Labor Abuse in a Factory Setting: A Look at India’s Garment Industry

By Eliza Ferdinando

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

“It won’t be a sin if people kill you and get rid of you; you should be shot and disposed of.” (1)  This is just one example of the verbal and physical abuse that the Workers Rights Consortium, or WRC, documented in Bangalore garment factories. The woman in these factories are at a high risk of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. They are forced to choose between their safety, their employment, and their monetary freedom. Three years ago, a group of eleven women wrote to a local union in South India outlining the abuse they had suffered at the hands of their section supervisor, including a threat to “pluck out their pubic hair” (Human Rights Watch). The women made it clear that they could not give their names out of fear of recourse, and asked for help.

For most women employed in India’s garment industry, finding another job is not an option. Unmarried women are oftentimes supporting themselves and their families until marriage, and married women are usually supporting their household and children. Unionizing can be extremely difficult due to inter-union conflict and the focus on gender roles. This robs many workers of the ability to seek recourse for the abuse they have to endure. Violence comes from both from their superiors and their male colleagues. (2) Many women find that their pain is minimized or dismissed, and they receive no support from supervisors when they report inappropriate behavior from male colleagues. One woman was told, when reporting her male co-worker’s inappropriate comments, that she needed to get over it or leave. In one factory located in Southern India, auditors found that women who had requested clean bathrooms, especially when they were menstruating, had been laughed out of their supervisor’s office. Menstruation remains a taboo subject in India, something that has sparked protests in 2018.

Ninety percent of the workforce in the garment industry is composed of women. Those who work in the industry are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and workplace fatigue syndrome. These workers are penalized for missing work or working too slowly. As they age the workers are at a higher risk for bladder and kidney problems as a result of working long hours without breaks. The high stress environment can also lead to heart problems and high blood pressure. Because production targets are extremely high and extremely variable, there is little time for any ill or injured workers to recuperate, which gives physical and psychological problems a longer time to incubate and worsen their effects. The work can also be physically demanding, requiring long hours spent standing or hunched over a garment doing fine finishing work.

The majority of India’s garment industry is production for export. Large brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, Uniqlo, Walmart, and many more use India’s cheap labor to produce their goods. They are responsible for the abuse that millions of women suffer every single year, and part of a larger system of export and exploitation centered around the garment industry. By outsourcing their labor to various third party contractors, corporations are able to absolve themselves and their customers of accountability for labor violations by not being personally responsible for labor violations.

This past year, women in India took action in a call for labor rights. (3) Starting in Kerala, women began participating in a human wall in protest of gender based discrimination in a variety of public and private spaces. These women were demanding, among other things, labor policy reforms and a change in the attitude towards women’s work. Attitudes towards female labor are shifting, as more women are entering the workforce. This shift in attitude, however, has not lined up with legal reforms and social convention, and the attitude remains that young women should get married and stay home with their children while running a household.

Serious reform is needed in the garment industry and in the greater world of fashion. Many organizations have agreed that there are better ways to safely manufacture the immense amount of clothing India exports to the United States and Europe. Anti-harassment training is needed for workers and supervisors, as are legal reforms to ensure that abuse is dealt with in a timely manner and that medical care and breaks are provided to victims. A clear system to address grievances is also a necessity to address the problem. More frequent and unannounced audits need to be conducted to accurately assess working conditions. The formation of unions should always be encouraged, so that workers have security when seeking recourse for abuse.

The women most at risk for abuse in factories are minorities. Immigrants, religious minorities, or just poor workers from outside the cities are lured in with the promise of good wages only to suffer horrifically. In India, the caste system still operates systemically, despite having been legally abolished for almost 70 years. Lower caste women face derision from authorities for both their caste and their gender. Almost 99% of assault cases go unreported in India, and this number is higher among subjugated groups who already face obstacles in the workforce. (4) Women who report violence risk being ostracized by their communities for being ‘impure,’ losing their income, and being the victim of retaliatory actions for their reports. As one woman in Southern India said, “We want justice…. Is it our fault that we are poor?” (5) Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody deserves to be forced to live in fear. Nobody deserves to be forced to choose between a job and safety. Nobody deserves the uncertainty that such a life brings them, the hurt and the pain that follow them from those experiences.

Sources

  1. WRC Finds Beatings, Death Threats at Indian Factory Supplying University Apparel to Columbia Sportswear, by Scott Nova and Ben Hensler, for Workers Rights Consortium, http://www.workersrights.org, June 20th 2018
  2. One in seven women in Bengaluru garment factories face sexual violence, report says, by Anuradha Nagaraj, for Reuters, http://www.reuters.com, June 24th 2016
  3. For more on this topic see India’s garment workers continue to fight against exploitation, by Aarthi Gunnupuri, for Equal Times, http://www.equaltimes.org, November 22nd 2016 
  4. For more on sexual violence in India, see A Closer Look at Statistics on Sexual Violence in India, by Sujan Bandyopadhyay, for The Wire, www.thewire.in, May 8th 2018 
  5. Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry, by Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org, February 2nd 2019

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