Invisible, Exploited: Home-Workers Of Agra’s Footwear Industry
Agra turns out 250,000 pairs of shoes every day. Most of them are made by invisible home-workers at the bottom of the global supply chain, who earn as little as Rs 30 a pair Sarojini is a home-worker at one of the 4,500 home-based units in Agra, the footwear capital of north India. For her, each new day marks a search for work to keep food on the table, a roof over her family, and her children in school. To her sub-contractor, she is known by a number. She is, quite simply, one piece in the supply chain of a footwear brand—one of the million invisible workers in this industry.
Sarojini wakes up at 6 every morning and gets to work assembling the upper parts of shoes, stitching them together. But her work and therefore her income are irregular. When it comes, her small thatched house turns into a warehouse for the domestic footwear brand (she cannot pronounce the name properly). When she delivers, she gets paid. Since she is not recognised as part of the company’s workforce, she is not entitled to sick pay, maternity benefits, medical insurance, or pension.
Like Sarojini, Rehana works for one of the 200-odd sole-making units clustered around the inner city. They supply material either to other units or to traders dealing in shoes in the main wholesale market of Hing ki Mandi. Although the home-workers usually get work throughout the year, the months between August and March are peak periods, when production and thus business is good.
According to ILO Convention 177, home-workers are sub-contracted or dependent workers working for an employer, intermediary or sub-contractor for a piece rate. This means they are not entitled to a minimum wage. Often, they are paid one-third or one-fourth of what a typical factory worker earns on a per piece basis, apart from what they have to pay for supplies and transport.
Low pay is only one of the problems home-workers face. Most home-workers are usually involved in the most insecure areas of employment; they enjoy no visibility in the supply chain; there are no occupational safety checks despite complaints about health hazards arising out of poor working conditions, use of toxic chemicals, especially glue, infected fingers and stress from long working hours. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Agra is one of India’s most diverse and tightly knit footwear manufacturing regions, still bearing the characteristics of an artisan-rooted low-tech cluster. The locally available skilled artisan labour belongs mainly to the Muslim and Jatava communities—traditional shoe-makers from the Mughal era—residing in the inner city areas. Some artisans are home-workers, others are wage workers who opt to work on a per piece basis during the slack season.
Home-workers are usually involved in five major shoe production activities—cutting, upper stitching, upper closing, pasting and finishing. Activities like upper stitching are better priced, at around Rs 10-15 per piece, while cutting will get a worker something like Rs 4-6 on a per piece basis. Assembly of an entire shoe could fetch something in the region of Rs 30-40. In the traditional home-working system, per worker productivity of a complete shoe varies between three and five days.
India is the second largest global producer of footwear, accounting for over 13% of footwear production, and coming up with over 2,065 million pairs of footwear every year. The country’s $35 billion footwear industry provides over 20 lakh jobs, of which 70% are in the unorganised sector. In Agra alone, the daily footwear output ranges between 250,000 and 300,000 pairs of footwear for both the export and domestic markets. Its share in the domestic market is over half, and in the export market one-fifth. It hosts around 60 exporting units, 200 large domestic units, more than 200 small domestic units and over 4,500 home-based units.
Then there are a number of footwear accessories manufacturers, all accounting for a huge workforce and an even larger number of home-workers sub-contracted for the task. For every factory labourer, there are over 10 home-workers working on a per piece rate.
Having an army of home-workers is a win-win situation for the industry. Indeed, many major footwear companies are linked to home-working. Brands like Nike and GAP have all been guilty of violating the requirements for reasonable working conditions at their production facilities. They have been criticised for being complicit in breaching the ethical lines set out by their company. An internal report by Nike, for instance, found that nearly two-thirds of the 168 factories making Converse (one of the company’s brands) products failed to meet the company’s own ethical manufacturing standards. The trend as regards domestic brands is worse; domestic companies operate on a smaller scale and most do not have an ethical code of conduct.
Home-working brings about a complex relationship between employee and employer. Although retailers do not directly employ home-workers, supply chain decisions do directly impact them. And although suppliers do not directly source materials from home-workers, they work on their products and are deemed to be ‘working on contract’. They are therefore invisible to the actors at the top. Likewise, home-workers are unaware of the range of actors in this long sub-contracted chain and their responsibilities or ethical obligations.
Because of their ‘invisibility’, traditional trade unions have never been able to address home-workers’ issues, although small steps are being taken. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, a home-workers federation has set up a savings and life insurance scheme, offering members greater security and access to loans. Companies themselves are moving to improve the precarious working conditions of home-workers in their employ. Efforts are on by the Ethical Trading Initiative to develop a multi stakeholder platform directed at improving the condition of home-workers by offering them training in health and safety issues, ensuring that they receive fair payment, and that companies introduce artisan cards for them to increase their visibility in the supply chain.
Apart from this, various international declarations like the ILO Convention and the Kathmandu Convention have recognised and appreciated the rights of home-workers. Business sustainability reporting frameworks like the Global Reporting Initiative, Business Sustainability Initiatives, UN guiding principles on business and human rights focus on the value of human rights in the business supply chain; CSR forums recognise that businesses have a social responsibility and that the sphere of influence for any business begins by taking an ethical stand towards the workforce.
Dialogue between businesses, NGOs, trade unions and human rights organisations would help create the required impetus on this issue. Improving the work conditions of home-workers will bring greater transparency and sustainability to global supply chains and also help organise the informal economy. One of the principles defined in the National Voluntary Guidelines (NVGs) developed by SEBI for 100 top listed companies in the NSE (this could be applied to the top 500 companies) recognises human rights and ethical sourcing as integral parts of business sustainability.
In April, the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) and Stop Child Labour organised two stakeholder meetings, in Agra and Chennai, to discuss the issue of home-working and child labour in the footwear industry. Each stakeholder meeting drew a diverse audience of local footwear suppliers, business associations, government officials, international brands and retailers, international and local NGOs, trade unions, and social compliance experts to analyse and chart out a sustainable path that could be taken to eradicate child labour in the industry. The consultations yielded the idea of initiating bottom-up research to better understand the socio-economic realities of home-workers and to develop tools and guidelines to bring in greater transparency and accountability in the supply chain. An encouraging trend is that buyers are themselves voicing interest in such tools and are slowly graduating to the concept of ethical supply chains. The bottom-up research should help businesses devise specific initiatives to improve the condition of home-workers.
Ethics is the new competitive watchword for any labour-intensive industry. Businesses must come forward and realise that good business means much more than good profits.
By Aakash Mehrotra