Women In Fashion, A Grassroots Perspective
The textile and apparel industry makes for a predominantly important part of India’s economy, making up about 17 per cent of its export income and employing about 45 million of the country’s population. Of this figure, as per Open Global Rights, 60 per cent are women, making the industry the largest employer of women in India. That said, this number, in reality, could be anywhere between 60 to 80 per cent owing to the number of women informally employed in unorganised parts of the textile industry.
The textile industry has garment and manufacturing clusters in each part of the country, specifically including Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Ludhiana and Kanpur in the northern part of the country, Kolkata in the east, Mumbai and Gujarat in the west and Chennai, Bengaluru, and Tirupur in southern parts of India. When it comes to garment manufacturing, it’s notable that the share of women workers has been steadily increasing over the years, from 33.1 per cent in ’93-94 to 40.3 per cent in 2011-12, as per a 2015 report by Mezzadri & Srivastava. But even as the female share makes a predominant part of these clusters, the gender wage gap continues to prevail.
The Tirupur Problem
Of all the above-mentioned garment clusters across the country, Tirupur in Tamil Nadu has seen a decently accelerated rate of growth in past years. From a 15 per cent share in knit exports, Tirupur’s knitwear industry reached a 51 per cent share by just 2000. Also known as the t-shirt city, Tirupur’s commercial success can be attributed to its reliance on small to medium enterprises as well as a flexible production system which allows small individual units to participate. A lot of these factors ended up attracting a huge number of women even from surrounding regions to migrate to the textile hub and knitwear capital to earn a living.
One of Tirupur’s most common recruitment schemes is Sumangali, where brokers recruit huge numbers of adolescent girls under three-year contracts to work in factories. What is offered in return is an attractive sum of money to the parents of mostly poor families. The girls are then transported off to respective factories where working conditions are far from favourable. The last few years have seen several reports of abuse, harassment, long working hours, sleep shifts and unfavourable working conditions surface from Tirupur’s factories. They are only paid the amount of their payments at the end of their contracts.
In 2020, one of many crackdowns in the district, girls aged 14 to 18 and three young women aged above 18 were rescued from a mill, working against their will. Another crackdown reported 40 minors rescued from another mill.
Besides minor and young women, Tirupur’s textile industry has an equally bad reputation for child labour.
How Does This Affect you?
Mills in Tirupur as well as those in other garment clusters produce knitwear and clothing for a number of global brands like Adidas, H&M, Nike, Primark, and Walmart. The important thing to consider is that in the scenario of lack of transparency, where most brands only disclose a garment’s country of production, you might be ending up with a garment made in one of these highly unfavourable mills, by women or children working in more than harsh conditions. This means, that even if the brand uses the highest quality of sustainable materials to make your garment, the harm done to human life in its production process makes it far from ethical or even sustainable, for that matter.
What can brands do?
It goes without saying that transparency is not just key, but should also be a basic mandate. Take cues from Indian designer Vaishali S who recently showcased a collection of texture-rich Merino wool designs at Milan Fashion Week, featuring blockchain technology that helps you trace the DNA of a garment. “For good (for sure) or for bad, Sustainability has become the talk of the day and everybody has suddenly become sustainable, with a lot of greenwashing, especially from the fast fashion brands,” she adds, “We have decided to document with photos, videos, and certifications all the stages of our process to the finished garments. Not only that, we have also uploaded all these documents on Blockchain, which assures that they cannot be modified or faked. At the same time we have given access to all of this even to the final client, who with a phone scanning of a QR code can have a map with the location of the various stages of manufacturing of the garment: in the case of Ladakh Pashmina, for example, you can click on the Ladakh dots of the map and you can see the photos of the goats (with the number of steps they take, to show they run free on the highlands), then their hair being combed away, then the separation, and finally the spinning by hand in the villages. You can then see where it is dyed and how, then woven, then finally draped and finished in Mumbai.”
What can you do?
Help those who help garment workers. That’s one of the first steps you can take to not only lend a helping hand but also expose you to a lot more information about the entire scenario.
SEWA or Self Employed Women’s Association is a widespread organisation that works for women’s financial independence as well as women workers’ rights. Launched back in 1972 in Gujarat, the organisation now works on a global level as well
Childline India Foundation
Childine India is always working towards helping children in all kinds of situations across the country, including helping rescue underage children being made to work at garment factories.
Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE) runs many projects in and around the Tirupur district, helping young girls and children in difficult situations in garment factories.
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