Women News Network / June 6, 2013

by Cameron Conaway

(WNN) Mumbai, INDIA, SOUTH ASIA: The Dharavi slums of Mumbai, India were once regarded as the world’s largest ‘shanty-town’. Thanks to Danny Boyle’s wildly successful film Slumdog Millionaire it is certainly the most famous. What most people don’t know is that it is also far and away the world’s most productive place. And according to Reality Tours, an award-winning and socially conscious slum tour company, is also the place that is the most equal in terms of pay for women.

At the exact same time the Equal Pay for Women Act passed through Louisiana’s House Labor Committee, I was passing through a feces-lined Dharavi slum with corridors so tight I had to turn sideways to fit through. I’ve been abroad for several years, but when I hear the word “slum” my mind still conjures up images from Detroit or even back home in central Pennsylvania where groups of people live out of grocery carts.

The Dharavi slums are a whole different animal. Piling more than a million people into 535 acres, Dharavi has an annual financial turnover of about $665 million. These slums buzz with the energy of grueling labor. The air’s moisture seems to be equal parts humidity and sweat. The vast majority of these workers come here from northern India, work for six months to save money for their family, and then return home to let their body’s recover.

Human rights and equality issues abound here. People work on rusty blades without gloves. They work with toxic chemicals without masks or eye protection. Boys far too young to legally work labor alongside their white-bearded elders to melt down recycled aluminum and then lift the forty-pound blocks onto the stack.

They are without any reasonable health care – nobody bats an eye at a crippled arm or chopped off finger. The backs of some women are permanently horizontal based on their work sorting the millions of plastic pellets that will eventually be bought by major television and computer companies. Do you know where the blade in your smoothie blender comes from? How about the frame of your keyboard cover? There’s a chance it’s passed through the hands of these men and women.

Thousands share a single squatter toilet as kids laugh and play cricket, entirely oblivious to the mounds of human waste they dive into.

I’ve been heartbroken by the horrors of Chittagong’s shipbreaking yards, but not until Dharavi did I feel desperate sadness laced with inspiration.

People here are not drunk and passed out in grocery carts. They are not mentally unstable and stumbling into others. They are not asking for handouts. They are fired up, working their asses off to send money back home, and despite living in appalling conditions they have enough spirit to find ways to enjoy it. They sure as hell aren’t fitting the misguided beliefs that U.S. American’s have of their own poor.

Where there is inequality, there is over-quality.

It makes sense then that some of the slumlords cruise around south Mumbai in their new BWM’s – flaunting wealth off something that in many ways reeks of slavery.

I was shocked when my guide, a man originally from the slums, told me almost as an aside how he once spent a night sleeping atop a corpse and then, in the same breath, how women are paid the same as men – approximately 150 rupees each day (USD $3). I took in my surroundings, kids running around with measles, the stench of rot and fumes pouring into the faces of 12-year-olds that looked like they’d reached the age of 40. Then I stood in absolute shock as a statistic I’d read many times before filtered through me: in the US financial activities sector, women earn 70.5 cents for every dollar men earn.

How is it that in our own clean and toileted system we can’t get it right when it comes to equal pay for women?

According to the Times-Picayune, if the Equal Pay for Women Act were passed, “…a woman would be able to submit a written notice of an unequal wage violation to her employer, who then has 60 days to remedy the violation. If no changes are made, the employee can then bring action against her employer with the Human Rights Commission.”

Great, but how is it that among all of our technological advances we have not allowed equality for women to advance as well?

Many of the men here in India get upset at successful women. Locals have confirmed the vibes I was feeling in this regard. India, even according to those warriors like Arun Gandhi whose pulse beats alongside it, has loads of problems to deal with. Somehow, here in the Dharavi slums, equal pay for women isn’t one.