The majority of the clothes sold in Finland come from Asia – half from China and one fourth from other Asian countries. We read stories of child labour, too low salaries and long working hours in factories that produce the clothes for the international market. Longer supply chains, an increased number of agents along the supply chain and the lack of transparency in the chain make it difficult to say where the clothes we buy actually come from. India is a country which is classified as having high risk of human rights abuses and Ahmedabad is called the Manchester of India because of its textile industry. Therefore, when two French exchange students suggested textile factory visits, I definitely wanted to join.
We were the whole day in an industrial part of Ahmedabad which was once the outskirts of Ahmedabad until the city grew around it. The factories were basically very small scale plants where clothes were produced mainly for the local market. We could walk from one factory to the other. None of the factories had windows but only artificial lights and fans. The roads were unpaved and it was very dusty everywhere. We saw how jeans were made from cutting the fabric till adding the final touches to make the jeans look worn out. We also saw a factory where plastic bags were produced. Overall, we were confronted with a new side of India we hadn't seen before.
At the first factory we stayed the longest, and there was some time for proper questioning to understand how the factory operates. The factory owner gets an order from a client, receives the rolls of fabric for production and gets paid a bulk some based on the quantity produced. He said there is always work, sometimes more and sometimes less. He himself barely touched the fabrics or sewing machines. Instead he sat in his air-conditioned office with windows to observe his employees. He look very important in his clean clothes and with his iPad and iPhone 5S.
The labour cost of producing one pair of jeans was 25 rupees for the factory owner. Employees work in that factory six days a week, 9 to 10 hours a day and are allowed to have one hour break for lunch. They are paid based on quantity and the question of earnings was therefore difficult. Finally we calculated that daily earnings are around 300 to 400 rupees (between 4 and 5 euro). The jeans were completed in an assembly line manner by different employees – one did the pocket, one the belt loops and so on. Inside the factory clothes were lying on the ground everywhere, it was hot and dusty. Before entering the factory, all employees had taken of their shoes. The denim of the jeans was not of the highest quality and colour went of on the hand of the employees.
The most worrying part of it all was that there were at least 4 or 5 children working – it is hard to guess the age of young and skinny Indians. Even the children were very fast in their tasks, which let us to think they have probably been employed for a longer time already. When I asked whether the children went to school the answer was "he just graduated and the others oh, they are just too poor that they have to work." Additionally, the factory employed only three women and I asked why not more. "In India women do not work, they are housewives."
Before we continued to the next factory, the owner of it went to check everything was "proper." At that factory the jeans were finalized with chemicals and in washing machines to dye the jeans, applying emery paper to make the jeans look worn out, and ironing the jeans to add some crinkle effect. The chemicals applied to the jeans, called something that was abbreviated PP, were "hazardous if you are not used to them" and we were instructed to cover our faces. Still the procedure happened outside and the three young men who were working with it had only a simple scarf in front of their mouth. The washing machine looked very modern, clean and smelled fresh. The ironing procedure happened with bare-feet and bare-hand in a dark room. I asked how hot the iron is but the owner of the factory did not know - "a hundred degrees maybe." I was wondering how often an accident would happen there but unfortunately I did not have the chance to ask.
We also saw one factory where two boys were working on making holes in pants for buttons. Another factory was empty on a Saturday, but there were two men collecting the small pieces of denim that were considered as waste by the jeans-makers. It was taken to yet another factory further away where it would be reused to produce fabrics as they considered nothing as waste – jugaard. At yet another place a variety labels, including Lee Coopers, were made to be attached to clothes. The last factory we visited produced very thin plastic bags by melting grain-sized pieces of plastic. When we entered the factory the machines were shut off and a girl and a boy were sitting on the ground putting the ready-made bags into plastic packaging ready to be sold. We also wanted to visit a ladies clothes factory but were not allowed to enter.
The people who hosted us on our factory tour did not seem to be bothered by working children, men working with poisonous chemicals or in general the absence of any proper working conditions. We were allowed to see everything inside the factories, take many pictures and ask questions. As a matter of fact, we were welcomed with chai and pepsi at the factories, they were proud of the work done and happy to answer all question. After questioning some more we realized that the people we met grew up, live and work in the same area so to them it made all perfect sense. Without being an expert of labour laws, we could see so many things that were wrong and should be different.
Young boys were sacrificing their future by working instead of getting an education. Men and women were sacrificing their health by working without any occupational safety. All of it only to have something to eat every night. Do they actually have the freedom to choose, any alternative?
Written by Marleen Wierenga, board member of Eettisen kaupan puolesta ry
This post was originally published in 15 November 2014 on Marleen's blog: It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.