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Interview

Interview – Arisa partner Paradigm Shift on the Factory Support Programme

By 14 May 2024No Comments10 min read

The Factory Support Programme resumed in 2023 with Paradigm Shift as Arisa’s implementing partner in Tamil Nadu and the National Capital Region, India. The programme aims to improve working conditions in the readymade garment supply chains of participating companies by facilitating dialogue between workers and factory management and strengthening factory-level grievance mechanisms. We spoke to Harsha Joseph and Alagar Balaji of Paradimn Shift about their experiences in the fight for workers’ empowerment and workers rights. 


About Harsha Joseph and Alagar Balaji

Harsha is the Hindi-language trainer for the Factory Support Programme (FSP) in India. She trains the Hindi speaking (migrant) workers on their rights in factories where international brands source ready-made garments, as well as the factory managements and their human resources departments. Harsha organises awareness sessions and helps set up the mandatory committees in the factories.   
Balaji is the training coordinator for the FSP and has worked with the programme since its first phase in 2021. Within the FSP, Balaji coordinates with factory managements, sourcing agents and brands, and organises and conducts training sessions in Tamil. 
Harsha and Balaji introduce and set up internal complaints committees (ICCs) and works committees in factories. ICCs are mandatory factory committees for female workers to report cases of sexual harassment. Each ICC has an external member with knowledge and experience of social work and women’s issues, such as a lawyer, a senior member who has plenty of experience or holds a senior position in the factory, and two other female members. If women workers make complaints of sexual harassment to a factory ICC, the committee is required by law to take action.   
Works committees are made up of 50 per cent management representatives and 50 per cent workers’ representatives, all of whom are elected. Works committees deal with issues that arise in the factory, redress workers’ grievances and help maintain a harmonious relationship between management and workers. 

What makes the Factory Support Programme different?

 
Balaji: “The key difference between the FSP and other similar initiatives lies in its strategic alignment with brands and its direct engagement within factories. I will share some key points to highlight this distinction. 

“First, brand support and engagement. Unlike other programmes and projects, the FSP has secured the support of brands. This partnership enables the FSP to conduct training sessions directly within factories nominated by the brands. The alignment with brands provides leverage in engaging both workers and factory management. 

“The second distinctive aspect is the training sessions. The FSP conducts training sessions for workers on their rights and for factory managements on setting up mandatory committees. Brands’ support ensures factory managements prioritise these sessions and are less likely to postpone or cancel them. 

“The third key aspect is committee establishment. The FSP works with factory managements to establish mandatory committees, which are crucial for addressing workers’ grievances and ensuring compliance with labour standards. Brand involvement adds weight to this process, encouraging factory managements to cooperate. 

Factory clothing garments workers

“Another important characteristic of the FSP is worker empowerment. By educating workers about their rights and facilitating the establishment of committees, the FSP empowers workers to voice their grievances and concerns. This empowerment is crucial for creating a more transparent and fair working environment within factories. 

Grievance redressal is also distinctive to the FSP. Brands play a key role in ensuring that managers effectively address grievances raised by committees. Brands have the leverage to question factory managements and sourcing agents and to ensure issues are resolved promptly and transparently. 

Information access is also different in the FSP. The programme allows brands to access information about grievances raised by workers, enabling them to intervene and address issues within their supply chains. This transparency helps brands uphold their social responsibility commitments and ensures accountability throughout the supply chain. 

“Overall, the strategic partnership between the FSP, brands and factories makes it very different from other projects by providing a comprehensive approach to labour rights advocacy and enforcement within the garment industry.” 

Harsha: “In the FSP, we train workers about their rights in their own language. Many workers don’t know about their rights and have little or no knowledge about topics such as minimum wages and workplace harassment. We build bridges with the many migrant workers in these factories in Tamil Nadu and can involve them in setting up committees in the factories, because we speak their language, Hindi. 

“The information that comes out of the committees and our conversations with workers is very different from the information that comes from audits, for example. Workers open up to us and share their grievances, including complaints about sexual harassment, not being paid the minimum wage, excessive overtime, night shifts and restrictions on the movement of those who live in dormitories. We gain the workers’ genuine trust, which helps expose the reality of working conditions in the factories. Having the brands involved makes it possible for us to talk to the workers, and this makes the FSP different from other programmes.” 

 

Difficulties with installing and maintaining committees  

 

Balaji: “Despite the support from brands, we encounter hurdles in establishing factory ICCs and works committees. Factory managements often impede the scheduling of committee training sessions, fearing our presence is merely to interfere with their operations and report back to brands. Thus, we invest considerable effort in conveying our true purpose: aiding workers in addressing grievances and enhancing factory grievance mechanisms. 

“Moreover, sustaining the committees proves challenging once our direct involvement concludes. We’ve observed instances of committees failing to convene, with managements fabricating records of non-existent meetings. Addressing this issue necessitates a deeper engagement with factory managements. While committees may be established initially, their integration into the factory’s routine often lacks momentum, because many managements don’t have the commitment to institutionalise them. Committee meetings often occur only during our monitoring visits, by which time workers have often forgotten the training they received. This trend persists across most factories. 

