Supporting young women workers in the textile and garment sector of Tamil Nadu, India
What is the workers’ rights issue?
Textile and garment manufacturing and production in Tamil Nadu, India, has grown exponentially since the 1980s and now exports globally. An estimated 500,000 people work in the region’s textile and garment industry and women workers are estimated to be about 60% of the workforce, mostly in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs.
Reports by non-governmental organisations such as the India-based Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE) and Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and Anti-Slavery International (ASI) brought to light concerns about labour practices in the region's garment industry, centred around Tirupur. Concerns have been expressed about these practices, particularly for vulnerable migrant workers in schemes known locally as Sumangali.
Under Sumangali and similar schemes, young workers in poor rural areas, particularly women, are attracted by the prospect of paid work, safe accommodation and a final lump sum payment. The reports allege that in some areas the Sumangali scheme has been exploited with several aspects which break not only local law, but voluntary codes and international workers' rights conventions. They highlight that these young women workers may work excessive hours for minimal pay, feel pressured to stay on until the end of the contract period, and sometimes do not receive the lump sums promised at the end of the contract period. These working conditions in the extreme are tantamount to bonded labour. On the other hand, women declare their interest in employment in the industry as a way out of rural poverty.
Multi-stakeholder approach to tackling the issue
ETI has welcomed these reports and the in-depth analysis of this important issue. NGOs play a crucial role in raising awareness of labour rights issues, such as those in the Tamil Nadu region. We also support their call for greater and more coordinated action from stakeholders such as governments, civil society, manufacturers, buying companies and trade unions in addressing these human rights abuses.
Since last year, ETI has played a lead role in facilitating discussions amongst international brands and retailers from Europe and the US, as well as international NGOs and trade unions. It was agreed that a multi-stakeholder initiative was needed, to effectively engage all stakeholders, including most importantly local government, suppliers and mills. It was also agreed that any initiative should be rooted in the local culture, with a clear leadership role for local government, industry and civil society, to be able to ensure that international labour standards are respected across the industry. ETI seeks to play a role by channelling the resources and buying power of international brands to support local political and business sector engagement.
After several in-depth discussions, the first in-country multi-stakeholder event was held in Tirapur, in March this year. ETI organised the event in collaboration with the Fair Labour Association and supported by a number of international brands and retailers. More than 200 participants attended from across a diverse range of stakeholders including local government, trade unions, civil society groups, and, for the first time, mills and their related associations. Most crucially, workers themselves participated and voiced the challenges they face, as well as their aspirations. All stakeholders agreed that continued engagement and a coordinated approach were vital.
A three-pronged approach
A three-pronged approach was agreed, as a way of working together to improve the conditions of young women workers in the textile/garment sector in Tamil Nadu. Whilst still being formalised, these focus area include:
- Grassroots outreach: This work will involve ETI and its members working with local business and civil society to coordinate and/or scale-up existing projects that will help workers and their communities to better understand the risks relating to labour practices in the sector. This programme of work will be underpinned by a common strategy that will seek to be coordinated with local government and a monitoring and evaluation framework to assess impact. We plan to formalise the grassroots outreach programme of work by the end of July.
- Supplier engagement/leadership: Working with interested international brands and retailers, ETI will seek to organise a series of in-country engagement activities with both garment factories and spinning mills to build on the work that has been started and ensure their active participation. Engagement will not only aim to improve working conditions, but also propose ethical sourcing practices down the value chain, recognising the need for a thriving industry to ensure decent work.
- Supporting a regulation, inspection and services model: The government of Tamil Nadu and local districts have a key role to play and were active participants in the recent workshop. They have already identified areas where they are taking the lead, but recognise that there is more to do. ETI will liaise with government actors and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to support the development of models of inspection, regulation and services, as well as conducting further research. One specific aim is to build the case for reducing the Sumangali apprenticeship scheme from three years to six months. Work on regulating recruitment is expected to begin in October. There is also a focus on developing counseling services for women workers in the mills.
There is a need to move with urgency, to address the working conditions of these women in Tamil Nadu's garment and textiles sector. However, as with all labour rights issues that have deeply ingrained roots and a wide variety of stakeholders, this will take time. For efforts to have a sustainable and meaningful impact on the lives of workers across the sector, collaborative, coordinated action is crucial. We look forward to sharing more about this programme, as it progresses.