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A champion for the working poor, Class Day speaker Ela Bhatt challenged the Kennedy School’s 2006 graduating class Wednesday afternoon to fight for the rights of people who “have been invisible for too long.”
In non-industrialized, developing countries, almost 77 percent of the work force is unprotected, said the grassroots activist, who in 1972 founded Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union of 800,000 members that provides economic stability for poor working women throughout India.
The world has turned its back on these workers, she said. They have no job security and no laws to protect them from exploitation.
“On days they do not work, they go hungry. Basic needs like food, shelter, and water are a struggle,” she said. “We want to forget that our cities are totally dependent on the labor of the poor. Without their toil, our cities would collapse.”
Organized countries are no different, said Bhatt. “Without cheap immigrant labor from neighboring rural economies, survival would be difficult.”
A former member of India’s Parliament, Bhatt called for an integrated approach for creating a flourishing society that embraces the working poor.
“Most nations have diverse economies that exist simultaneously — the street vendor with the push cart, the corner grocery store, and the large supermarket all coexist,” said Bhatt. “Encourage their coexistence. They are the checks and balances that keep an economy vital for all strata of society.”
Bhatt also called for establishing global trade networks run by the producers themselves. “Let us make sure that handi-crafts and the produce of local farms are not sold nationally or internationally by middle men. Let us make sure profits go into the hands of actual producers,” she said.
The private sector must recognize the role each person plays in an enterprise, said Bhatt, and government must restore its faith in its people. Viewing the working poor as a liability to the economy is one of the problems, Bhatt stated. “Why so little faith in the people?” she asked.
“Responsible governance exists in societies where there is pluralism in politics, diversity in economics, and a multiplicity of voices — where local economic structures are strengthened, not weakened. Political structures are vital and responsive, and society is alive with myriad faiths, beliefs, ideas, and opinions that flourish and coexist peacefully,” said Bhatt.
“Given their strength and resilience, I have always felt the working poor deserve the best,” she said to the graduates. “Here before me are the best, most talented and dedicated minds and hearts our world has produced. I can’t think of anyone more deserving than you for the working poor of our world.”