their legs announced that they are unraveling their partnership with India’s giant Bharti conglomerate, acknowledging finally that this marriage of convenience while trying to enter the burgeoning India retail market and sneak around foreign direct investment requirements was finally coming to an end.  The India FDI Watch Campaign, a coalition of organizations from traders to hawkers to labor unions is an ACORN International partner that we helped found in 2005 and have supported throughout this accountability campaign to deal with Walmart’s attempt to enter India, welcomed the news with both relief and celebration.

            This is a victory with a hundred parents though, and no small part of the story is Walmart’s own undoing of course, and more recently its inability to either have its way with the Indian Parliament or to abide by the rules that were finally crafted in a bitter compromise to allow foreign direct investment in retail.  The fact that their mischief and chicanery in Mexico of bribing local officials and greasing every skid in that country is likely to have also been at work in India where an investigation continues into whether they were involved in corrupt practices tying the hands of their lobbyists even more.

            Only months ago we felt we were not exactly losing, but we were not really winning either.  After years of beating back the Prime Minister’s efforts to modify FDI in multi-brand retail, including a dramatic time in the monsoon session of 2011 when Parliament essentially was shut down for weeks in resistance to the Congress Party attempt to impose FDI, the compromise that had broken the stalemate with a study and recommendation committee where Dharmendra Kumar from India FDI Watch testified several times. At the end of last year and early in 2013 the compromise was clear and the fight was going to be moving to the individual Indian states to block the entry of superstores.  There had been important concessions won.  Walmart and their like could only open in cities with more than a million population and outside of city center areas.   They had to spend significantly on infrastructure as part of their investment and, importantly, they had to source at least 30% from India.

            From Walmart’s statements, as they gamely tried to frame the split with Bharti as part of its long term “patient” strategy for India, it seemed clear that the threshold objection that they might have had was actually the minimum 30% sourcing requirement from India’s factories and suppliers.   If that wasn’t the real issue, then some communications person or executive speaking to the Wall Street Journal has now been fired, and of course that’s the issue that means the most to the political and economic classes of India.  We had campaigned continually against Walmart’s entry, arguing that they would be dumping Chinese goods on the Indian market.  From their statements, while raising the white flag in India, it sounds like we were more right than we might have ever imagined.

            Walmart has 20 Sam’s Club type stores which have been allowed in recent years if they sell exclusively to other businesses and not walk-in customers at large.   Metro, the German retailer, with a big footprint in Indian cities now had been fast-and-loose with a similar wholesale operation and was fined in Bengaluru.  With this splitting the sheets with Bharti, that will basically be Walmart’s brand in India.

            At least until they learn to respect the issues of the 20,000,000 small retail purveyors in this country rather than think that fast bucks and loud bullying is this same as transparency and accountability.

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