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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Indian States are Putting More Roadblocks in front of Walmart Expansion

New Orleans   Two reports yesterday from Dharmendra Kumar, director of the India FDI Watch Campaign affiliated with ACORN International, point out how far the superstore giants like Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco, and Metro really are from being able to freely enter markets throughout India.  This is largely a story that the global business press is missing as they tout the rise and fall of the stock market without trying to understand that there continues to be a huge struggle over these issues of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.

            First and foremost, when Prime Minister Singh announced that he was pushing forward the modification, he could only do so generally at the parliamentary level.  Specifically each of the twenty-eight India states, not to mention the seven territories, has the right to independently decide whether to allow this FDI expansion in their jurisdictions.  As of this date, only 11 of the 28 states have indicated a willingness to tolerate such expansion with 17 thus far militantly opposed.

            As Dharmendra reported yesterday, there continue to be more roadblocks. 

            Walmart had teamed up with India-based Bharti in recent years to operate a “cash-and-carry” business that sold only to other businesses and not the general public, something like Sam’s Clubs the United States.  The Government had indicated that a “group” business like Walmart-Bharti had certain restrictions, but in recent years the ambiguity of the “group” business definition had allowed them free rein.  No more. 

            To quote from Dharmendra’s report:

On 3rd June 2013, Govt. of India defined Group firms as two or more enterprises that directly or indirectly are in a position to exercise 26% or more voting rights in the other enterprise or appoint more than 50% members on board of directors in the other enterprise. Amidst widespread opposition to the Walmart’s backdoor entry of FDI in Multibrand retail (through Bharti-Walmart, the 50:50 joint venture between Walmart and Bharti for operating Cash-and-carry outlets in India), in April 2010 Govt. of India framed a policy that asked cash-and-carry businesses (Bharti-Walmart) to limit their sale to group firms at 25 per cent of their turnover. In absence of clear definition of what group firms meant Bharti-Walmart’s cash & carry business (20 Best Price Stores) continued to sale almost 85% of their products to Bharti Retail’s 200 Easy Day stores.

Now, Bharti-Walmart will either have to limit its sale to Easy Day to 25 per cent of its turnover or restructure its corporate structure.

 

There can’t be happiness in Bentonville over this new clarification.

 

Yesterday the Indian Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) was also meeting and was expected to also propose additional heartburn for the superstore outfits.   India FDI Watch expected the following actions:

It is likely that the DIPP

 

– Would ask global superstores to invest 50% of only the first tranche of investments (minimum $100 million) in back-end infrastructure.

– Would declare that the 51% foreign direct investment limit in multi brand retail is composite one, including FDI and foreign institutional investment (FII).

– Would allow superstores to create back-end infrastructure in states that do not allow any FDI in multi-brand retail

             Forcing the big boys to put their investments up front rather than only in the logistics and supply at the backend of a retail operation almost puts a bull’s-eye specifically on the usually smiley-face of Walmart.

            There’s a lot more fight to come in India over FDI’s expansion into retail.

Indian States and Walmart Expansion Audio Blog

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