The art of the possible: ETI works to improve garment workers’ rights in India

by Martin Buttle | ETI
Thursday, 2 November 2017 12:11 GMT

Employees sew clothes at the Estee garment factory in Tirupur, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in this 2013 archive photo. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Young women bonded to work in textile mills for up to three years for little more than pocket money. Routine harassment. Excessive working hours and compulsory overtime. No access to grievance mechanisms. Poor health and safety provision with the air full of cotton dust.

Not only that, at the end of the working day, strict limits set on young women’s freedom of movement after returning to their mill-run hostels.

It was against this backdrop of gross exploitation of a mainly female workforce that the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) set up our Tamil Nadu multi-stakeholder initiative five years ago. Its aim is to show that working conditions can and should be changed.

Tamil Nadu’s cotton spinning sector is the backbone of India’s apparel and textiles industry. It accounts for over 65 percent of the total number of spinning mills in India – 1,600 mills employing over half a million workers. It is also strongly export orientated with links to major retailers worldwide.

As signatories to our base code of labour standards, ETI’s corporate members are committed to a thriving garment industry that offers positive opportunities for young women millworkers through decent work: there is increasing recognition about the need to embed much higher standards of corporate accountability across the whole supply chain.

Consequently, our members collaborate with us, and local factory owners and managers who share the project’s aims, universities, trade unions (and we are now giving assistance to women-led trade unions) and civil society to address worker exploitation and improve standards.

When criticism occurs – and it can do so – we always acknowledge allegations around poor working conditions and learn from them. Yet ill-informed criticism does more harm than good and draws attention away from positive change.

That’s why we were disappointed in a recent TRF article. It concentrated on the health aspects of the programme (quoting older men who have no involvement with our project), stating that we were spending huge amounts of money on basic training and posters with little else going on. It not only implied that this was unimportant, but virtually ignored all other aspects of the work.

And a lot is happening. The spinning mills project is something we are proud of. Guided by young women themselves, we see every day the differences being made to their working lives, including to their self-determination and self-belief.

Within factories and mills, a worker peer group programme known as Nalam (Tamil for wellbeing) establishes mechanisms for workers to champion their rights. Nalam has two phases:

  • In Phase 1, health-related modules based on the BSR HER Project are delivered. This phase is designed to build relationships with the mills and increase confidence within both management and workers. We initially engage in workplace health because it is a good way to connect with young women workers and helps develop trust with management.
  • In Phase 2, which factories enter after 18 months, broader labour standards issues are tackled, with outcomes that ensure minimum standards are met in a sustainable way. Importantly, this phase helps young workers understand their wider workplace rights.

More broadly we run a community outreach programme that educates and raises awareness within communities where recruitment takes place, and works directly with labour providers to reduce young women’s vulnerability to exploitation.

Lastly, we run a stakeholder engagement, policy and legislative reform programme at industry and local government level. In this, we tackle the policy gaps that allow problems to arise, for example by lobbying around the overlong apprenticeships which drive bonded labour.

However, the programme’s factory work is the exemplar and is designed to show that high standards can be met within all workplaces – and not just in the factories taking part – in a sustainable way.

Even so, our ambition is to reach 100 workplaces over the next five years. We now cover 26 spinning mills and five garment factories reaching 16,000 workers. While in 2016, in line with our planning, 16 factories entered the second wider workers’ rights phase.

We already know that Nalam, as confirmed in a recent independent review, 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.

Workers’ hostels too are just starting to become more liberal, with every mill taking part in the programme running hostel committees that have the power to address living conditions.

Meanwhile, across the sector, reports suggest that bonded labour – via so called sumangali schemes – is reducing in scale, particularly in export-led factories.

ETI is about the art of the possible. Ours is the only long-term, large-scale project working to improve workers’ rights in the mills. We are also aware that global supply chains are complex and that 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 to ingrained attitudes that encourage exploitation. So, of course, there remains much to do. But there is also much to celebrate.

To quote a woman worker who is embracing the opportunities afforded by Nalam: “Now, after becoming a worker peer educator, I have come to know my strength, have more friends, more workers know me, elders also learn from me, and they appreciate me.”

Martin Buttle is ETI's apparels and textiles lead.