Leisure, Lifestyle & Wellness
Life Exclusive
Staff relations and discipline

Rewarding efficient employees and dealing with rebellious staff was part of the responsibilities at a garment factory. The 25th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

Though I had visited Sri Lanka once before I joined Gulf Industries, I had no opportunity or even need to go there again while working with this firm, as our partner took the responsibility of selecting the staff and sending them to us for employment.  It was only required, when we built Finetex and it was Zubair’s way of delegating responsibility and ensuring that I get the best staff for our plant.
 
It took a month and half for me to know my staff; I observed them at close quarters; made my own notes on how they worked and what parts of the garment they were good at and so on.  Since it was a system of batch production, each component had to be done well and passed on to the next operator ahead who would then go to the next step in manufacture. Of course, each batch had its supervisor who was constantly on the move, checking, helping, correcting, so as to make every part of the garment perfect, so that, at the end of the line, a finely made garment would emerge!
 
I had mentally made up my mind to reward the workers; these would be in ad hoc payment, of a sum equivalent to SLR 750 (Sri Lankan rupees), which was the kind of amount many small factories would give as a start for its trainees for a whole month! Our prize proposal was simply for encouraging them to produce the very best. This was for various sections of the plant and this would be a permanent feature, month after month. Of course, the selected winners’ photographs would be displayed in the main production hall.
 
Zubair is one of the rare entrepreneurs who would welcome such innovative ideas. When I suggested this to him, all that he said was: “Why do you have to even refer this to me? You do whatever you feel best for the company”. A little later, I spoke to Piyasena and without announcing the details of the ‘prizes’, we simply publicised on the mike that we expect our staff members to take pride in their work and produce the best.
 
On the 7th of the following month, just before the morning tea break, we announced that a special appreciation for the good work done by the staff for the previous month will be made.
 
When they returned, the names of winners were announced and prizes in closed ‘envelopes’ were given. There was excitement and surprise and after a speech made by Perera; there was even more enthusiasm for the staff to be on the winners’ board the next month.  By the time lunch break out took place, the board was prominently displayed with the photographs of winners and their sections!
 
This was the first of its kind, introduced in not only in the Free Zone, but in the entire industry, operating in the UAE as well. We had not experienced any absenteeism and discipline was the very best that we enjoyed in our plant.
 
Mohammed, who had helped me during the interview process a few months earlier, and who was operating a plant in Shariah, was in the Free Zone to see his friends, after which he dropped unexpectedly in our plant. It was a pleasant surprise to receive this soft spoken ex-air force man, who was always friendly and nice. He had dropped in on a help mission and wanted my assistance urgently.
 
He explained that, due to recommendations made by his wife, he had met four young Sri Lankan girls in Karachi, who had come there on a ‘maid’s’ employment visa and were facing difficult working conditions, as a result of which they had simply “run away” from their jobs, and were doing odd jobs, and had landed in a garment factory. His wife had given them support and protection and somehow wanted them to get a break in a garment factory in Dubai! Since, it would take quite some time for him to get new visas for the staff in his plant; would Finetex give them an opportunity?
 
He had all the passport details, photographs and a description of what they were doing in the garment factory. After his wife made the recommendations, he had met them and came to know they were really good in their jobs and had picked up the operations well. Besides, they were able to speak Urdu well in the four years they had spent there.
 
It took less than a week for me to get them the visas and give them suitable jobs in our plant. In fact, Perera was more than pleased with their work, speed and finish. They worked for a good nine months or so and I had suggested to Perera that one of the girls, let us call her, Premawathy, be groomed to become a supervisor, because of her knowledge, work discipline, etc.
 
But, unfortunately, all too suddenly, during a random inspection by one of the Free Zone officials, she not only began to argue with him, but began to raise slogans about various matters and sort of challenged him to say that the workers must form a ‘union’ to protect their interests.  Regrettably, this word itself is ‘taboo’ in the Middle East and her utterances were not acceptable to the authorities. The three other girls, who had come with her, immediately jumped up in her support, and for the first time, we had a sort of rebellious situation in our plant, the like of which never happened before.
 
I always loved and respected my staff and to this day they reciprocate this feeling. But this was a situation that the Free Zone did not accept and did not want any other staff member to even dream. The gang of four were repatriated back to Sri Lanka on the first flight out of the country, by mid night of the same day.
 
I was back in Muscat and the garment factories were slowly coming up; we had quite a few visitors and dignitaries from leading business families who wanted to get into the business but were unwilling to invest; they wanted full control and a greater share of profits, which was not acceptable to interested parties from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. The Philippine industrialists were happy building up their plants, and were not keen to invest overseas. China, of course, was expanding within the country itself.
 
Our shipments from Muscat also continued at great speed; and I was travelling back and forth; and we had a shipment of trousers, for a company called Habband, which was being made at both the plants. In order to coordinate the actual production and shipment details, I had come on the previous evening to Dubai and was in the plant, when Haji Cader called.
 
From his call, I realized that he had called Muscat and was directed to get in touch with me as I was in Dubai. There was an emergency, involving a staff member by the name, Ganga.  Her young daughter was in the General Hospital in Colombo, undergoing treatment and a surgery was likely. Haji did not know the details and it was due any time; was it possible for me to send her back urgently?
 
