The garment industry is worth around £28bn a year, with women making up approximately 80 per cent of the workforce. From Bangladesh to the UK, women occupy the lowest-paid positions and, in a lot of cases, suffer the brunt of the abuse and horrific working conditions that are still permitted to prosper in these environments. A new code of conduct for factories in South India, however, is seeking to ensure that employees face improved conditions, including reduced working hours and more time off when needed.
Published by the Southern India Mills' Association (SIMA), the new guidelines have been drawn up in response to the countless reports of abuse of the mostly female workforce. Al Jazeera has reported that the code of conduct, which is voluntary, states that “factories should not employ anyone under 16… Employers must also allow workers freedom of association and create effective grievance mechanisms. It also addresses the issues of sexual harassment, maternity benefits, migrant workers and minimum wage, and stipulates that women cannot be fired when they are pregnant.”
Sexual harassment should be prevented by law, but that isn’t the case in a significant minority of countries – so how do you try to ensure that laws are enforced and company codes are enforced?
Teenage girls will not be permitted to work night shifts, female workers aged 16-19 will be permitted to take time off during their period if they need to and no employee will be allowed to work more than nine hours at a time (working weeks can exceed 60 hours in some factories). According to the Al Jazeera report, around 45 million workers are employed in India’s garment industry – and most of them are women. Numerous reports and studies have uncovered terrible working conditions for these women, such as Fashion Revolution’s Garment Worker Diaries research, published in 2017. Fashion Revolution wrote at the time: “Our recently published Garment Worker Diaries research reveals a real struggle for low-income female garment-workers. In India, female garment-workers are often exposed to verbal abuse at work and rely heavily on their husbands’ income to make ends meet.”
Selvaraju Kandaswamy, secretary-general of SIMA, said, "The idea is to help manufacturers understand how an employee should be treated, right from recruitment to retirement. We also want to create confidence in the mind of the global buyer that workers' needs are being taken into account and we have zero tolerance to any form of abuse." While many of the points outlined in the code of conduct are already required under Indian law, many factories remain unregulated, meaning that cultures of abuse are allowed to prevail. As Sarah Ashwin, professor of comparative employment relations at The London School of Economics and Political Science, said during Fashion Question Time at the Houses of Parliament last year, “We know that codes of conduct on their own don't usually work. They rely on auditing and we know that auditing is not the most effective way of ensuring standards… Then you’ve got governments, who have a duty to protect. Sexual harassment should be prevented by law, but that isn’t the case in a significant minority of countries – so how do you try to ensure that laws are enforced and company codes are enforced?”
It’s difficult to determine whether a voluntary set of guidelines will help to make a genuine difference for the women working in these factories. But it is certainly a positive move forwards, as Orsola de Castro, co-founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, explains: “Even though the ‘voluntary’ nature is frankly offensive, especially considering this code of conduct is about the health and safety of young women, I do think that it will make a difference and I certainly hope there will be enough pressure to turn it into mandatory ASAP.
“But the fact remains that it wasn’t there before and now it is, a demonstration that taboos are being confronted and that manufacturers are beginning to understand that a dignified working environment for all supply-chain workers, especially women, is a pressing concern for brands and consumers alike.”