Home Workers and Fast Fashion: A Look at India’s Garment Industry

By Eliza Ferdinando
Eliza is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence and will graduate in 2022.

Google ‘labor abuse in fashion’ and a whole mess of articles with headlines like “Hundreds of H&M and Gap Factory Workers Abused Daily, Report Says” (Global Citizen), and “Child Labor In Fashion Is Still A Major Problem” (Refinery29) pop up. The exploitative conditions that workers in these factories face include low wages, overcrowding, and unsafe work environments. During a 2010 fire in a Gap Inc. factory, at least 27 people died and more that 100 were injured as people jumped from the factory’s 10th floor to escape the blaze. Home workers also make up a large portion of the the garment industry, while making lower wages compared to factory workers and receiving far less attention in the international call for labor rights.

Home workers have a long history in the garment industry. Finishing work on garments, such as embroidery, beading, or even quality control has been done outside of a factory setting, and usually by women, for more than 200 years. These women and girls are frequently from minority groups. In India’s garment industry, they are employed by subcontractors and make pennies for every dollar their garments may bring in. Mehala Sekar, a Chennai woman, told Reuters,“I have three children to take care of and cannot join a factory. The price I pay for that is very low wages.”

In addition to low wages, women in home-based work also face an an inability to seek recourse for unfair and abusive conditions. This perpetuates the subordinated status of women at home, as undervaluing a person’s work undervalues the individual in question. According to numerous reports, 85% of home-based workers in the garment sector are working on products for export to the US and the European Union. The women in question are without written contracts or agreements, which is the primary reason that the shadowy nature of such employment continues. They are often paid by the garment and face harsh penalties if they do not complete their work within the time frame set out by their contractor.

Literacy is a major factor in the experiences of home workers. Those who are literate are able to keep better track of their work and wages, while those who are not are more likely to face fluctuation in their pay or to be paid unfairly compared to the amount of work they are doing. It is important to mention here that the conditions of home workers in northern and southern India very greatly, with northern workers being at a higher risk of exploitation. Considering that literacy rates in Southern India are more than 3 times that of the north (27% in the north and 97% in the south, according to Tainted Garments), there are considerable differences in the experience of these workers.

At this point in time, most are aware of the rise of fast fashion, and the environmental and labor costs that the industry exerts on the world. By outsourcing their labor, corporations like Nike, Adidas, Gap, and many other well-known brands are able to produce products so cheaply that their absurdly low pricing still leaves room for a huge profit. Of course, some of this can be attributed to the fact that at this point in time many large apparel brands have become so massive that the majority of their profits come from stocks, which are fed by brand identity. The production and sale of clothing has thus become simply a way to further the brand’s image.

Female exploitation in the workforce is something that continues to be a major problem, as women are expected to take care of their home and families while also often times needing to help support or fully support their household. The continued devaluing of “women’s work” feed a system of oppression across the world. The ethical ramifications of fast fashion are manifold, but conscious consideration of labor costs compared to the number on the price tag is the first step in dismantling the one element of the global patriarchy.

The commercial fashion industry has created 50-100 micro seasons, as opposed to the traditional 2 seasons. This leads to increased pressure on the consumer to buy more clothing that they do not need. Additionally, although people own more clothing, they keep it for half as long. Cotton makes up almost 33% of the fibers in textiles, and takes about 2,700 liters of water a year to produce. Not only is this equivalent to what the average person drinks in a year, but textile manufacturing produces almost 20% of industrial water pollution. With with 5.4 billion people expected to be in the global middle class by 2030, the cost of fast fashion is only going to get worse. To combat some of these problems, wear your clothing as long as possible. Avoid purchasing trendy clothing that may only last or be fashionable for one season. Try to be conscious of where your clothing is coming from. Most importantly, refuse to look at clothing as disposable.


Sources:

Tainted Garments by Siddharth Kara, for the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the University of California Berkeley January 2019

A Thousand Cuts, Results from India by Garment Worker Diaries, www.workerdiaries.org, April 17th 2019

India’s ‘invisible’ home garment workers exploited by fashion brands by Anuradha Nagaraj, www.reuters.com, February 1st 2019

Workers jump to their deaths as fire engulfs factory making clothes for Gap by Saad Hammadi and Matthew Taylor, www.theguardian.com, December 10th 2010

The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics by Deborah Drew and Genevieve Yehounme, www.wri.org, July 5th 2017

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About slcwhblog

SLC Women's History Blog is an online publication created by students of the Sarah Lawrence College Women’s History Graduate Program. In the interest of fostering dialogue, SLC Women's History Blog aims to promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms. We are focused on the intersections of lives realities and histories, such as the experiences related to race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and ability. We strive to keep the question of who gets to write history on the table.

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