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Condition of Indian home-based garment sector… not so much tainted!

by Dheeraj Tagra

13-February-2019  |  11 mins read

Hand workers
Women doing handwork at a common centre at Mewat (near Delhi). Such centres are quite safe and comfortable with basic amenities.

As his website describes, Siddharth Kara is an author, screenwriter, researcher and activist against modern slavery and human trafficking. Adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley…. Siddharth, a research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies has come up with a 60-page report – ‘Tainted Garments: The Exploitation of Women and Girls in India’s Home-based Garment Sector’.

A total of 1,452 cases were documented by the researchers, 1,122 cases within 50 kilometres of eight cities in the north (Delhi, Jaipur, Meerut, Shahjahanpur, Sikandrabad, Farrukhabad, Hapur and Bareilly) and 330 cases within 30 kilometres of Tirupur and Pollachi in the south. 85 per cent of these women work for mainly US and EU-based clients while 15 per cent work in a mix of export and domestic production.

Siddharth claims that the most important findings of this report are as follows:

  • Home-based garment workers in India consist almost entirely of women and girls from historically oppressed ethnic communities who earn approximately US $ 0.15 per hour.
  • 99.3 per cent of the workers are either Muslims or belong to a heavily subordinated community, called ‘Scheduled Caste’.
  • 99.2 per cent work in conditions of forced labour under Indian law, which means they do not receive the state-stipulated minimum wage.
  • 95.5 per cent of the workers are female.
  • Almost none of the workers received any sort of medical care when injured at work.
  • None of the workers belong to a trade union and none has a written work agreement.

To the question, ‘Why this research?’, Siddharth answered, “The aim of this investigation is to provide insights into the lives of these workers with the hope that Governments, companies and non-profits will be able to coordinate on solutions to address the exploitation we documented.”

Recommendations

  • Additional Research
  • Public-Private Partnership
  • Form a Home-Based Garment Workers’ Union
  • Transparency and Formalisation of the Home-Based Garment Sector
  • Increase and Enforce Minimum Wages
  • Payment for Overtime
  • Supply Chain Inspections
  • Support and Empower Women, Girls and Outcaste Communities
  • Increase Awareness

Another side of the story

In discussion with Apparel Resources, various stakeholders involved in this process had strong views that though non-compliant factories can have some unfair practices like those mentioned in the report, it can’t be generalised. Specially in case of payment issues, experts shared that in a maximum 20 per cent cases, payments may not have been made and in those cases too, there are strong reasons in most incidences.

The report didn’t highlight the much-appreciated passbook scheme which two years ago, Apparel Resources’ Apparel Online India (AOI) magazine had emphasised in detail in its March 1-15, 2016 edition. In that issue, a case study of Zara that follows the passbook system which is a single document that has details of the orders executed, payment due and payments done, was highlighted. This ensures clarity and transparency of engagement between the suppliers, their agents and homeworkers.

In the same article, AOI had shared in detail that with the help of organisations like Pratham, ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative), NIFT and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Inditex is making sure that the homeworkers get their proper dues as well as their welfare is considered a priority. Even a few other buyers like Next, UK and NGOs like Nest are also working in the direction.

According to the report by Siddharth, although brands are increasingly sensitive to labour abuses in their supply chains, there remains a lack of knowledge as to how and to what extent their supply chains could be tainted. It is hard to believe that with strong compliance in place from the end of brands and exporters, growing awareness in homeworkers, ‘lack of knowledge’ has any space.

As per the report, 19.1 per cent of workers documented in the north were children between the age group of 10 and 17, as compared to 11.2 per cent of workers documented in the south. The report says, ‘Crucially, of these child labourers, only 33.6 per cent in the north attended any amount of schooling each week’… It further mentions that the researchers established child labour in home-based garment work by documenting any child who self-reported or was reported by an adult to be fewer than 18 years of age and working for at least four hours per day at least five days a week.

It is pertinent to mention here that in India, a child (under 14 years) can help his family or family enterprise in a non-hazardous occupation/enterprise, after his school hours or during vacations… so saying of these child labourers is not justified.

The report includes the problem as stated by a 23-year-old garment worker near Bareilly that “I never receive my payment on time. I have to cry to get payment from the contractor.” In discussion with Apparel Online, a contractor shared that it is very difficult to stop payment of workers as she will never work again for that contractor or company.

Limitations of research: It is mentioned in the report that researchers were asked to memorise the questionnaire as best they could and conduct interviews casually, rather than following a formal list of questions. Researchers were allowed to take notes during their conversations with the subjects, which they later used to fill out the checklists for each subject they documented… The aggregate pilot and research period spanned from 3 October 2017 to 18 April 2018.

It is again doubtful that without following a formal list of questions, how a researcher was able to have exact information while conducting interviews casually.

Industry speaks

“In order to fundamentally transform fashion into a fair and sustainable industry, we need to have hard data and research that leads to evidence-based solutions. This study is the first-ever attempt to analyse the details of conditions of women and girls in India’s home-based garment sector and to find solutions for the problems. We believe that this research will inform the development of strong solutions that will address forced and child labour in the sector.” Anindit Roy Chowdhury, Labour Rights Programme Manager, C&A Foundation

“The companies working without compliance may have unfair practices. But overall with growing awareness and compliance becoming must, a small portion of the overall hand work segment is into unethical working. Common centres which are like a factory have all facilities there for workers in such hubs and workers prefer to work with top brands as they pay more and on time, so such generalisation of things (as specified in the report) does not seem right. While working for H&M, we as well as the team of H&M used to do random checking and made sure that any child or teenager (less than 18 years) can’t be involved in any kind of work. The rate decided by the brand to be given to the homeworkers was 100 per cent.” KC Biswas, who worked closely for years in Bareilly and such nearby hubs with homeworkers while being a part of the HR department, Radnik Exports and is presently working with Senior Manager, HR & Compliance, Kavita WomenWear (Lakshita), Noida

“No doubt, overall something is wrong there as some homeworkers do share with us about their payment issues… but not like the one mentioned in the report. Even our clients (overseas small and medium-level buyers) are very supportive as far as homeworkers are concerned and even pay little more to them. As most of the homeworkers are hand to mouth, we pay them immediately and sometimes advance too.” Sharmita P Roy, Director, Natural Home International, Ghaziabad

“We have an in-house facility for hand work but some of our orders go to homeworkers and in that case, a worker makes an average Rs. 250 to Rs. 300 daily. As the demand for skill workers is growing, workers are more aware of the faulty contractors. It is not possible that even in unorganised working, anyone can stop their payment twice. Yes, discrimination regarding price being given to men, women may be there. Not all but mostly, these kinds of reports are something that show the Indian industry in a bad light.” Nupur Batra, MD, Accessories By Nupur (ABN), Noida

“We left this work as companies used to give the debit note to us without any reason. I don’t think that homeworkers can be denied payments as they are very particular about their payment and ask first to pay and then only collect the garments.” Dev Kumar Bansal, Pearls of India Consultancy & Sourcing, Ghaziabad