Friday, January 28, 2011

Earn and Lounge

The other day I was walking through the Tekra and ran into this woman. She was going through that sack of shredded paper, separating out any shreds that had color on them from the pure white. Some nearby business had been bringing in sack after sack, and paying for the work. Why mounds of pure white shredded paper are better than ones with color, I can't quite say. The woman said she was paid Rs.1 for each kilo of separated shreds. And it takes about 30 minutes to do a kilo, so that's Rs.2/hour (less than five cents).

Seems meager, and also a bit sub-human. But on another day I was with a group of volunteers walking by the same house and saw the entire family out doing the shred sorting. They were working together, and though focused on the task at hand, had smiles on their faces. We stopped to chit-chat and offer some chai, which they took gladly. Didn't seem like they were in much distress, or depressed. Almost seemed like they would have all been out there that day like that whether they had the shreds to sort or not. But with the shreds at least they were earning while doing timepass. Not quite earn and learn, but for a bit I was conflicted about whether I could completely knock what was going on.

My sense is it's a short run/long run tradeoff, similar to sweat shops. In the short run, it's an opportunity to earn more than you otherwise would (by default). In the long run, it erodes and then stunts the human capacity of the community.


  1. Wow, that bothers me.

    I wouldn't hold it against the family that they have chosen to / have to do the work to earn extra money. But why have they chosen this work as opposed to other alternatives that are out there? Do they know of alternatives? Are there any? Are there hidden benefits to this type of work? And is there no way to ask for a higher wage for this work? Rs. 2 / hour is low by any standard, esp. in a medium-sized city like Ahmedabad.

  2. Neil,

    Just read your post, and have a quick reaction.
    I agree about long-run/short-run, but I disagree with your parting sentiment.

    For one, it's safe work. Second, its relatively dignified work, i.e., no one is unfairly exploiting
    them or pushing them around. Third, it keeps them out of trouble. Work like this, while being a waste of human potential, just extends the runway we have -- otherwise we'd have a
    revolution on our hands. The runway at least ensures their children have a chance.

    Of course, we have "stunted" people in many ways for many years, which is tragic for them,
    but perhaps there was no other way. So at a generational level, I think its a loss in the short term, but a plus in the long run.