The most revolting blog post you will ever read

In the week that we are supposed to be standing up for decent work, Stirling Smith, ETI trainer and blogger, has been shocked by some recent deaths in India. And draws links with the potential for caste discrimination in company supply chains.

Nicolas Chamfort, who was at the storming of Bastille, and secretary of the Jacobin Club, advised that you “should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.”

Well, l hope you have had your toad. Because this really is going to be a disgusting blog.

Deaths in sewers

In India this year alone, 90 workers have died cleaning sewers. So far.

That’s about 50% more than the annual average – maybe because of the heavy monsoon in south Asia this year.

In the cities, rain water washes all kind of rubbish into the drains, and hence the sewers get blocked.

Workers are sent in to unlock the sewers. They have no PPE, they normally wear a loincloth.

The deaths are caused by asphyxiation from gasses generated by the waste.

Or drowning in liquid poo.

Yes, that's right. Ninety workers killed by poo. So far this year. Still time for more!

According to one Indian magazine, it's more dangerous to be a sewer worker than an Indian soldier fighting in the low intensity proxy war with Pakistan in Kashmir.

The stats are almost certainly an under-estimate, as they are based on newspaper reports.

You see, these workers are not covered by any health and safety law, so they won’t feature in the Government of India’s annual report on occupational deaths - a completely worthless document in any case.

Not our problem?

That's terrible, you say, but municipal sewers are not in our supply chain, and what is this to do with the ETI?

Fooled you. 

You thought this was one of my blogs about safety and health.

I could riff on for pages about that, but this blog is about the ETI Base Code, section 7.

There is no discrimination in hiring, compensation, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement based on race, caste, national origin, religion, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, union membership or political affiliation.

And the bit that interests us is caste. Discrimination on the grounds of caste.

I lived in India for years, but I never got my head around caste. Yet it is very real, and very alive.

India is like Northern Ireland; a few questions and people know whether you are Roman Catholic or Protestant. In India, a few questions - your name can be enough - and your caste is revealed.

Caste is not some old system set in stone, thousands of years old. Caste is dynamic.

Castes can try to improve their status - one way is to demand dowry (though that is against the law) or decide that women in your caste should stay in purdah, and stay at home. Letting your child marry someone of a lower caste is a no-no. Just try searching on line for a bride or groom, and their caste is always listed.

You can’t escape your caste.

Training courses: see our Essentials of ethical trade series

Open defecation

At this point, you might want to swallow another toad.

Nearly half of the people in India don't have toilets so have to go outside. It's called open defecation, and you can study the problem here.

If you live in the cities, under a flyover, or in a lean-to made of plastic and a piece of bamboo, then you use the street. That's why my friends used to say, as we walked along the street, "Stirling, don't walk over there!"

Who cleans all this up, and the millions of what are called dry toilets?

An estimated 1.3 million workers, without any equipment apart from maybe a wooden scraper and a wicker basket. The practice is called manual scavenging and - of course - there are two  laws abolishing it, though needless to say, the practice goes on. 

But these are the lucky ones. They don't have to dive into liquid crap to unblock the sewers.

Now, all these jobs are done by Dalits - they used to be called untouchables. One thing you might remember about Gandhi is that he was against untouchability, which was abolished by Article 17 in the Indian Constitution. More about it here.

But it goes on.

Members of higher castes will not dine or sit with a Dalit. Or use the same drinking vessels. Or eat food prepared by them. Strict higher caste Hindus believe that they will be polluted even if the shadow of an untouchable person falls on them.

Dalits cannot go into temples, or use the same wells as higher castes.

Look in your supply chains

So now we get to the point: there ARE dalits in YOUR supply chain. Yes you, ETI members (and of course non-members).

They will be the people cleaning the factories, and not just the toilets. If there is a dyeing plant, who is cleaning out the tanks?

This might be called housekeeping, and will be contracted out to a contractor, who uses Dalits. Who cannot get any other work. So they end up doing the “unclean” work, which makes them untouchable, and so it goes on.

But no, you say. There is no caste discrimination in our suppliers, because our social audit reports say so.


Copper bottomed, cast iron, 100% rust, rot and vermin proof

Your social auditor will be a higher caste Hindu.

I can give you a copper bottomed, cast iron, 100% rust, rot and vermin proof guarantee: your auditors will be higher caste.

Now, it is possible that higher caste Hindus can be sensitive to these issues.

Time for a story.

A sacred thread

I have a pal, Sangam, who works for the trade union movement.

Many years ago, he was at an education workshop, and had a shower. He came out, with his sacred thread - this is just a cotton thread worn across the chest by higher caste Hindus - and a much older, senior union activist fell to his knees and said, "I am blessed, my day has started with the vision of Brahmin fresh from his bath". This senior Union person being lower caste.

My pal was so upset that he threw his sacred thread into Mahim creek, which is where the sewers in Mumbai end up, after they have finished killing sewerage workers. 

A Brahmin fresh from his bath. Better way to start the day than swallowing a toad!

But Sangam is a bit exceptional. 

According to most commentators, caste divisions in Indian society are getting sharper, and higher caste attacks on untouchables are on the increase. 

Company action on caste discrimination

Now, there are other types of caste discrimination, but Dalits are in the worse position.

I'm not asking you to go and clean the toilets at your suppliers. I am not asking you to put on a loincloth and dive into a blocked sewer full of poo.

I am asking you to exercise a bit of due diligence about who does those unpleasant cleaning jobs in your supply chain.

Check out the contracts in a lot more detail. Go and check the process. Talk to the workers.

This is a hugely complex and difficult issue. But, compared to swallowing a toad, a lot easier.


Stirling Smith delivers training courses for ETI

ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.