How can we improve conditions for women in South India’s cotton sector?

by Tom Phillips | Ethical Trading Initative
Thursday, 20 September 2018 15:12 GMT

Mill worker, Radhika, cleans a cotton spinning machine at Rajapalayam mill, Tamil Nadu, where ETI is working to train women workers to realise their rights. Claudia Janke / Ethical Trading Initiative

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Low pay, intimidation, sexual harassment and other abusive working conditions are common in cotton mills

If any of the clothes you’re wearing were made in South Asia, there’s a good possibility that the yarn was spun by women in one of South India’s cotton mills. It’s an industry plagued by low pay and poor conditions, where sexual harassment and other abuses are common, yet simply boycotting the sector won’t help the hundreds of thousands of workers who rely on it for employment. So, what should be done?

For women like Manimegalai and Rajeshwari, young mill workers from the Dindigul district, this is an urgent question. When we visited earlier this year, they spoke to us about the conditions they face. “If six people aren’t available,” Manimegalai told us. “Four do the work of six. If there aren’t enough workers, they tell us to work overtime."

“If I don’t feel well,” Rajeshwari says, “Still they compel us to work. If we refuse, they push us inside."

These aren’t isolated cases. Multiple studies indicate that low pay, intimidation, sexual harassment and other abusive working conditions are common, while a survey of Tamil Nadu’s spinning mills found that in nearly 50% a standard working week exceeded 60 hours.

As another mill worker told us, “We come to work due to sheer poverty, but in the workplace we have to face such problems. These young girls are traumatised. They can neither talk about it nor manage the situation.”

This is clearly unacceptable, but how do we tackle it? Local employers and the Indian Government have important roles to play, but at least part of the solution must come from the brands whose clothes the cotton ends up in.

The sector has links with countless global brands, but the supply chains are often so opaque that brands may not know what’s happening at this level. Occasionally they are named and shamed, but the problems go beyond a few rogue actors.

If they are serious about workers’ rights, brands need to be scrutinising their supply chains, using their financial leverage to demand better conditions, and partnering with suppliers to raise standards. That’s where the Ethical Trading Initiative’s programme can help.

Supported by a group of ETI’s corporate members, we work in nearly 40 mills across Tamil Nadu to train women on their rights and support the creation of workplace committees that can represent their concerns to management. We also run training for supervisors to help tackle verbal and physical abuse.

Workers preparing cotton for the spinning process. Claudia Janke / Ethical Trading Initiative

It’s a challenging environment, but so far, our local team of specialists has trained nearly 1,000 peer educators and supported the creation of workers’ committees in 32 workplaces, allowing women to raise issues such as sexual harassment. We’re now reaching around 20,000 workers; women are growing in confidence, and we’re seeing improvements in shop floor treatment and dormitory conditions.  

Alongside all this, the team works also with managers and owners to challenge attitudes and make the case for improved conditions. It’s not always easy to convince them, but aside from the moral imperative, there’s also an overwhelming business case.

India’s garment and textile sector is expanding rapidly, yet the cotton sector that supplies it suffers from chronic labour shortages, in part due to low pay and poor conditions.

As a senior mill manager involved in our programme told us, “Working in a spinning mill is a hard job. Workers don’t want to come here. But if we take care of the workers, we won’t have any more labour shortages."

So, if mills can retain more of their workers, they’ll spend less on recruitment and training. They’ll also have a more reliable supply of labour as the sector grows.

The next step is to begin scaling up our model. In the longer term, workers need to be represented by trade unions that can bargain collectively, but the sector has a long way to go before that’s fully realised. Our programme isn’t intended as a substitute, but as a stepping stone towards that.

The workers themselves tell us our approach is working. As one of our peer educators, Ramalaksmi, told us: "Workers have understood the rights they have, and their benefits. When they need something, they understand what they should do. And if they don’t get their rights, they have the confidence now to demand them." 

Tom Phillips is media and communications manager at the Ethical Trading Initiative.