TFT India's Girish Kowale reflects on a career helping workers.
As of January 2019, The Forest Trust has become Earthworm Foundation.
TFT’s Girish Kowale has visited and assessed more than 1,500 work sites during his career. His seven years with TFT India have been dedicated to improving working conditions for workers in the stone industry. Here he talks about Respect and what it means to him.
TFT works with global businesses to improve the conditions of workers in a number of sectors – these workers need to be respected. But if change is to be made everyone in the process must be respected.
Respect is the most important thing when it comes to solving the environmental challenges around the world. Who is destroying forests and who is going to bring the change to stop that? The answer is people. So any work to bring positive change must start with what I call the H factor – the human factor. If we do not focus on people then the transformation we are all looking for cannot happen.
TFT visits quarries, factories and plantations around the world to ensure workers are not exploited. There was a time when I would be out on these visits every day. Now I spend more time managing the TFT India team; but the human factor is everywhere, therefore respect needs to be everywhere too.
Never forget the importance of communication
When it comes to assessing a site much rests on communication. This can be a challenge in India, because we have 18 official languages, more than 25 states, and around 2,500 dialects. I am from Goa, where the Konkani dialect is spoken, but when I go to the deep south of India the language spoken there is like Greek and Italian to me. Fortunately, they too speak English. But language isn’t the only challenge. Just because a site has a set problem doesn’t mean there is a set solution. The challenges we face trying to improve conditions for workers are not solved by quick fixes. What is required is an investment in time, money and resources.
TFT are not auditors, we are more than that
Although we assess sites we are not third-party auditors. We don’t come in and tick boxes on a piece of paper. Nor are we solely interested in compliance with laws. We look beyond that. That doesn’t mean we make excuses for the factories if we feel they aren’t where they should be. When I am on the shop floor I am always a pain the arse, always asking them questions. What we are trying to change is people and this takes time. You have to stay cool. I have never lost my temper in 20 years of doing assessments. You must never interrogate factory managers and owners. Again, respect must be everywhere. I make people comfortable because they are worried I am going to ask all sorts of nasty questions, which of course I do ask, but in a casual and light atmosphere.
What you have learned and what you feel
Site assessments will always be an important part of our work. Technical qualifications are important to be able to carry out these assessments, but because we are dealing with the human factor qualifications are not enough. I always do my homework. If I am going to a certain region then I consider the region, the specific stone it produces, the issues associated with both. This is important context, but it cannot be relied upon totally. You need to use all of your senses when assessing a site. Your research and the text books will point to one plus one equaling two, but it is not always the case. This is learned through experience, both good and bad.
If a site is outsourcing the work to 10 sub-contractors there is always the possibility of issues. The first challenge is agreeing with all parties that there might be a problem here. Businesses must own the problem. Once we agree that, we can move forward together. It’s not about kicking bad suppliers out. If you do this to supplier A, then by same set of standards you will have to do so with B and C. Better instead to build a relationship and trust with suppliers. Buyers can have huge impact here. It’s not a question of putting pressure on the site; it’s about creative engagement.
This has facilitated many positive changes in 20 years. One stone-buying brand funded the initiation of small self-help womens’ groups in Allepey, on the south west coast of India. This model was picked up by small NGO and it completely changed the sourcing of the area. The groups became financially self-sufficient long after the pilot by the parent company ended.
I have also seen the change in the attitude of business leaders. Even if everyone doesn’t want to change there is now a feeling that they have to. Improving worker conditions was once seen by site owners as some kind of corporate philanthropy or charitable endeavour. Not now. A younger generation of site owners has traveled and understand what is expected if you are to be a successful global business. Health and safety is taken much more seriously.
It all starts with respect
Change does not happen quickly. The first reaction with many sites when faced with change is how will this affect my business? Ultimately we are not changing business practices, we changing people. Trust must be earned and built to overcome fears and anxiety that come from change. It all starts with respect.