Garment workers play a crucial role in tailoring the clothes we daily wear. These clothes come in various colors, shapes, and materials, covering our bodies and coming into direct contact with our skin. The journey of these garments begins with textile workers who cut the fabrics, tailor them, inspect their quality, iron them, and pack them into bags and boxes for shipment around the world. Eventually, these clothes reach the market, making their way into our wardrobes.
Textile workers in countries like India, Bangladesh, and China serve as the clothing providers for millions of people globally, making these workers indispensable for the economies of these countries. However, these workers often face unfavorable working conditions that fail to recognize their value and the importance of their work. Instead, they encounter discrimination on a daily basis, endure long hours of work, receive minimal breaks, and experience mental pressure to sustain themselves on incomes that, although above the minimum, fall short of a living wage. Consequently, they struggle to meet basic needs such as rent, education for their children, food, and medical expenses. Additionally, many of these workers also face discrimination as they come from marginalized groups. In light of all this, I wanted to gain insight into the self-perception, experiences, and motivations of textile workers in South India. My objective was to listen to their stories and understand their perspectives. Furthermore, I wanted to learn about factories that prioritize improved working conditions and provide a salary sufficient to cover workers' expenses.
As a student at Leiden, I was thrilled about the opportunity to engage in fieldwork abroad. The prospect of exploring India, a captivating and vibrant country known for its rich culture, delicious cuisine, and diverse population, had always intrigued me. Moreover, I was fortunate to find a supervisor who works on the Indian garment industry, including cotton farmers. But when I shared the news with my grandma about planning to go to India, and staying there for three months, her immediate response was: 'To India? Do you really want to go to India?' It caught me off guard since I had traveled to other countries in the past and returned safely. While some of my family and friends expressed concern, it was only my grandma who seemed genuinely surprised. The reason for my grandma’s concern was clear to me. There has been a lot of news on sexual violence in India, ranking it as the most dangerous country for women in the world (CNN 2018). To ease my grandma’s concerns, I explained to her the purpose of my journey, to do an internship with an NGO in South India and that the NGO takes my safety very seriously.
My supervisor introduced me to the director of the NGO READ (Rights Education and Development Centre). Found in 2001, READ has established connections with textile workers, garment factories, spinning mills, and other crucial stakeholders in the industry. They have conducted extensive research on garment workers, which has been compiled into insightful reports. READ is also actively engaged in organizing skill development programs and rights awareness training, not only for textile workers but also for individuals engaged in other low-income professions. Their focus extends beyond textile workers to marginalized communities such as Dalits and Scheduled Tribes in Tamil Nadu, as well as vulnerable populations including women, children, and migrants who face discrimination and are susceptible to exploitation. READ's mission is to create a society where every individual can enjoy a life of quality and human dignity.
After giving READ’s director more details about my research and asking for support for my fieldwork, he offered me an internship. And in early January, after a journey of over 20 hours, I arrived in Sathyamangalam, Erode District, Tamil Nadu, India. The employees of READ were incredibly warm and friendly, and instantly made me feel at home. They provided me with a fantastic start to my three-month stay, and I am immensely grateful for their support. I had the opportunity to participate in their campaigns, celebrate holidays such as Pongal, and even attend weddings. The sense of community at READ was remarkable, with shared lunches, engaging conversations, and joint campaign activities.
Living with a South Indian host family, in a rural village, was an extraordinary experience for me. The host family belonged to my main contact at READ. She resided with her parents, two sisters, two brothers, brother-in-law, and niece, all of whom were incredibly protective and caring towards me. Despite a language barrier, as they spoke limited English, I was amazed at how quickly and effortlessly we connected. A niece, who attended a school where English was the medium of instruction, became my guide and assisted me in communicating with other family members. She even taught me some basic Tamil words. My Indian host family wholeheartedly embraced me, involving me in their celebrations, daily routines, and the vibrant village community.
READ was a wonderful organisation to intern with. During my internship at READ, I engaged in various tasks that allowed me to delve deeper into the organization's structure and strategy while fostering connections with my colleagues. I took on responsibilities such as creating posters, writing success stories, providing support for campaigns, and reaching out to other NGOs for potential collaboration. These tasks provided valuable insights into the experiences and knowledge accumulated by my READ colleagues regarding garment workers. For interviews, I greatly relied on the assistance of my colleagues. Their exceptional translation skills ensured smooth communication during interviews, which often sparked thought-provoking conversations afterward. To conduct the interviews, we visited villages within the Erode district and met the garment workers in their homes. It was fascinating to observe the layout, furnishings, and decorations of their houses. All of my interviewees warmly welcomed me, offering chai, water, and cookies. Their generosity and willingness to share their stories made me feel comfortable and grateful for the time they dedicated to our discussions. The garment workers shared the reasons why they chose the job. Most of them have family debts, and due to their low education and caste, they have few job options. Working in a textile factory provides them with a regular salary and an introduction week where they learn skills such as tailoring for free. One of my interviewees told me that learning how to tailor allowed her to follow her dream of buying a tailoring machine and producing clothes at home. She did not like the working conditions in the textile factories. So, she quit her job and worked from home. She sells her clothes to the people in her village and has the advantage of being closer to her children and caring for them. Talking to the garment workers and the READ staff, I realized how much of a burden women in South India take; household, children, other relatives, and work. Women are responsible for running the family, but their needs and well-being do not get enough attention. “No one is taking care of me,” one of my interviewees said.
My internship with READ was integrated with the LGGB project (Localizing Global Garment Biographies). LGGB supported me, and provided me with the opportunity to participate in a project week centered around Tirupur. This collaborative endeavor involved the Erode College of Arts and Sciences, MBO Zadkine, Raddis Cotton, TU Delft, and Leiden University. One of the primary activities of the LGGB project is to create a traceable t-shirt, following its journey from the seed to raw cotton, and finally, its transformation into a stitched garment. During the project week, we had the privilege of visiting textile factories and spinning mills, immersing ourselves in the entire production process. We also had the unique experience of participating in a natural dyeing workshop, further enhancing our understanding of sustainable textile practices. The initial design for the t-shirt had been crafted by two MBO Zadkine students. They collaborated with students from the Erode College of Arts and Sciences, enrolled in the Fashion and Design program to collectively refine and finalize the design for the t-shirt.
In order to establish contact with the college, I visited the campus to meet with Prof. Dr. Mani, the Head of Department (HoD) of Economics, and Dr. Revathi, the Head of Department of the College of Design and Fashion (CDF). I found the college to be welcoming and enthusiastic about bringing the students together to collaborate on the project. As is customary, we took a group photo. One week later, when my colleagues and I returned to the college to finalize the workshop plans, Dr. Mani surprised us with the news that an article had been published in a local newspaper about my visit to the college and the project, which even featured the photo taken during our initial meeting.
Overall, it was thrilling to spend time with incredible people, many of whom I am still in touch with, and I hope to meet again in the near future. Throughout my journey, I gained a wealth of knowledge about the challenges faced by marginalized communities, the intricacies of clothing production, local traditions, and last but not least South Indias’ many culinary delights. As my three-month stay came to an end, bidding farewell to my Indian family was bittersweet. While I was sad to part ways, I was also excited to reunite with my German family and commence the process of working my experiences into my Master thesis.