Friday, April 18, 2008

Cheap garments and irresponsible reporting

I have an idea. Let's take six well-to-do Indian teenagers to London and make them work at street-corner bakeries for a month. Guess what? It's horrible, they will say. "They make us wake up at 4 in the morning to knead the dough, make the loaf and bake the bread, ready to open shop at 7. As if that's not enough, they expect us to knead dough and make bread all day. This is how we imagined a sweatshop to be: dirty, smelly - it's absolutely horrible. It's my idea of hell." Think it ridiculous? Then sample this. The Daily Mail UK takes it upon itself to report conditions in garment factories across India. It might have been a hard-hitting revelation on the condition of India's workers slogging away at garment factories for less than $5 a day. If, and only if they had bothered to check their facts and not make some grossly unacceptable errors in the process.

Many things are wrong with the way the story has been reported by the Mail. For example, they take six, virtually unskilled, teenagers to India from Britain. They make them work in a garment factory and stitch, lo and behold, collars. My mother and aunts have been in the industry for as long as I can remember. I grew up in garment factories run by my aunt and others for nearly 15 years of my life. As far as I know, and my mother corroborates the fact, collars are the most difficult to stitch in shirts or tops. Collar-stitching, or cuff-stitching is never given to an amateur. The articles claims that the tailors are made to stitch a collar a minute. But elsewhere, it claims that a 4000-strong workforce turns out barely 10,000 garments a day. From what I know, two and a half pieces per worker per day is pathetic. No garment factory worth its salt would allow productivity to slip so low. Least of all, the illustrious Shahi Enterprises mentioned. The means one of two things. Either the first statistic is false, or the second.

Next, it claims that the teens were demoted from the position of tailor to a lowlier-paid position of shirt-ironer. First things first, ironing is not an easy ask. It comes under the category of garment-finishing, and is one of the most important things in the garment-making process. Second, finding a competent ironer is no mean task and they are often paid much more than the tailor who makes the garment in the first place.

Finally, the salary levels. They are blatantly made up. In the early 1990s, the average salary of a competent tailor used to be between 250 and 300 rupees a day. In pound terms it amounts to somewhere between three pounds and five pounds at the current exchange rate. Wages have undoubtedly gone up since then. So, the Mail's claim that workers survive at less than 2 pounds a day is false. If I am the one who is mistaken, then I would like them to substantiate the values with actual figures.

What exactly is the Mail trying to accomplish? Telling the world that the clothes they buy from H&M and Marks&Spencer's supports human rights abuses in India by forcing workers to work 18-hour days? I am sorry, but no garment factory can sustain 18-hour workdays. It's practically impossible to force workers to work such long hours six days a week, especially in an industry that is so labour-intensive. In India, labour laws and worker-friendly, sometimes even called draconian by entrepreneurs. Will the workers shut up and agree to being treated like slaves in such a context?

To me, the attitude of the Mail reflects one of two things. 1) Irresponsible reporting without verifying facts and looking at the other side of the picture. 2) An obvious and disgusting attempt to portray Indian workers and factories in a bad light. For the sake of my peace of mind, I am willing to give them the benefit of doubt and assume it's simply irresponsible reporting.

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