Fashion's Forgotten Workers: Risk to Resilience with Tech-Enabled Solutions

Alliance Manchester Business School, Castlefield, Incudeas Ltd, and Traidcraft Exchange

Monday, 26 July 2021

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The nature of homeworking in the Indian fashion and textile industries present ethical investors, and brands, with many challenges. Homeworkers are subject to various forms of exploitation, and the informal nature of the supply chain makes their conditions invisible to external audits that typically only extend to the first or second tier of the chain. At the same time, the work provided by homeworkers is essential to the operation of the supply chains and provides vulnerable female workers with a vital source of livelihood.

In association with Castlefield, “The Thoughtful Investor”, and with insights from SEWA Bharat and Homeworkers Worldwide, we will be sharing our experience of working with and learning from homeworkers in India. We will preview the major results arising from our Trustworthy Digital Infrastructure for Identity Systems project with the Alan Turing Institute examining how homeworkers might be supported using digital technology and the critical role that worker collectives would need to play in any such solution.

The webinar will explore the following issues:

  • Outlining the urgent challenges faced by homeworkers and other vulnerable supply chain actors, particularly in the context of the pandemic.
  • Considering which multi-stakeholder interventions might support these homeworkers, along with the risks of causing accidental harm and how these can be managed.
  • A consideration of the benefits that can arise from worker collectives exploring how technology can support the formation of these collectives, and how collectives can provide spaces in which the digitally excluded can be better supported.
  • Exploring how technology can assist with the gathering of information businesses need   to be able to act responsibly and demonstrate genuine leadership in human rights due diligence.
  • Learning how ethical investment practices could play a role in driving transparency and improvements in working conditions for homeworkers and other informal workers.


Agenda: UK time BST (India IST in bracket)

House Keeping - Zoom recordings and Chatham House Rule

12:00pm  (4:30pm)  The Turing's  Trustworthy Digital Infrastructure for Identity Systems project (AMBS) [Slides] [Zoom Recording]

12:05pm  (4:35pm)  Introduction and Background (Traidcraft Exchange) [No slide was used] [Zoom Recording]

12:10pm  (4:40pm)  Ethical investing in the garment sector (Castlefield) [Slides] [Zoom Recording]

12:20pm  (4:50pm)  Background on homeworking in India and impact of COVID-19 (Traidcraft India) [Slides] [Zoom Recording1] [Zoom Recording2]

12:30pm  (5:00pm)  Steps that businesses take to improve transparency around homeworkers/informal workers, and improve their working conditions (Homeworkers Worldwide) [Slides] [Zoom Recording]

12:40pm  (5:10pm)  Organising informal workers for improved access to labour and human rights, visibility, and recognition (SEWA) [Slides not available yet] [Zoom Recording] [SEWA Video, in Hindi with English subtitles]

1.00pm    (5:30pm)  Technology-enabled potential solution and way ahead (Incudeas) [Slides] [Zoom Recording]

1:15pm    (5:45pm)  Open Discussion [No slide was used] [Zoom Recording]

1:55pm    (6:25pm)  Closing Remarks

Questions and Answers

Caste and Child Labour:

  • Does your study include majoe Caste and Child Labour especially during the Covid pandemic?
    In Tiruppur we are hearing Child Labour is increasing in certain supply chains.  We did question our Kapas Hera sample around whether children of homeworkers work with them. This might happen for women with older children who earned very low wage (as low as 0.25 paisa per piece), yet they want to make as many pieces as possible. Improved wages and visibility for homeworkers is key here.  Over-representation of Muslims and Dalits in leather sector is well documented, with Dalits overrepresented in lowest paid jobs. HWW found it very difficult to gather evidence though due to fear/stigma of talking about caste issues. (See HWW's blog and HWW_2019 study)

Homeworkers (or Homebased Workers) Policy and Minimum Wage:

  • Which international brands has agreed to include Homeworkers?
    There is no law for HBW in India, though some of the recent legislations on social security do acknowledge HBW as part of informal workers. HWW has tracked 15 brands that have adopted a Homeworker policy, many dating back to the ETI’s Homeworking group that functioned in the mid-late 2000s. These are not always made public, probably because some brands are no longer implementing them. The latest (2021) Fashion Revolution report included Homeworking within their review of supply chain transparency of 250 of the largest fashion brands found that 37% have a public homeworkers policy, but only 10% disclose how this is implemented.
  • Are you working on fixing minimum wages for HBW?
    Homeworkers are usually paid a piece rate per item, so the challenge is to set a ‘fair piece rate’, that would enable a homeworker to earn the minimum wage, if she was working for a fixed hour/day. The fact that many homeworkers do not work for a solid 8-hour day is then irrelevant.The ETI report from their homeworking project in North India, which ended possibly in 2010, outlined two ways to set 'fair piece rates' for homeworkers (which includes rest breaks and took account of slower workers). HWW was involved in developing this guidance, which we also used in our recent project with Pentland Brands, where the brand worked with the supplier to complete time and motion studies with homeworkers and link these timings to the minimum wage. Homeworkers’ piece rates were increased by one third as a result. (See Pentland Case Study and Leather-Footwear-Case-Study). HWW will be publishing a toolkit shortly, pulling together ‘best practice’ in relation to this and several other challenges relating to homeworking.

