Improving young women's rights in Tamil Nadu spinning mills

ETI's Tamil Nadu Multi Stakeholder Initiative seeks to address the working conditions of young women workers in spinning mills. This statement is in response to a Thomson Reuters Foundation feature on the project. As our apparel and textiles expert Martin Buttle says, we were disappointed that the feature ignored our brief on the programme which outlined its clear aim to improve workers’ rights.

Recently our India country representative gave Reuters journalist, Anuradha Nagaraj, a lengthy interview on a programme that ETI is running in Tamil Nadu. We followed this up with a detailed written briefing.

Our approach

ETI’s Tamil Nadu Multi Stakeholder Initiative reaches young women workers in the state’s spinning mills. We bring together company members and trade unions alongside local unions and NGO’s to address exploitative labour practices in the garments and textiles sector through a three-pronged approach:

  1. A Worker Peer Group Programme known locally as Nalam (Tamil for wellbeing) which establishes mechanisms for workers to champion their rights within factories and mills. Nalam has 2 phases:
  • Phase 1: Health-related modules based on BSR HER Project and delivered by PSG Institute in Tamil Nadu designed to build relationships with the mills and increase confidence within both management and workers.
  • Phase 2: Tackling broader labour standards issues within the mills. This is designed to specifically address workers’ rights issues with outcomes that ensure minimum standards are met in a sustainable way and is being delivered by ETI in-house trainers.

2. A Community Outreach Programme that educates and raises awareness within communities where recruitment takes place, and which addresses the risk of vulnerable young women being recruited.

3. A Stakeholder Engagement, Policy and Legislative Reform Programme at industry and local government level, which aims to tackle some of the policy gaps that allow problems to arise.

Inaccurate and misleading information

The article patently misrepresented the initiative and stated that we’d spent a huge amount of money on just teaching workers to wash their hands. This is incorrect and misleading.

Furthermore, the article appears to rely on unverified allegations from sources who have no links to the initiative. Yet, the journalist has accepted those comments without question. At the same time, information from the lengthy interview we provided, which addressed these points, was ignored.

To be clear, our NALAM programme has a very distinct workers’ rights agenda, although we initially engage in workplace health because it is a good way to connect with young women workers and helps develop trust with management at mills.

Importantly, the second phase of the programme helps these young workers understand their wider workplace rights. It has resulted in workers reporting improved confidence, better understanding of their rights and improvements in their working conditions.

Workplace committees have been established to address sexual harassment, for example, and harsh and discriminatory treatment by supervisors has been acted upon by management. Women have also just started to be promoted into supervisory roles.

As the Thompson Reuters journalist acknowledged, ours is the only long-term, large-scale project working to improve workers’ rights in the mills.

Bearing that in mind, we are also disappointed that the journalist did not speak to any of the workers involved in the initiative who would have been able to tell their own story.

The art of the possible

ETI is about the art of the possible. Global supply chains are complex and real sustained change takes time.

Anyone who knows the situation in southern India knows that workers’ rights issues are challenging and that there is no simple solution.

While good work has been done by many local NGOs over a number of years, they and we are aware that there remains much to do.

We welcome constructive criticism and are not complacent, but such superficial and inaccurate reporting reflects more on the journalist than it does on our programme to which we remain committed and are proud to be part of.



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