Toggle high contrast

TUC Aid Project Update: Improving the Conditions of Women Textiles Workers in South India

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

TUC Aid funds granted to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) are being used to fund a trade union coordinator for the ETI programme to improve the condition of women in the textile sector in Tamil Nadu, South India. This programme has brought trade unions, NGOs, local employers and ETI member companies together to better understand the kind of problems women workers face and develop activities to address them. 

TUC Aid funds granted to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to fund a trade union coordinator for the ETI programme to improve the condition of women in the textile sector in Tamil Nadu, South India. This programme aimed to bring trade unions, NGOs, local employers and ETI member companies together to better understand the kind of problems women workers face and develop activities to address them. 

Working with IndustriALL, the global union federation representing textile workers, the project identified a trade union coordinator –to be employed directly by IndustriALL- in order to enable trade unions to play a fuller role in the programme and ensure that they could effectively collaborate with ETI companies to improve working conditions for women workers, particularly focusing on forced labour, which is widespread in the sector. 

The project had a number of headline objectives.

Mapping exercise of trade unions active in in textile and garment industries in Tamil Nadu: the exercise has provided crucial data on union type, political affiliation, membership, collective bargaining and key challenges for unions in the sector. It revealed a trade union movement dominated by older men both in leadership and membership, despite the large number of women workers in the sector, but also helped discover a number of unions headed by women and focused on representing them. Many of these unions remain unrecognised, but they were able to participate in the project, and useful relationships were built with both union groups. 

A baseline study to understand the situation of workers in textile and garment industries in Tamil Nadu: the study, as reported previously, increased our understanding of the situation faced by workers in the sector. Women make up 60%+ of the sector, and most of them are young, between 15 and 19 years old. Although work by civil society meant that no workers below 15 were currently employed, many of the existing workforce had started as child labour. Recruitment agencies still target schools, and workers report that they were not asked to give their age when employed, with forged doctor’s certificates used to avoid problems with social audits.

Excessive working hours were common, with 12 hour shifts standard, and particular exploitation of workers in factory accommodation, who were called to cover shifts at short notice, with little time to eat and wash and no time to sleep.

Multi-stakeholder needs assessment workshop with workers, trade union representatives, brands and NGOs: as reported to the last meeting, the workshop assessed the conditions faced by women workers, their priorities for change, how unions could organise and support them, and how multi-stakeholder initiatives, with a strong role for worker representation, could make the difference where previous initiatives have failed.

The project has established an enhanced understanding of the trade unions in south India, their interrelationship, strengths, challenges and weaknesses. Potential partners for future work, both unions and brands, were secured, and possible collaboration explored. It also confirmed and expanded ETI and IndustriALL’s understanding of the conditions faced by the regional and sectoral workforce

The unions involved were not only willing to explore cooperation with employers through tripartite committees, but were open to carrying out internal reforms in order to better support and defend workers. They asked that ETI and IndustriALL continue to support them.

As a result, IndustriALL is considering a programme of work to support unions in engaging with the processes begin under the auspices of this project. It will look to promote and facilitate shared responsibility, transparency and accountability among the Trade unions, Brands and their suppliers at south Indian level, and enhance possible collective strategies and solutions to improve the situation of the workers and their right to organise. This will involve working with the unions to strengthen them help them be more responsive to changing trends and challenges, as well as continuing the work to promote dialogue between all sides and promote respect for workers’ rights, especially Freedom of Association, amongst all participating brands and suppliers.