“Additionally, the Indian government department responsible for overseeing committee functionality, including ICCs and works committees, is notably uninvolved. With a limited workforce tasked with monitoring a vast number of factories, their capacity to fulfil their regulatory role is severely constrained. This lack of governmental focus reinforces the perception among factory managers that these committees are inconsequential. However, their significance in safeguarding workers’ health and safety, and facilitating effective grievance resolution, cannot be overstated. 

“In this context, the role of brands and sourcing agents is pivotal in establishing factory ICCs and works committees. Their involvement not only lends credibility to the process but also underscores the importance of these committees in ensuring fair labour practices and upholding workers’ rights.” 

factory clothing garments
Factory Support Programme – Harsha

Brand responsibility 

 

Balaji: “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of brands or a sourcing agency to set up committees in factories. However, it is their responsibility to make sure that the factory they source from has followed all the legal requirements, has functioning committees to ensure social compliance and respects workers’ rights. A brand’s leverage with its sourcing agent can help make these essential committees work.  

“Sourcing agents regularly visit factories to ensure the quality of the brand’s products. During these visits, they can ask about the existence of committees and their meetings. Regular enquiries and checks by the sourcing agent can help to institutionalise the ICC and works committee in a factory. Where committees exist and are functioning, the sourcing agent can report to the brand on worker complaints and social compliance.  

For this feedback loop to work, brands should choose the right sourcing agent – one that really checks factories for social compliance. We have experienced difficulties in engaging with sourcing agents. Again, pressure from the brand – even just in the form of a simple email – is very helpful, as we have found this immediately activates the sourcing agent to work with us. Properly functioning committees are a win–win for the workers and the brand.   

 

Results and achievements 

 

Harsha: I think a very important outcome is that women learn about their rights in the ICCs, which includes information about sexual harassment. Women generally don’t see certain types of behaviour in the workplace as harassment because they think it’s normal because of our culture. Women’s increased awareness, especially in the workplace, about their rights and about harassment is a great achievement.”    

Balaji: “We have also had good results in improving the situation of female hostel workers. Many factories have hostels where their female migrant workers stay in situations of forced labour. They are taken to the factory at 7 a.m. and brought back to the hostel at 7 p.m., where they stay until they are picked up for work the next morning. For all sorts of illegitimate reasons, they are not allowed to leave the premises to go to the shop, for example. They have no freedom of movement at all. This is a violation of their rights. Through the FSP we have convinced factory managements of the bad situation they put their workers in, and in some cases managements have agreed to give the workers more freedom of movement. This is a big achievement.  

“In addition, it has been very gratifying that we have been able to identify and resolve some grievances and help the workers. We also identified some juvenile workers in one factory who were doing dangerous work and got the management to put an end to the illegal situation.” 

 

Collaborating with Arisa and Arisa’s role 

 

Balaji: “Working with Arisa has been wonderful from the very beginning. When it comes to the factories, whenever we need Arisa’s support, they are always ready to help. Whether we need to schedule training dates or have something to communicate with the brands, Arisa is always very supportive. In some factories, Arisa has taken the initiative to contact the brands and ask for their support, which has been very helpful in planning the training sessions.”   

Harsha: “I feel that Arisa is more like a watchdog for the brands and the brands are a watchdog for the factories. So this is how we all keep each other accountable in the ethical supply chain that we are aiming for. To make it sustainable, we need the involvement of all the stakeholders.” 

Factory clothing garments workers
Factory Support Programme – Balaji

Progress beyond the programme and what can be done better  

 

Balaji: – With the conclusion of the FSP [the programme is due to close in 2024], we are apprehensive about the sustainability of the changes implemented in certain factories. To ensure sustainability, programmes and projects should be designed with long-term goals in mind. The FSP, initially intended for one year and extended for two more years, inherently lacked the longevity required for sustainability. For a true sustainability project, a timeframe of at least 5 or 10 years is necessary to allow changes and improvements to take root and endure beyond the initiative’s duration. Without such a timeframe, there is uncertainty regarding the continuation of progress made. 

“Experience has taught us that for a factory management to autonomously organise committee meetings without external pressure, the meetings must become ingrained as a common practice and routine. Achieving this necessitates at least five years of consistent visits, training and monitoring by an involved party like ours. Additionally, workers require regular information and education to understand their rights and to have the agency to utilise the committees effectively. Therefore, both the frequency of visits and the duration of the project play crucial roles in ensuring its objectives are sustainable. 

“Another concern centres on the involvement of brands and their sourcing agents in continuing the project’s work. With the FSP’s conclusion, there will remain factories where training has not been completed. It remains uncertain whether these factories and the brands that source from them will uphold their commitment to working with the committees. We’ve observed instances where some brands or sourcing agents may avoid responsibility for their supply chain. This lack of accountability is concerning. Ideally, brands should continue to advocate for committee meetings within their factories through their sourcing agents. 

“Despite the FSP’s efforts, agents often fail to address abuses in the factories they source from, although they have the leverage to do so. This underscores the importance of brands auditing their sourcing agents and ensuring proper social compliance measures are in place. It is imperative for brands to hold their agents accountable and ensure they fulfil their responsibilities to protect workers’ rights in their supply chains.” 

Harsha: “Sustainable change for the workers in the factories can be established when the brands continue to source from the same factories, and when the brands and sourcing agents push for effective committee meetings to become a standard procedure in the factories they source from. This is the commitment the brands and sourcing agents must make.”