‘If you can earn from unemployment benefits, why would you toil?’

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Pallavi Aiyar | 38 |  Journalist & Author
Pallavi Aiyar, 38, Journalist & Author.       Photo: Ankit Agrawal

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Punjabi Parmesan is a rather unusual title for a book on Europe and the crises it faces. What inspired it?

The title comes from Punjabi immigrants in Italy. In the second chapter, I look at Indian economic immigrants to Europe up and down the value chain. I start off by looking at Gujrati diamantaires, who are high up, and then at agricultural workers primarily from Punjab whose presence can be traced back to the 1990s. There is a saying in Italy, if these workers were to go on a strike for a day or disappeared, the production of Parmesan cheese in the world would come to a grinding halt. It might just be an overstatement, but it goes on to show how in a span of a decade and a half, Punjabi agricultural force has become intrinsic to Italian agriculture.

You have been a keen observer of China. With this book, you have turned your attention towards Europe. Yet, China remains a barometer for comparison. Why do you think that the China model is so crucial for assessing other nations?

It’s crucial because China is the new standard in many ways when you’re talking about the global economy. This book is also a personal memoir and I have attempted to explore how the European crisis looks like to an Indian who’s moved from China. So I have three poles. The fact that I’m an Indian is one. The fact that I just spent eight years in China is the second pole. And the third is my moving to Europe. So there is a lot of China reference because of where I come from and the fact that I weaved my own personal story into it as well.

You write about the issue of an immigrant workforce and how Europeans often tend to operate with “they are stealing our jobs” approach. How does it compare with a similar stance that certain political parties have in India itself, especially in a place like Maharashtra?

It’s certainly not a unique argument to Europe. The problem with Europe is that they really need the labour because they have a massive demographic crisis. I think in Germany in 2008, there were about 6,50,000 engineering jobs going vacant every year. It’s bizarre, the kind of workforce deficit that they have. So that way Europe is in a slightly different position because in India the issue isn’t as much to do with a demographic crisis. But the idea that you can keep people out because of where they come from is bound to hurt the economy in any place, and I’m against the idea of putting up barriers against labour from anywhere. It certainly hasn’t helped Europe.

Punjabi Parmesan Pallavi Aiyar Penguin 344 pp; Rs 599
Punjabi Parmesan
Pallavi Aiyar
Penguin
344 pp; Rs 599

The book examines how workers in many parts of the European Union express ‘shock’ at the way immigrants work for less pay, and how they are themselves unwilling to settle for less income.

I believe that is the case for professions such as Punjabi agricultural labourers, partly because European workers aren’t willing to work at all. They’ve vacated the agricultural field because it’s just too much hard work. And at the moment they have the ability to get unemployment benefits. So if you can earn as much from unemployment benefits, in addition to a bit of shady side business, why on earth would you toil in the fields? The people who do work that hard are primarily these Punjabi immigrants from India. And if these immigrants didn’t work that hard, what would happen to Italian agriculture? How would we get Parmesan cheese? This when the manufacturing as well as agricultural sectors have collapsed because their own workforce isn’t efficient enough.

German small and medium enterprises (SMEs), you write, have a certain ‘smugness’ about them in terms of the skilled labour they have and the kind of products they manufacture as compared to the Chinese SMEs. Where do you see Indian SMEs in this context?

No, I don’t think they have grown into world-beaters. But there hasn’t been any SME presence in Europe. However, the Chinese presence there is massive. We may have the Tatas, but there aren’t many of these niche SMEs anywhere. So higher up the value chain, it’s usually Germany and then when you go slightly lower, it’s China, especially in manufacturing.

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