The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 is still in bad memory. In the collapse of the ailing textile factory in Sabhar, 1,135 people were killed and 2,438 injured. Since then, Western dress companies have been under pressure to control production conditions across their supply chains and ensure minimum wages, human rights and job security are guaranteed. Meanwhile, much has been promised, but little has been kept.
A study by the University of California at Berkeley now reveals a particular vulnerability: Exploitative and scandalous working conditions of the countless home workers who, on behalf of a hard-to-see web of subcontractors, are responsible for the Clothes companies. A team of researchers from the university personally interviewed 1,452 home workers, especially in northern India. It is one of the most comprehensive surveys directly of those affected.
In India, around 13 million people, mostly girls and women, work in textile factories. But far more work in home work at home. It is mainly women and girls from historically oppressed ethnic communities or members of religious minorities.
Average wage of 15 cents per hour
As a rule, the home workers worked more than eight hours a day at home or in often helmet-furnished workshop rooms. The average hourly wage of the 1,452 women surveyed is 15 U.S. cents per hour.
As a result, virtually all home workers received between 50 and 90 percent less paid out than the minimum wage set by the Indian state. This one is in the state of Rajasthan for an eight-hour working day at $3.08, or 39 cents an hour for unskilled work. Or in New Delhi at $8.44 per 8-hour day, or $1.05 an hour.
Working at home or in a small improvised workshop is not only extremely low paid. It also captivates the workers to the house in order to fulfil the existing orders quickly and promptly, so that they earn at least a minimum. Recovery breaks, work safety and health-safing working conditions are hardly possible. Chronic diseases, including back pain and visual loss, are common under these conditions. Medical care and help usually don’t exist: The subcontractors let down the female workers.
Siddharth Kara, a longtime connoisseur of modern slavery who authored the research report, explained in The «The New York Times on February 6»:
“Due to the lack of transparency and the informal nature of homework, women workers have virtually no opportunity to defend themselves against abusive or unfair conditions.”
The state does little to introduce mandatory minimum wages, working conditions or social standards and enforce minimum wages.
In addition, this work is carried out almost exclusively by people who, because of their origin, are not able to access social systems and education. That is why there is little resistance to be expected from those affected.
Such homework is also common in Bangladesh, Vietnam and China.
About twenty percent of women workers in India were girls between the ages of 10 and 18. Most of those surveyed mainly in northern India said they were doing the homework because of “some form of coercion,” including severe financial hardship, family pressure or non-existent alternatives. Most often, they give fashionable garments the «finishing touches»: Emphidery embroidery, tassels, fringes, or buttons.
From the subcontractors, the garments reach the established clothing companies and well-known brands. Around 85 percent of the fashionable dresses for which home workers do the «finish» go to the clothes shops of Europe and the USA for sale, the report says.
Neither trade unions nor written employment contracts
The report does not name any of the women interviewed for fear that they would otherwise lose their livelihoods or punish their families; Because the subcontractors, who are usually male, often verbally mistreat the women and intimidate them into making them docile.
The report does not mention its name either; Because the authors don’t want the corporations to restrict or even stop this kind of outsourcing. Kara justifies this as follows: “We could name and shame these firms, but it might be more successful to find a more constructive way here (…) These women and girls may only earn a few cents, but they are crucial. If the brands just pull out and they lose their housework, it could be catastrophic for them and their families. "
However, the report calls for home workers to be given the opportunity to organise in a new union to form and for them to be given written employment contracts with acceptable wages and humane social standards. Furthermore, the prosecution of subcontractors should be significantly strengthened.
This can remain pious wishes, as long as consumers in Europe and the US do not show inhibitions that poor girls and women worked for them for 15 cents per hour.