India’s Garment Industry Versus Social Enterprises

by | Sep 18, 2022

Have you heard of terminologies like fast fashion, labour exploitation, fare wages?

When you’ve purchased apparel have you ever thought of the price which goes to the laborer/artist who stitched/put together that piece of apparel?

Do you know the average wages a daily wage laborer earns in the garments industry in India?

In this article, I explore these topics in the context of India’s garment industry. I will also introduce you all to the work my organization, Chaitanya is trying to build through the community-owned brand Kala Maitri, in Madhya Pradesh. 

India is the world’s second-largest manufacturer and exporter of garments after China. India’s garment makers directly employ about 12.9 million people in factories and millions more outside, including in their own homes. India has a massive demographic dividend and a scarcity of livelihood opportunities which creates an abundance of cheap labour. This cheap labour attracts employment opportunities from overseas at the cost of high probability of exploitative work conditions. The problem at hand becomes a wicked problem because even though if the work is often exploitative of its labor force, 12.9 million Indians rely on it for their daily bread and butter. 

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The garment sector in the country can be divided into formal and informal sections. The production which happens in dedicated work centers and factories often in urban locations falls under the formalised work category. Here, workers are more or less treated fairly and there is proper record of work as these are centers through which major brands place their orders. However, there is still prevalence of exploitation in the formalised sector as well despite checks and measures in place.[1]

A considerable amount of the work in the sector happens through informal subcontractors and liaising agents. This is especially when there is excess demand which cannot often be accommodated through the factories alone. In addition, a lot of hand-intensive work processes such as thread cutting, embroidery, embellishment, knotting and tasselling, beadwork, fringing, lacework, fixing buttons etcetera are outsourced to home-based workers. 

This report stated some very important facts regarding the home-based garment industry which are as follows:

  • Around 85% of the home-based garment workers interviewed work in supply chains of major apparel brands in the United States and European Union.
  • 95.5% of the workers were female and 99.3% were Muslims or belonged to the heavily marginalised Scheduled Caste community
  • 99.2% work in conditions of forced labour under Indian law, which means they do not receive the state-stipulated minimum wage. The average wage rate recorded was $0.15 per hour or INR 12 per hour of labour

Over the past 10 months of my experience of working with women in the industrial town of Ujjain I have come across several women who work from their homes for rates as bad as Rs. 3 for a petticoat or a small kurta, Rs. 20 for a simple kurti etc all of which are liaised through village subcontractors. 

Socio-cultural restrictions and daily household chores are major factors that restrict women’s mobility. This limits them to make use of their potential skills only within the walls of their houses. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the demand and supply for such restricted labour is high enough for middlemen to extract profits while getting the work done at miserable rates, banking on the lack of mobility of these women. 

Several Indian social enterprises such as Sadhna, Rangsutra, Mother Earth, Okhai have set up inspiring models in the garment sector, promoting livelihoods alongside fair conditions of labour and wages to the workers.

40% of Mother Earth’s products are procured from Self Help Groups they help incubate; a figure which they aim to grow to 60% soon.[2] A trust formed by these SHGs also has 15% shares in the company. In this model, all profits of production stay within the SHGs. They ensure fair wages through open costing which is done on the basis of existing market rates through the SHG members and Mother Earth’s production incubation team. For example, in garment tailoring the SHG would be paid equivalent to the market rates prevalent in any mid-sized job working unit.

Ranagsutra aims to change the current situation of the informal sector characterized by low and uncertain wages and risky working conditions. Their production model works through several producer groups placed across states where they function. Their women artisan work out of common working centers in the community which helps women break barriers of mobility as well as helps the brand ensure quality in production.  According to their co-founder Sunita Ghose: “The main challenge was to balance profitability with fair wages in a competitive environment. Also, a change in the mindset of the artisans was crucial, to create such an enterprise out of their work.” This is why I believe that accrediting social enterprises which ensures fair wages become extremely important because they are setting inspiring models of ensuring fair trade even at scale in such competitive markets.[3]

Kala Maitri is a brand that produces a unique range of textile products indigenously designed and hand-crafted by small-scale women entrepreneurs of the WENs (Women Entrepreneurial Networks) of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It is promoted by the NGO Chaitanya WISE with the support of the CSR initiative of Capri Global Limited. It is a community-governed initiative that aims to economically empower women artisans and entrepreneurs who produce and promote the weaves and textiles of Madhya Pradesh such as Maheshwari silk sarees, bagh and batik print apparel, and other handcrafted products. The brand promotes fair trade and fair pay by ensuring that the proceeds from every sales go directly to the women artisans associated with them. 

Over the past few months of my fellowship journey, I have been closely working with these women entrepreneurs to understand how Kala Maitri can contribute to improving their skill and income levels. The immense exploitation prevalent in the garment sector has been a major deterrent in helping these women access dignified labour opportunities and orders, especially at scale. It is extremely disheartening to learn that this in the lived realities of millions of women in the garment industry in the country. We at Kala Maitri are one of the many social initiatives trying to ensure justice for these labourers and entrepreneurs through building a sustainable model of production. Customers becoming more conscious of their fashion choices is extremely important for small enterprises and brands like that of our women to sustain. 

  • Be more conscious and aware of your fashion choices
  • Support small and social enterprises which ensure welfare alongside scale, production and profits
  • Increase and Enforce Minimum Wages – The minimum wages should be increased, standardized, and enforced across the industry in all states in India. Global brands can play a huge role here by ensuring that suppliers and subcontractors disclose wages paid to home-based workers, and alongside monitor these payments
  • Supply Chain Inspections – Supply chain inspections from third-party entities should be encouraged and established at every stage in the garment sector supply chain — from fibre production through to embellishments to ensure the practice of fair labour, working conditions, and wages

Sources to cite:

[1] Indian factory workers supplying major brands allege routine exploitation

[2] Social enterprises begin to bloom

[3] From Custodians Of Traditional Knowledge To Community Change Agents

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