Reflections on India Fair Trade Trip

This is an overdue blog post, but important none the less (and interesting too, I hope!)

Travel buddies: Heather, Jackie, Julia, Manodeep and Mahendra

In September, several colleagues and I spent a week in India.  We had the opportunity to visit many steps along the clothing supply chain.  I stress many, not all.  If there is one thing I learned from this experience it’s that the supply chain for apparel is long.  And complicated.  There are countless steps that occur between growing the cotton and getting a t-shirt onto a shelf in a store in the United States.  What really struck me was the sheer number of people involved in this process, especially when you consider that many of the finished t-shirts we saw may sell for as little as $15. (And, as we all know, many t-shirts at Walmart sell for even less than this, yet their supply chains are presumably no less involved.)

The purpose of our trip to India was to learn about the recently developed pilot standard for Fair Trade Certified garments.  Historically, Fair Trade standards have applied to commodities such as coffee or cocoa, which are usually grown by farmer cooperatives.  Fair Trade has also been used to identify handicrafts made by artisan groups, such as jewelry or scarves.  What Fair Trade has not been applied to thus far is products made in a factory setting.  Nor has it been used to certify multiple steps along the supply chain of products with more than one stage of production.

In 2010, Fair Trade USA launched a pilot standard for certifying factories that are committed to Fair Trade manufacturing of garments. This was a significant development, not only because Fair Trade has not generally applied to hired labor situations, but also because this would be the first attempt to certify fair production up the chain.  Previously, garments could be made with cotton that was grown under Fair Trade terms; however, after the cotton left the farm and entered the long, complicated garment supply chain, it was anyone’s guess how the workers were treated.  Given the marred history of the textile industry in many of the countries where our clothing is made, my guess would be: not fairly.

An Organic, Fair Trade cotton T-shirt on display at Rajlakshmi

This is why Fair Trade USA, with a group of stakeholders (ever more referred to as the Multi-Stakeholder Group, MSG), took on the task of making the clothing supply chain more equitable for cutters, stitchers, tailors, packagers, et al. The pilot standard has been used to certify four manufacturing facilities in three countries.  The first Fair Trade Certified garments (not just the cotton, but the production, too) are arriving on the shelves in the US now, so the million-dollar question is: how’s the pilot working out?  Are garment workers getting the fair deal that Fair Trade promises?

To attempt to answer this question, the MSG ventured to India, where much of the Fair Trade certified cotton is grown, and two of the Fair Trade certified factories are located.

What we learned was hopeful.  At Esteam in Sang Li, the workers told us they had more pride in their work and felt more respected at this factory than at previous jobs. They stressed the importance of being paid on time here, and relief that their payments went via direct deposit into their personal bank accounts.  (This was especially important for the women, as their cash wages had often been taken by their husbands in the past.)  They also were happy to be a part of Fair Trade, knowing that it was helping their cotton-farming countrymen earn more money as well.

At Rajlakshmi near Kolkata the workers were also happy to be a part of Fair Trade because of the extra income the Fair Trade premium fund would provide them.  This fund belongs to the workers and is to be used for whatever the workers of the Fair Trade committee decides.  As the fund increases, the workers at Raj Lakshmi hope to use the money to build a computer center at the factory for educational purposes, and also improve the drinking water at a nearby village where many of the workers live.

What both groups asked of us was, “When is your order coming?”  In order for the pilot to have a greater impact, there need to be more orders.  The social premium for garment workers is equal to 1 to 10% FOB (Freight on Board), depending on wage levels at the factory.  No matter what percentage goes to the social premium fund, the amount will be increased by greater order volume.

A sign displayed outside Esteam

Lingering questions exist about the pilot program, however.  First, the fact that even though we are at the moment able to certify the CMT (Cut, Make, Trim) of cotton garments, this still does not account for the whole supply chain. Sometimes dying or weaving actually happens before the cotton cloth reaches the certified facilities, so it has been handled by non-certified factories.

Additionally, how can this standard cultivate true worker empowerment, one of the tenets of Fair Trade?  In a hired-labor setting there will always be an uneven distribution of power between the manager and the workers. The Fair Trade committee will only have as much power as the management is willing to lend to them; it takes a very special and committed manager to fully commit to this.  As much as the pilot standard screens for worker abuse and the payment of fair wages, it also needs to somehow serve as a screen to measure the commitment of a factory manager to fully respect and empower workers.

On our last day of the trip I read in the Times of India that four workers died in a fire at a textile factory outside Mumbai.  They were not able to evacuate. Twelve more were severely injured after hiding in an AC unit.

A view of Esteam from above

At Esteam, all the workers worked in one open, airy room.  The exits were accessible, frequent, and well-identified. The fire extinguishers were out in the open and clearly marked.  Esteam practices fire drills; the most recent one required only 45 seconds for everyone to evacuate.

While many define Fair Trade differently, especially as the term is now being applied to factory and plantation settings, it’s clear that a tragedy like the one in Mumbai would not happen at Esteam.  All garment workers should enjoy the same safe working conditions as those at Esteam and Rajlakshmi.  In this respect the pilot seems to be working.  However, the question still remains – is certification for factories really Fair Trade, or a needed, but incremental, improvement over conventional factories?  How can factory certification truly empower workers, offer capacity building, and fair, living wages?  The garment certification pilot was designed to be a work in progress—in some ways it is working, and in some ways there is progress yet to be made.

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