Even before I discussed the issue with Piyasena, I arranged for her booking and a definite seat (it was impossible to get seats in those days); but without her ‘pataka’ I would not be given the passport by the Free Zone!  All our staff had strict instructions to carry the pataka all the time when outside the camp; inside the factory, it was a ‘must’, and if any person was found working without this ID, they were liable to be punished, which included a fine. And I did not know whether Ganga was carrying her ID with her or not!
 
I called in Perera to my office, explained the situation to him and said, I have to carry out this ‘surprise’ inspection and check myself, because I have got some “secret news” from my friend in the Free zone that some officers were coming to the factory in the next half hour or so. This was our plan to get her pataka!
 
In the mock drill that followed, we called some 10-12 staff members to check their ID, praying that Ganga should not have hers with her! Eight of them had and four, including Ganga, had only the photocopy of the pataka, but not the original. With a warning, they were sent back to the camp in our van, and their patakas secured. As a ‘punishment’ we advised the four to stay back at the camp and told them their salary will be cut for the day (we never did that to any staff).
 
In the evening, both Perera and I called on her and explained to her the situation and that she would be met by Haji Cader at the airport early next morning. Her to and fro air passage was paid for by the company. All the members of the staff made a voluntary contribution and the company gave her a month’s salary to cover her absence. She rejoined some six weeks later, after her daughter had recovered completely. Our staff was always treated as a member of our own families.
 
Another member of the staff, who used to obtain urgent ‘supplies’ from the market was making a quick buck or two in preparing false invoices; and I found this myself when Perera asked me to get the materials, on my way to the plant. A quick check revealed that these items (like threads, lining materials, etc, had to be on our account, when we were doing “sub-contracting” jobs) were purchased regularly, while this driver was making the money. With the documentary proof I spoke to Zubair, who not only made the guy apologise to me, but removed him from our employment.
 
We loved our staff and stood by them. But we did not accept any deviation and indiscipline of any kind, for both us, work was worship. Period.
 
Any job opportunity was always first extended to our staff members and we had the lowest attrition in the entire industry. We remained the best employer in the industry.

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

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Life Exclusive
The race for the US presidency: The spirit of 2004

President Obama has been unable to get any significant reforms passed in the last year and a half. He will have to rediscover the political centre to keep his advantage among moderates. He will have to tap into the spirit of 2004

The United States of America is a country divided. Though president Barack Obama won the last election (2008) comfortably the two elections before that went right to the wire. George Bush won the 2000 elections against AL Gore where the difference between the two candidates was only the state of Florida and that too just a handful of votes. AL Gore, the democratic contender, actually won the popular vote but lost the electoral college after the Supreme Court stepped in, in the famous case of Bush Vs Gore which was decided on an ideological basis. The judges appointed by Republican Presidents decided for Mr Bush while the judges appointed by Democratic Presidents decided for AL Gore.
 
In the 2004 elections between George Bush and John Kerry, the difference was only the state of Ohio—a bellwether state. Actually the fact that America is equally divided may not be very new.
 
What is new is that the middle is falling through. There have always been red states (Republican) and blue states (Democrats).What is new is that the moderates of both the parties (mainly Republican) are a vanishing breed.
 
This has been particularly so after the rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 congressional elections. In these elections, the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in a landslide and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate to a mere three seats. Writing in the Huffington Post a commentator states that the Republican Caucus in the House of Representatives in 2010 is the most conservative in over a hundred years. The moderates such as they are in a recent opinion poll prefer president Obama to Mitt Romney by a substantial majority.
 
Barack Obama broke into the national limelight at the Democratic Convention in 2004 when he was a candidate for the Senate seat in Illinois. The said convention anointed John Kerry as the Democratic contender. In the said 2004 speech Barack Obama stood out as a centrist. “Now don’t get me wrong. The people I meet—they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead—and they want to go into our inner neighbourhoods and folks will tell you that government cannot teach our kids to learn. There is not a liberal America or a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and a Latin America and an Asian America, there is the United States of America. The pundits like to slice and dice our country into Red states and Blue states—Red states for Republican; Blue states for Democrats. But I have got news for them, too—we worship an awesome God in the Blue states and we don’t like federal agents policing around in the Red states.

There was great hope after the soaring rhetoric of 2008 that given his unusual biography he would able to unite America and reduce partisanship. He had in the 2008 elections made inroads in several conservative states. He redrew the electoral map of America. But very early in his term taking advantage of the fact that there was both a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, he pushed through his signature reform his healthcare bill seeking universal coverage for the people of America. Unlike Europe and Canada the USA does not have universal healthcare. Health insurance is very expensive and for many such as people with illnesses nearly impossible to get. A medical condition can break the back of the family. Hence the imperative of healthcare. President Obama, with great difficulty and much opposition, pushed through the Healthcare Bill. He did what Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton had failed to do. But he spent an enormous amount of political capital in doing so. It fuelled enormous resentment in America and was labelled as socialized medicine.

Along with the rise of the Tea Party, it led to a debacle for the Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections and the president has been unable to get any significant reforms passed in the last year and a half. He has struggled in getting his budget passed and the Tea Party seems to be on the ascendant.

President Obama has a 40% advantage over Mitt Romney among moderates through in the Poll of Polls last week where he and Romney were running neck and neck. President Obama will have to rediscover the political centre to keep his advantage among moderates He will have to tap into the spirit of 2004.
 
(Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier’s College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master’s in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)

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