India must invest in its women workers to deliver shared prosperity

Priti Darooka, South Asia Researcher & Representative, and Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

India's women are stuck on low-paid work

BHRRC visits Delhi's poverty-ridden slums - and finds government action could help business and workers

Kajal opens the door to her one-room home in the Delhi slums, which she shares with her husband and two children. This is also Kajal’s workshop. As a home-based worker, she receives ad-hoc orders from Indian and International brands for ‘embellishment and finishing’ - fine embroidery and bead work, a growing part of the ‘fast-fashion’ industry.

Kajal says her family lives hand-to-mouth. Her husband is a government clerk, while Kajal earns up to two US dollars per day, and that’s when she gets any work. Over the years, they have saved enough to buy a two-ring gas burner and a second-hand pressure cooker.

These savings were possible through the bank of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Kajal’s wages, and her sense of dignity, greatly increased after she joined the production team at SEWA to deliver orders for national and global brands. Women say their income per piece (all income is piece-rate for ‘fast-fashion’) more than doubles if brands source directly from SEWA, rather than order through export houses and agents.

Kajal’s situation exemplifies the plight of women trapped in Delhi’s poverty-ridden slums, who have to balance paid work with their unpaid labour in the home. Kajal is the only working woman in her building, which houses six to eight families, in a society where oppressive traditions restrict women’s freedom to earn a living. However, families generally approve of SEWA’s production companies as women-owned and women-friendly spaces.

India’s poverty co-exists with one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, at 7.2 per cent. The country attracts around $43 billion each year in inward investment and has substantial investment overseas. But this high growth has not translated into jobs, while inequality is rising and real wages have stagnated. With a general election next year, the previously unassailable Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces criticism that his ‘India Shining’ slogan of 2014 only applied to the wealthy.

Meanwhile, low-wage workers are most at risk of human rights abuse. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s own data show that most allegations of abuse come from three sectors: apparel and footwear, agriculture and food, and natural resource extraction. India is also in the top ten countries for intimidation and attacks on human rights defenders related to business.

And in August this year, five more high-profile civil society activists were arrested, prompting outcry and fear among those defending communities and workers from irresponsible business and investment.

These trends might explain why the Modi Government has moved rapidly in the last year to reform 2011’s National Voluntary Guidelines on Social, Environment and Economic Responsibilities of Business, which have a human rights principle and a separate section on small and medium enterprises.

In the revised document, the word ‘voluntary’ has been dropped, making it clear that these guidelines must be followed by all companies in India. This is a welcome improvement, but falls short of elaborating the role of businesses in actively promoting human rights. The guidelines should go beyond ‘do no harm’ and push employers to commit to doing some good.  

India has also announced the development of a National Action Plan (NAP) for human rights in business, and is consulting on India’s position regarding an international binding treaty on the same. Human Rights and Business Network India, an alliance of Indian civil society organisations, sees this as an opportunity for India to get a NAP which mandates transparency, due diligence, and timely, effective and adequate remedy when things go wrong.

Fifteen years ago, India’s government and industries played a key role in ensuring that the 35 million HIV+ people in Africa gained access to anti-retrovirals, saving millions of lives. India could again play a crucial role in ensuring business delivers shared prosperity and security through inclusive growth.

This would take a major shift in the way business operates in the country:

- First, the government could introduce mandatory business transparency on the wages they pay, the gender pay gap, and abuse allegations in companies’ operations and supply chains, with remedies applied.

- Second, the government could demand mandatory due diligence, insisting companies identify the human rights risks in their operations and supply chains, and proactively mitigate those risks, or face prosecution for negligence.

- The government could also provide incentives, such as only awarding government contracts to companies which respect human rights. In the apparel industry alone this could be transformational, given the scale of government orders for uniforms. But the government could go further and insist that orders are given directly to women’s cooperatives, such as SEWA.

- International and national clothing brands could follow Fabindia’s lead and do the same in government supply chains. The business case is compelling, given public distrust of brands, and given the small extra cost of helping women’s cooperatives ensure quality, consistency, and speed. After all, their women members are already doing the work – just on half the pay they would get if brands arranged their supply chains as if their women workers mattered.

As we heard at the Sustainability Conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry, increasing numbers of mainstream investors are assessing risk in new ways, including the social impact of their investments.

As this trend continues, nation-states and business sectors which value human rights will thrive, with faster and cheaper access to capital. India has the opportunity to make these changes, with enormous benefits to its working people.

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