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Educated Unemployment and Labor Shorages [India Trip Blog 4]

In An 22, the intro to socio-cultural anthropology class I took last term, we talked about emic and etic perspectives. The emic perspective is the native point of view, and the etic perspective is the outsider’s point of view and the conclusion about what is going on. This almost seems to apply to the labor shortage we kept hearing about in Kerala through many of our other industry visits. (A really good paper about this is here, though it is a bit outdated.)

When we visited RRI, the rubber research institute, we were told that having a rubber tapping tool a simple homeowner with a few trees could easily use before work in the morning would mean harvesting trees that are currently left alone because of the high cost of labor. Many families have an acre of trees, but they won’t hire someone skilled for that single acre.

Cardumum is a really expensive spice. It grows on plants like those shown above, in the mountains of Kerala. The plants always need to be moist; when we visited, it was raining. [It was a beautiful place, but there were tons of leaches – not my favorite animal!!] The spice harvesting requires skilled labor because knowing when the seeds are ripe is very difficult; they turn a little darker, smell slightly different, and are slightly harder. These are tiny changes, and the harvesters have to test each seed individually to see if it is ready. Again, we were told that the "labor shortage" made it hard to find enough workers. Further, labor was by far the most expensive cost in producing the spice, and limited the amount of spice that could economically be grown and harvested. [This was my favorite industry visit if just for the beauty of the area!]

The fountain on the right is actually heart-shaped! Cool!

When we visited the District Agricultural Farm, we heard of the same problem. Here, cutting grass and composting are the major concerns. There is no good way to cut grass, especially in the rainy season. Most of it is done by hand or small machines.

Pepper plants. I never know pepper grew on vines before! It grows in bunches and has to be handpicked.

Because labor is expensive, a lot of farmers or landowners are having trouble doing this. In the tapioca fields, there are so many weeds that they are taking the nutrients out of the ground and hardly any tapioca is growing, but cutting the weeds between the plants is too labor intensive.The weeds are taking nutrients from the soil so the tapioca doesn’t grow well and the yield is very low.

Here, they also showed us their banana tree composing system. I was very surprised to find out that banana trees aren’t actually trees, and they get cut down on a regular basis! This research farm composts the banana plants, but many farmers don’t because it takes too much time. Ahem problem. In some places, the banana trunks are used to get banana fiber that is made into cloth, but currently that process is extremely difficult – that’s certainly an interesting opportunity we’ll be looking into!

And again, when we visited Alen, a teammember from STGITS, and watched a coconut tree get cut, there was a labor shortage of coconut pickers — they have to climb the tree (it was very impressive) and it takes a lot of skill. [On an interesting side note, they even noticed the age divide – it used to be that sons would learn from fathers how to climb coconut trees, but now sons are going for white collar jobs after getting educations and so the generation climbing trees is aging fast.]

Everyone kept telling us about the labor shortages, and I was a bit confused – especially the jobs like coconut picking weren’t even that badly paid! So my scientific, etic perspective was very confused. There was unemployment and a labor shortage. Why didn’t the unemployed just take the jobs?? In my American head, that doesn’t make sense; until later in the week, the SAINTGITS students didn’t really understand why I was confused, either. Finally, I began to understand. Because Kerala is a socialist state, there is a really high percentage of education. This education comes with a social perception that white collar jobs are more prestigious, offer better hopes for marriage (the value of marriage is definitely something I needed to come to terms with as well – it’s definitely not the same as here!), and are simply hands down more desirable. The unemployment here is EDUCATED unemployment. For me, at the beginning of the week, that was a "so what – if they need a job, why don’t they work where they can?" One conversation that helped me understand their perspective better was with the father of one of the SAINTGITS professors. He had studied in the US in the 1970s, in a chemistry lab. There were three girls who came in every morning from 9 until 11, he said, and did the dishes. Several months after he had been there, he learned that these girls were not just employees – they were working on their doctorate. This had been a shock to him. In Kerala, he said, people wouldn’t do this. There was a social perception that this was bad, beneath educated people. Most people (especially younger people, who are overrepresented in the unemployment group) would rather live off of their still-working parents than take a blue-collar job.

This makes it sound simple, but I really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the students from SAINTGITS meant when they told us about the labor shortage. I’m glad I finally did. In the end, I’m not sure the target group in our class is the educated people who won’t take a blue-collar job (aka, even unemployed they have a way to survive!). Regardless, it’s extremely important in understanding the culture that we are designing for in the class, and the society we are putting products into – and even more, it’s just interesting to see the different perceptions in our cultures (and ultimately, this was a part of our culture that I had never questioned!).

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