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WDDW on Union Island – Dalit Solidarity Network

Meena Varma

Transcript of a discussion on Decent Work for casteless people with Meena Varma (Meena Turbo), Director of the Dalit Solidarity Network.

[4:19]  johninnit Ni: So Meena, could you please tell us a little about Dalit Solidarity Network, and what Decent Work means to you?
[4:20]  Meena Turbo: decent work is all about the right to a living wage without exploitation, and the worst of these is being a shit shoveller
[4:22]  Meena Turbo: in India alone there are 170million so called untouchables they are outside any social and economic system and subject to systematic and systemic human rights abuses -
[4:23]  johninnit Ni: but it’s not just a problem in India?
[4:23]  Meena Turbo: there are 260 million dalits worldwide – esp south Asia but also in Japan parts of Africa and wherever the Asian people have gone to as well
[4:24]  johninnit Ni: so a worldwide phenomenon. And what kind of issues do these people face at work?
[4:25]  Meena Turbo: if they are lucky enough to get employment at all they are subject to humiliation and discrimination they are forced to do the jobs at the very bottom of the pecking order
[4:25]  johninnit Ni: and this is because of their birth – with nothing they can do about it
[4:26]  Meena Turbo: yes – their lives have been preordained by where they born in or mostly out of the cast system
[4:26]  johninnit Ni: and how does DSN work to help the situation?
[4:27]  Meena Turbo: we campaign and lobby the UK Government but also have to lobby in the EU and the UN. The hardest part of the job is to raise awareness amongst the general public who think of discrimination as merely race or gender thing rather than every aspect of a person’s life from the day they were born
4:28]  johninnit Ni: so how do you think the idea of core labour standards and Decent Work can help the campaign?
[4:29]  Meena Turbo: Our new campaign is to STOP Manual Scavenging – that is the cleaning up of human shit with just a thin board and then having to carry a basket of shit to the nearest dump on ones head. Core labour standards in India and much of South Asia are ignored.
[4:30]  Meena Turbo: Decent work is a human right and we need to ensure that all governments start to implement the standards that most of have signed up to

Meena Varma

[4:31]  johninnit Ni: thanks Meena. Would anyone else like to ask a question?
[4:32]  johninnit Ni: One other from me if I can please = What role do you think Unions might play to help casteless people – I guess none are in unions themselves?[4:32]  Vaughan Vantelli: hi Meena so are these people ‘employed’ or do they perform these duties to try to gain money?
[4:32]  Meena Turbo: Most Manual Scavengers will earn on average less than 7 pence (10 Euro cents) a day
[4:33]  johninnit Ni: but they don’t have the chance of finding better work because of their caste, so in a sense they are forced to work rather than free to take paid  jobs
[4:33]  Meena Turbo: Manual scavenging is forced labour because they do not have the chance of any other employment and this ‘career’ is passed down through the family and generations
[4:34]  Vaughan Vantelli: so presumably the role for unions would more likely to be in political campaigning then? does any of this happen at the moment?
[4:35]  Meena Turbo: There is no Union membership amongst the majority of Dalits and they desperatley need representation in order to higlight their working conditions and complete lack of labour rights
[4:36]  johninnit Ni: Are there organisations of Dalits themselves coming together that you have worked with, similar to unions?
[4:37]  Meena Turbo: There are several Dalit organizations esp in India who campaign for human and economic rights as well as to education etc, but in a country the size of India it is very hard t be truly representational
[4:37]  johninnit Ni: and I guess impossible for them to link internationally, which is where organisations like yours come in?
[4:38]  Meena Turbo: Excatly! And we have soildarity networks across europe – in 7 other countries

Meena Varma

[4:38]  johninnit Ni: How closely do the international organisations work with unions?
[4:38]  Vaughan Vantelli: what role for uk unions then and how do we as union members raise the profile of these issues?
[4:38]  Bruce Radek: What sort of campaigns dio they run?
[4:39]  Meena Turbo: We are working closely with UNITE and esp the Finance sector where there have been companies with huge investments in India
4:40]  Meena Turbo: AXA Unite has been lobbying its head office to close an office in India because they will ot acknowledge the exisrtence iof the caste system and refuse to meet with UNITES – an India Union
[4:41]  Vaughan Vantelli: what if anything is the Indian government doing?
[4:41]  Meena Turbo: UK unions have beeen raising the issue at local meetings and the DSN DVD I’m Dalit How are you avaialable on has been shown on several occasion as well as at last year’s TUC conference. Untouchablity is outlawed by the constitution but the India governemnt is yet tio enforce its 60 year old legislation.
[4:42] johninnit Ni: for clarification – untouchable is another phrase used to describe Dalit people
[4:43]  Meena Turbo: So Dalits are still unable to access the education, health and employment systems as their right
[4:43]  johninnit Ni: I’d heard about the situation in India, but was surprised to find it in so many other countries, including Japan, which has its own groups of casteless people
[4:44]  Meena Turbo: In Japan the Burakumin are discriminated against on the basis of their birth or caste and in parts of Africa there is still caste based slavery.
[4:44]   Meena Turbo: Official UN terminology for this is discrimination on the basis of ‘work and descent’ The Indian govt refused to ratify if ‘caste’ was the term used
[4:47]  Bruce Radek: I’m sure this is a naive question but what is the UN position on this? where are the resolutions and planned invasions for breaching them? no oil in India I take it??
[4:47]  Meena Turbo: UN Committee for the Elimination of racial Discrimnation includes this as ‘work and descent’. India was reviewed last year and refused to accept he accusation that discrimination existed and that it was an internal issue that they were dealing with
[4:49]  Meena Turbo: The UN and the EU are wary of dealing with India as they are seen as ‘respected memebrs of the Human Rights Council and of course there is money to be had!!
[4:49]  johninnit Ni: thanks Meena
[4:49]  Jean Flores: Are you trying to engage the huge Indian companies such as Tata?
[4:49]  johninnit Ni: we’re nearly out of time now
[4:49]  Jean Flores: ok sorry
[4:49]  johninnit Ni: but we could take another question
[4:50]  johninnit Ni: no – Jean go ahead!
[4:50]  Jean Flores: Yes I just thought that some of the worlds largest companies are Indian,  like Tata. And they commit themselves to CSR.
[4:50]  Jean Flores: they could do something?
[4:50]  Meena Turbo: Yes – we are trying to engage through the Confederation of Indian Industries and TAT is the biggest player there. Also we know of TATA links here in the UK now
[4:51]  Jean Flores: I have some contacts
[4:51]  Meena Turbo: Yes please
[4:51]  Jean Flores: so I can talk with them also
[4:51]  Meena Turbo: Double yes please
[4:51]  johninnit Ni: So thanks very much to Meena Varma – Director of Dalit Solidarity Network. You can find out more about DSN and their campaigns on their site at
[4:51]  johninnit Ni: Jean – I’ll get Meena’s email for you
[4:52]  Jean Flores: Thank you so much it was really interesting, and good work
[4:52]  Vaughan Vantelli: thanks Meena…very interesting. Good luck!
[4:52]  johninnit Ni: Meena is now off to Real Life events. so thanks very much for taking the time to visit
[4:52]  Wotcher Tenk: Cheers Meena
[4:52]  Meena Turbo: Thanks and bye till next time
[4:52]  johninnit Ni: and have a good (and very Decent) day
[4:52]  Bruce Radek: Bye
[4:52]  Erdenesaikhan Eel: Thanks Meena Varma

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