From hardship to hope: women migrant workers in the Indian ready-made garment industry

In order to provide women migrant workers with a life of dignity, security, and a sense of recognition at their workplaces, the three primary stakeholders of the garment sector supply chain need to work quickly and collaboratively.

The COVID-19 outbreak plunged garment workers in India into a deep crisis. The 1.3 billion people that make up India’s population, except those providing essential services, went into successive nation-wide lockdowns lasting nearly three months. Industrial output for many different sectors came to a grinding halt. The impact on jobs and incomes has been unprecedented. Not only has India lost more jobs due to the coronavirus lockdown than the United States did during the Great Depression, but reports show that nearly 400 million informal workers in India could find themselves in poverty due to COVID-19.

The textile and apparel industry contributes 2% to India’s US$ 2.6 trillion economy and 17% of its export income. It is the second largest employer in India providing employment to 45 million people. Critically, the industry is the largest employer for women in India as they make up for more than 60% of its workforce. Nationally, 60 to 80% of the workers are women in the garment sector with millions of them employed in informal, unorganised or home-based units.

Garment factories in India cluster around a few destination cities like Delhi/NCR, Bengaluru, Tirupur, Chennai, Mumbai etc. and a sizable proportion of women working in those factories are migrants from other source locations , predominantly rural parts of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh. These women are often mostly from poor families and with low levels of education. Many of them come from marginalized and socially excluded groups in India, officially labelled as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes who have historically faced stigma and discrimination. Invariably, they find themselves overrepresented in low-wage jobs with poor working conditions, with hardly any career prospects and, at times, even gender-based violence. Sadly, the COVID-19 crisis has evidently impacted these women harder than most other workers, who were already facing unfair working conditions.

In order to provide the women migrant workers with a life of dignity, security, and a sense of recognition at their workplaces, the three primary stakeholders of the garment sector supply chain—governments, suppliers or factories and brands need to adopt measures both individually as well as collaboratively.

First, the government needs to actively work with factories to ensure the adoption of safe and responsible migration. Currently, the recruitment process of migrant workers, which involves “middle-men” (agents on contract with factories) or not following adequate ethical employment practices, leads to potential exploitation with low pay and poor living or working conditions for migrant women. This gap can be addressed by strengthening inter-state coordination cells, working units formed under the labor department, for oversight of the interest of migrant workers between source and destination states. These cells are already in place to register migrants and provide them safety nets during migration by ensuring third party monitoring mechanisms and effective grievance redressal systems. In addition, the government needs to ensure compliance of the long-standing Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 (under consideration for amendment including change of title to make it gender-neutral) by the employers. These regulatory mechanisms need to be brought in line with current realities and simplified systematically so that the industry does not see them as hindrances.

The recent relaxation in labour laws, reported as an emergency measure to help the industry during COVID-19, seems to be a hurried decision and may not serve its intended purpose of increasing productivity. Among others, the dilution of the role of trade unions, the increase in working hours across the board, and the relaxation of the industrial dispute mechanism need to be debated precisely because of their impact on workers. Progressive and well-considered labor reforms need to replace the unilateral decision-making process through a tripartite (government, labor, and employers) joint mechanism of addressing employer and labor issues.

Second, the major fashion brands should come together formally and make a declaration of supporting human rights uniformly across their supply chain. Brands should consider the human costs of pushing factories to produce more for less and encourage better work conditions. Brands also must jointly invest in building systems in factories for better working conditions and incentivize better practices. Examples of such initiatives are already available, such as the initiative of Providing Opportunities to Women on Equal Rights (POWER) Project in India by Marks & Spencer and other apparel brands, which promotes a safe workplace and empowers women workers in the manufacturing units of their supply chain. Or the initiative of Swedish retailer H&M Group, which has officially stated that it is responsible for not only its direct employees but also for the 1.6 million workers employed by its suppliers. H&M is also a member of ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation), a collaboration of 21 global companies representing a broad range of brands and labels committed to helping transform the way wages and working conditions are currently set in the global garment, textile, and footwear sector. Initiatives such as this by brands will help recognise the challenges for women in workplaces and create a top-driven ecosystem to address current inadequacies and pave the way for improved conditions for them.

“Brands must jointly invest in building systems in factories for better working conditions and incentivize better practices.

Factories are responsible for the conditions in their workplaces and have a direct bearing on the wellbeing of their workers. Progressive factories have shown that they care for their workers and do not just passively respond to market forces. With support from brands, they must take ownership and accountability for a better work environment and fair treatment of workers. By keeping an oversight on their recruitment contractors, the factories can promote ethical recruitment and employment practices.

The work of promoting and enforcing ethical practices in the garment sector needs concerted efforts. The unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as an additional challenge as brands cancelled orders, leaving the supply chain dry of both orders and production. The suffering of migrant workers, who returned to their home states under adverse conditions with little savings, was a reminder of their subsistence living conditions over many years. This should make it problematic to continue business as usual. The window will not remain open for long, and it is time for governments, brands, and suppliers to act with a sense of urgency.

This piece is part of a blog series focusing on the gender dimensions of business and human rights. The blog series is in partnership with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and OpenGlobalRights. The views expressed in the series are those of the authors. For more on the latest news and resources on gender, business, and human rights, visit this portal.

About the Author
Dr. Archana Shukla Mukherjee is the senior manager of Gender, Diversity and Inclusion at Change Alliance.
PV Narayanan is the director of Development Advisory and Operations at Change Alliance.

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