The Indus Valley, India; this place has played a significant role in the world’s history of garment production. If we stood here in the 5th millennium BC, we would have witnessed some of the earliest activities of cotton being spun, woven and dyed. You still see these same activities taking place today – except on a much larger scale. The region of Tamil Nadu is the power house of India’s export garments and textiles production.
I visited Tamil Nadu in early December, in my new capacity as ETI’s Apparel and Textiles Category Leader. This was a quick two day visit, but an important one. I got to meet our local team based in Coimbatore, Hedvees Christopher and Gayathri Jeganathan, as well as ETI’s India Representative, Alok Singh. I also had the privilege of meeting the local NGOs we will be working with, and putting shape to the community engagement aspect of our programme.
Background and the broad contours of our programme
Today, India’s thriving textiles and garments sector plays a key role in the country’s economy and global trade. In recent years, media and NGO reports have shone a spotlight on labour rights abuses within some parts of Tamil Nadu’s garment sector. Young women from rural areas are recruited to work in mills and textile factories for a three year apprenticeship, with the promise of a lump sum payment at the end. These young women are one of the most vulnerable, poor and disenfranchised groups of workers in Tamil Nadu. Not only are the majority under the age of 24, more than 70% are Dalits. They have often had to drop out of school in order to provide economic support for their families. Credible NGO and media reports allege that exploitative practices take place within some parts of a local employment scheme (known as Sumangali), which in the extreme, are tantamount to bonded labour. Approximately 30% of mills provide accommodation to workers where they live in communities of more than 1,000, sleeping in dormitories and working 12-hour shifts, six days a week. The young women are rarely allowed to visit home and are escorted when outside the hostels.
The Indian spinning mill sector presents some real challenges to a programme aimed at improving labour standards in the sector. The spinning mills are several steps removed from the brands and retailers, so there is no direct commercial relationship for brands and retailers to leverage change. In a meeting I attended, it was discussed that of the estimated 2,000 mills in the Tamil Nadu region, only 4-5% of the yarn produce is used for clothing exports from the region. An estimated 60% of the yarn is exported to Bangladesh, China and Turkey, where the visibility of how it is integrated into global supply chains is opaque.
ETI’s three year programme aims to catalyse positive change within the industry through activities that empower young women workers, strengthen industrial relations, build community awareness and support legislative reform. It consists of three key focus areas:
- Driving change in recruitment policies and practices
We are engaging at policy level with industry associations, government, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other institutions with a focus on strengthening laws and policies so that they protect the rights of workers and provide proper access to remedy.
- Strengthening capacity of workers and industry to address issues
We are working at mill-level, engaging directly with workers and managers through the establishment of worker peer groups. With a project partner, we are delivering educational modules and leadership skill-building sessions to raise awareness of workers’ rights and foster open communication between workers and managers. This part of our programme will reach 5,000 workers across 15 textile mills and garment factories, with the potential to be scaled up over time.
- Raising awareness of workers rights’ within recruitment communities
Our programme has a community outreach stand; we are working within eight different districts where young women are recruited. Our local NGOs partners are educating potential, current and former workers on their employment rights, grievance redress and legal support services. Our aim is to raise awareness of relevant employment law and workplace rights among 40,000 young women.
During the team’s update, it became clear that the worker peer group work led by Gayathri is having some successes in engaging both the young women and the factory management. Many of the young women are registering with health insurance funds for the first time, enabling them to access medicines. It also has the added bonus of making their employment more ‘visible’ in the absence of formal contracts; the significance of this step should not be underestimated. At the same time, some of the mills have approached Gayathri to strengthen the Committees Against Sexual Harassment (CASH) which the mills have established in line with government regulations. Gayathri and Hedvees also reported that mill owners are approaching the local team to understand more about the views of their workforce and understand why the mills are struggling to retain workers. We saw this as a potential point of access to raise other labour rights issues in the mills, working in cooperation with mill owners.
Tamil Nadu Local Consultative Committee
Our programme (known locally as the Tamil Nadu Multi-Stakeholder programme) has a tripartite, predominantly Europe-based advisory group. It has been clear that it needed a Tamil Nadu group that could regularly advise and guide on the local landscape and stakeholders. This local consultative committee brings together representatives from companies, NGOs, as well as the labour unions. It is early days for this group, which is still working out how best to work together. But despite this, the group agreed to a terms of reference to provide local guidance to the programme and recognised the value of working together. The group wished to discuss how our programme would work with the Joint Action Committee (a coalition of trade unions lobbying the Indian government for policy changes), as well as the possibility of arranging a large multi-stakeholder event in Tamil Nadu in June/July 2015.
NGO Induction Day
We have commissioned eight local NGOs to take forward the third strand of our programme – raising awareness of workers rights’ within recruitment communities. We held an induction day for these NGOs during my visit to Tamil Nadu, which was a valuable opportunity to meet each other, and seek alignment on the messages to communicate. We had an interesting discussion around NGOs’ long-term aspirations to see no workers under the age of 18 working in the mills and the practical realities of informing workers who could be aged between 14 and 18 about their rights and what they should expect from their employers. The NGOs asked ETI if we could arrange for training on Indian labour law for NGO partners, as it is clear that a number of different laws can apply, and there is widespread disagreement on which laws are relevant.
I left with a much richer and more vivid understanding of Tamil Nadu’s garments and textiles sector, having formed new connections with the people who are taking forward our work. Whilst there is still so much to do, I felt that there were encouraging signs of progress. In 2015 we want to expand the number of mills we are working with, build relationships with the trade associations and at the same time formalise some coalitions with other initiatives working in south India.
Our end goal is a thriving sector where workers’ rights are upheld through strong industrial relations processes and legislation. There is potential for those that work in this sector to improve their life choices, if they enjoy the conditions of decent work. I believe that this is attainable – if we all keep talking and keep working together, guided by this common goal.