Neil Howard (oD): To start off please just tell us who you are and a bit about the work that you do.
Sinnathamby Prithviraj: I am Prithviraj from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. I work for the working community within the global textile supply chain, where contemporary forms of modern slavery and the camp labour system, popularly known as Sumangali, are prevalent. Young girls from the age group of 14 – 21 (and sometimes even 13 year olds) being put into hostels and asked to work for three years while being kept in a form of captivity is one of the major issues in the supply chain.
There are a lot of campaigns and advocacy by social workers from our region. As a result, today, this issue has been recognised by the global buyers and brands, as well as the local manufacturers. There is an Act called the Tamil Nadu Hostels and Homes for Women and Children (Regulation) Act. This Act is primarily about safeguarding girls, children and young women living in the hostels, including the factory hostels. That law should be implemented at a large scale, so that the safety of girls within the hostels is ensured.
Neil: So the major issue faced by the workers that you work with is the fact that they don't have freedom of movement outside the hostels and that some of their conditions of labour and in the hostels are bad.
Prithviraj: A large portion of the workers located within the factory-controlled hostels have no freedom of movement. Only the workers that live at home and others are free. So the freedom of movement is a big question. And now, even the High Court of Madras has given a verdict on the freedom of movement of those girls, and also on night work.
There are four main issues in the textile supply chain. One is wages; the second is the welfare of the workers. The third thing is the mobility of the workers – especially in the case of camp labour workers. The camp labour system restricts the freedom of the workers. When you restrict the freedom of the worker, it reflects a form of modern slavery.
The other problem with this is that the access to workers for trade unions and others organisations is completely limited. We can access them only when they come back home for holidays, once in a year. And they are not allowed to use mobile phones. They can use mobile phones only during the nighttime and only at a few selected hostels. The parents are typically allowed to meet them just once a month.
So the question is whether this is a workplace or a prison. There should not be any complaints about their freedom, wages and welfare benefits. But we are hearing hundreds of complaints, and hundreds of deaths are being reported. In the last six months, we recorded four death cases. That means it is important that their right to welfare and safety includes the right to life.
But the major issue to be addressed is forced labour. We have cases 8 people being asked to do the work of 12, or being woken up in the middle of the night and asked to work. Working 72 hours a week is in itself a tough thing. Sometimes they work up to 90 hours. And excessive working hours lead to many of accidents. Some of the deaths I mentioned earlier were basically due to excessive working hours, like falling into the machines.
Neil: Can I ask you what companies in India are involved in these kinds of labour practices and also which of the kinds of western supply chains are sourcing from these companies?
Prithviraj: The thing is, I have the data, we have the data, everybody knows the number of brands and companies. But there is a practice of cutting and running. If I complain about one particular brand, what happens in their supply chain? Immediately, they'll go to the press and say that they don’t have any operations there. And they'll shift their operations to Bangladesh, China or elsewhere. That means a loss of jobs. So it is a very tricky situation.
Neil: Let me just clarify. What you are saying is, if we expose what is happening specifically with regards to western brands and they move, and these young people, these girls don't have a job anymore, that will be even worse for them?
Neil: So what you are saying, if I am understanding correctly, though their working conditions are really bad, it would be even worse if they weren't employed.
Prithviraj: Yeah. One of my friend is an expert social worker and says that if they are left without jobs in the textile industry, they will go work in other industries, they will become sex workers. Or they'll go for some other extreme work, like the human organ donating business. Their vulnerability and poverty pushes them into these kinds of situations. So, we don't want unemployment.
Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India. Flickr/Vanila Balaji. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Neil: If ending jobs is not the answer, then what would you like to see?
Prithviraj: It’s very simple. After agriculture, the textile and garment industry is the second largest employment provider in our state. We want to safeguard the industry, not for the benefit or profit of the employers, but because of wages, workers' livelihood and the vulnerability of marginalised communities.
And it is possible. There are improvements in the supply chain factories when it comes to, for example, the safety standards. Tamil Nadu factories are much better than those in Bangladesh or Pakistan, some say even China.
The other things we are asking is for our manufacturers and our brands to share their profit in terms of increasing the workers’ wages, and to ensure the freedom of mobility of the workers. Because many brands and many buyers keep on saying that they respect the ILO principles and the law of the land.
So why not speak to manufacturers, so that these manufacturers and suppliers could come forward and work together to provide better and more sustainable labour conditions and sustainable development in terms of the textile and garment industry in Tamil Nadu.
Neil: So you are looking for a core improvement of standards and a fairer distribution of value?
Prithviraj: Yes, a fairer distribution. For example, sometimes suppliers are saying that brands are taking more money. And brands are saying that suppliers are taking more money. We as social workers don't want to go into their business.
What we want straight away is welfare for our community, and for our marginalised working community to benefit from just wages. Asia Floor Wage is a floor wage according to the local standards, so that is an option. Many independent consultants are saying that the major portion of the profit of the brands and manufacturers comes from labour.
We ask for a share. Rather than giving into corporate social responsibility (CSR), the suppliers’ CSR should start with giving enough pay to their own workers. That will solve a lot of things. Thank you.
Neil: Thank you that was extremely succint and very clear.