Smart Phone and Sophisticated Technology:

  • Some existing worker voice solutions ( does not require workers to have smartphones!
    As outlined in the propose solution, there are a number of mechanisms to enable digital access for workers including a voice interface that does not require the use of a smartphone, just access to a telephone, as well as the potential for an SMS/USSD interface using a basic mobile phone and even via a ‘helper’ who is authorised by the collective to support the capturing of information on working conditions etc. and to facilitate raising a grievance. The voice interface is envisaged to enable workers to be able to respond to a series of questions using natural language or the phone keypad (e.g., by entering a number).
  • Collectives/workers in India have limited knowledge to handle sophisticated technology. What are other alternatives in that case?
    Where there is access to a smartphone, in many cases people do not know how to use its features. However, the examples mentioned during the webinar highlight that some women have been able to learn how to use voice messages via a messaging app during the pandemic, even though they are unable to read and write text-based messages. One of the key reasons for adopting a collective-led intervention is that the collective can provide the necessary education and training to make use of technology and may be able to make a device available for workers to access the system if required.

Workers’ level of control in the system, supply chain mapping & grievance procedure:

  • Can workers control the data and information collected?
    We outlined a staged approach to the deployment of digital systems to support increased visibility up the supply chain as well as several support services with a collective-led system that can then be adopted by other collectives (‘collective’ is a generic term and not tied to any organisation type or structure except that it is a membership-based organisation that provides support and representation for its members (workers)). In this context the primary relationship is between a worker and the collective. Any information collected by the collective must be with the permission of the individual worker and there will be strict rules around who has access to that data within the collective which will be controlled through the digital identity scheme. Individuals and collective jointly decide how the data is to be used. Such local agreement might be different for different collective depending on what works locally. It is envisaged that only data that is anonymised and aggregated will be shared outside of the collective (with the permission of its members/workers) with brands, suppliers, and others.
  • Can workers use the system to talk amongst themselves, as well as to Brands?
    The system can support communications between workers within a collective e.g., for organised training, workshops etc. It would also be possible for brands and suppliers to be able to communicate directly with a collective, but, due to privacy protection, not directly to the individuals. The technology can support different variant of arrangements, it is the local actors who decide how their privacy should be respected.The potential transition to a full digital supply chain would allow digital relationships and interactions between different supply chain actors to be established and enable a much more granular view of the supply chain and work being carried out both up and down the supply chain. In this context, communications could take place within the system between different actors. There is a need to work through this in more detail to ensure that security, privacy, and confidentiality is maintained – the role of the collective will remain a critical factor in this context.
  • Why the supply chain mapping is pre-requisite to set-up a grievance mechanism ?
    Without a collective-led system grievance reporting is typically dependent on the initiatives of a manufacturer or brand who would have to be able to identify all the workers in the supply chain. As we discussed, informal workers are not normally visible to brands or their suppliers. Many informal workers do not have access to such a system anyway and are often very wary of raising issues because of the fear of reprisals that might affect the work that they can get through the contractors/sub-contractors with whom they work.Workers may work through more than one contractor/sub-contractor and likewise a contractor may work with more than one manufacturer, etc. A collective-led approach can help to manage this process on the basis that the workers/members trust the collective. In addition grievance reporting is no use unless there is a process for redressal. This can be managed at a collective level and specific grievances only need to be escalated when they cannot be resolved by the collective. In order to manage this there is a need to initiate a mapping of the supply chain to identify which contractors/sub-contractors work with which supplier and which suppliers work with which brands in order to facilitate this. A regular rhythm of reporting within the collective can help to track such relationships over time.Some general information on the number and types of grievances raised and the status of any redressal can be made available via the web portal to improve visibility. Again this would be in anonymised and aggregated form only with any specific escalations being confidential. The role of the collective is to support its members but also to support the supply chain (suppliers and brands) in which they work to improve transparency and working conditions.

Turing Project Reports and Other Documents:

  • Where can we get the Kapas Hera survey report?
    Here is the Traidcraft Exchange 2019 study  which involved consultations with export-oriented factory workers, informal factory unit workers and homeworkers in Kapas Hera area (a mixed global and domestic chain) and north east Delhi (a domestic supply chain). Findings from recent study that Kratika presented, and all other Turing reports are available at the project page.

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