Workers' rights at NUS’ Fairtrade clothing company

Wednesday 01-02-2017 - 16:04

We look back at the reflections of Ayo Akinrele (Liverpool Hope SU Vice President Welfare & Community and NUS Advisory Group for Sustainability), upon visiting the Epona clothing factories in India and Bangladesh last year.

NUS’ Fairtrade clothing company, Epona, uses three factories: two in India, one in Bangladesh. This morning we visited one of the Indian factories, keen to learn more.

First, we had a meeting with the management. We learnt that the factory was founded in 1969. They told us that they have grown steadily over the years, recently becoming more of a niche manufacturer for ethical and environmental brands. As well as supplying Epona, they also supply Burt’s Bees and Nudie Jeans, both of which are also actively working with the management to implement a living wage.

The factory employs 1,800 staff. Sixty five of these are managers - a third of which are women. Sixty-five percent of all their supervisors are women, too, which is a rare thing in this industry. We asked about wages, and found out that they pay above the minimum wage, with their lowest paid staff receiving 88,400 Rupees per annum, which equates to about £1,250 per year. This factory does not routinely allow overtime, which is great, as excessive hours is common problem in the industry. They said that they did not yet pay a living wage, but that they were committed to doing so within a couple of years from now. Part of their plan to achieve this involves upskilling their workers, so they can retain more of them.

We asked about working contracts, and found out that about a half of the workforce are transient workers, young women that come into the city from rural areas to earn money prior to getting married. These women have their accommodation, transport and meals paid for by the factory. We asked about worker representation, and were surprised to learn that very few of the workers belonged to a trade union. Instead the company has workers’ committees, and we arranged to meet some representatives from the committees later in the day.

Finally, we asked about the new Fairtrade Textile Standard. They said that they were really keen to be one of the first in India to gain the standard, and that this was part of their motivations to start paying a living wage, which was just what we wanted to hear.

After our meeting, we were shown around the factory. It comprised there main buildings, one of which was under construction, and would soon house a new canteen and welfare area for staff. The other two buildings were where the impressive clothing manufacturing processes take place. We were amazed at how automated much of the process was, and it was all clean, well-organised, safe, and just generally very impressive. The workers seemed relaxed, exchanging smiles aplenty.

We then met a selection of individuals from the workers’ committees. They have five committees, including environmental and safety, anti-harassment, and fire safety. The individuals are elected by their peers each year, and they told us that the meet monthly with the management. We spent 30 minutes with them, and got the impression that they felt that the management listed to them. 

Next we went off-site to meet with Mr Jaganathan, the General Secretary of the Indian National textile Workers Federation. We were curious to find out why he thought that factory had so few unionised workers. First Mr Jaganathan told us how the trade union sector in India has shrunk drastically over the last 20 years, with his trade union going from one million members to just 150,000. He thought that the decline was down to a mix of Government caginess towards the unions, and efforts by factory managers to offer alternatives, such as workers’ committees. We learnt that his union had agreed a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the four main industry groups representing the clothing manufacturers, and that it included a 30% increase in wages over the CBA period. 

The factory we visited is clearly one of the better clothing factories in India, but it does need to pay its workers more. In terms of unionisation, it would be great to see more union members in the factory, and just some general ongoing collaboration between the trade union and factory management.

Tomorrow is our final day of our trip, and we will be visiting the factory’s spinning mill, followed by a tour of another factory. Next week Clare, Epona’s Production Manager, will be in Bangladesh visiting the third.

Thanks for your support for Epona, and for choosing Fairtrade – its pence extra to us, but a world of difference to the growers and their communities.

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