Wednesday, December 12, 2012

what price, shopping?

I hear it’s the wedding season. Which means a lot of people are shopping without dropping. In any case, the new Indian middle class no longer waits for festivals or weddings. Shopping is weekend entertainment.

This is possible partly because of an abundance of low-priced readymade garments. Another big change is that we now shop for labels. We no longer pick out our own style. It is enough now to know that we’re buying into a name that is internationally known. Hence, streets offer ‘reject maal’ or copied samples of fashion trends in Europe or the USA. Malls are packed with ‘labels’ and most are not frightfully expensive.

Ever wondered why? Of course, labour is cheap and plentiful in India. But still, ever wondered — how cheap exactly?

The average monthly wage for garment workers in Bangalore is Rs4,472. And it’s not like the owners of the factories are proudly publicising these wages. We only know because of the National People’s Tribunal, organised as part of a campaign by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. According to the report, Rs4,472 is only 43% of what the worker’s family actually needs, given that they pay for rent, food, water, children’s education and healthcare.

India’s textile industry is supposed to be worth USD 55 billion. Reports say that two million people are employed in readymade garment units; 80% are women. Now, testimonies from 250 garment workers reveal low wages, overlong work hours, sexual harassment and work conditions that amount to “bonded and forced labour practices”.

As for safety, most units are a disaster waiting to happen. One such disaster happened recently in Bangladesh , the second largest exporter of readymade garments. A fire broke out in a factory near Dhaka, and this certainly wasn’t the first such incident. This time, 112 people died. Some tried to jump out from the eight-storey building. The guards did not open the main gate even after smoke emerged from the building.

After the latest fire incident, garment workers in Bangalore staged a candle light vigil, demanding safer working conditions. News reports quote workers as saying that buildings pose a safety threat; there’s only one door and no emergency exit.

Part of the responsibility lies with international brands who buy from such factories, but it is a telling fact that at the Tribunal hearing in Bangalore, with the exception of Swedish firm H&M, no other global brand showed up. Nor did the India suppliers.

And we shouldn’t be surprised. If they can’t fix fire hazards in Bangladesh, what makes us think they care to invest in safety in India? It is India’s responsibility to ensure that the rules are followed.

But then, workers say the Karnataka Labour department doesn’t even recognise their trade unions. In any case, the department doesn’t have a good track record of intervening on behalf of labour. Take the Bangalore metro project. Some accidents led to a group of students asking a question in 2010: who is responsible for safety at Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) sites? The BMRCL did not reply. In 2011, the students approached the Karnataka Labour department, which shifted responsibility onto the Ministry of Urban Development. In September 2012, the Ministry just asked the BMRCL to respond.

So, what kind of faith do we expect garment workers to have in the department that’s supposed to protect their rights? Will the state do its job?

And what about us, the shopping hordes? Through their testimonies, the women who create our inexpensive pleasures are talking to us, telling us what really goes into these clothes. Are we listening?

This piece appeared here.

After I sent it off, I found another update on the Bangladesh fire incident. Apparently, Wal-Mart chose not to invest in upgrading infrastructure at factories to make work conditions more bearable and safer.

According to the news report, "At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.The comments from a Wal-Mart sourcing director appear in minutes of the meeting, which was attended by more than a dozen retailers including Gap Inc., Target Corp. and JC Penney Co. At the April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, retailers discussed a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories prices high enough to cover costs of safety improvements. Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart director of ethical sourcing, told attendees the company wouldn’t share the cost,"


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Farheen said...

Conditions of workers in garment factories are poor here in Karachi also. A major fire broke out in a factory in Karachi in September this year which left 250 people dead. It was a very tragic event but after a few weeks on the media, it was replaced by other news. The families of the victims await justice and in some cases, DNA tests in order to claim the dead bodies of their loved ones who are charred beyond recognition.

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