Salt collecting in salt pans is an industry/activity that was new to me this year when I visited the salt pans near Tuticorin in South India and saw the striking bleak landscape and harsh conditions for the workers. To come across this activity again on the west coast of France near Guerande in the Loire-Atlantique region where it has been going on for centuries was even more fascinating because of the inevitable comparisons and contrasts with the Indian salt pans I can draw on.
As we passed through the French salt pans it was as cold and windy as the Tuticorin pans were hot and dry. The French workers obviously work long hours and the set up is as a collective, whereas until recently the Indians had been bonded workers whose families were tied in generation upon generation to low wages and indebtedness to their bosses. The French workers have stout boots and poles long enough so they don’t need to step into the pans to rake them over. At Tuticorin, workers stand in their bare feet in the pans on the harsh sharp salt grains for hours on end, and have no eye protection to protect from the glare. Neither have they had the healthcare necessary to address the results of these working conditions. Local development organisation Social Change and Development (SCAD) has helped to address some of these issues, but conditions and wages continue to be tougher than European sensitivities can imagine. In France, the salt industry is celebrated with pride, a museum and picture postcards of the quaint colourful wheelbarrows used by the workers, which – as in India – include women. No heaving of heavy sacks like the women in India, though, I would guess. The Indian workers earn around 200 rupees a day (from memory) – less than a fiver and this would barely buy you a small decorative sack of Guerande salt from the museum gift shop.