Summary: A craft steeped in tradition, combined with modern pressures, creates a challenge for our company: how to ensure the fair treatment of people who do handwork.
The handwork that appears embroidered or beaded on a piece of clothing is intricately stitched, beautifully designed, and steeped in Indian tradition. That tradition includes the fact that the women who do a large portion of handwork often work outside the factory setting, in part because it’s culturally frowned upon in some places for women to work alongside men. For many women in India, the ability to work at home or in other informal settings provides a critical source of income as well as a sense of autonomy. Yet it means that they have fewer protections when compared with workers in factory environments.
A top priority of our approach to handwork is combating child labor and human trafficking. It is unacceptable for child, forced, or trafficked labor to be used to produce any Gap Inc.-branded product. One major issue with handwork is the common practice of extensive “subcontracting.” Often, a factory will subcontract handwork out to an embroidery company, which subcontracts it again, only to have this process repeated. The result is that it becomes difficult to track and monitor the exact places where handwork is being done. To confront the challenges presented by handwork, Gap Inc. has taken a few key steps, including:
- Limiting the number of times subcontracting is permitted, and making vendors responsible for providing details of their handwork supply chain.
- Developing a system for tracking our suppliers and subcontractors producing Gap Inc. branded apparel, including regular monitoring visits to subcontractor sites and also to randomly selected homes where the actual work takes place.
- Working with NGOs and others to help establish handwork centers that are monitored for appropriate working conditions.
The monitoring and enforcement of the standards outlined in our Code of Vendor Conduct buttress these efforts, as do our partnerships at the local and international level to drive change. We are actively working with coalitions on this issue, among them, the United Nations’ Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UN G.I.F.T) and the Global March Against Child Labor.
We also continue to explore innovative ideas for improving working conditions. Through a partnership bridging the public and private sectors in North India, we’ve helped establish a handwork community center for local women. Located in Mewat, a rural area of Haryana, about 90 km south of Delhi, the center functions as a training and distribution location from which workers can directly collect work, submit completed work, and perform their jobs on-site if they prefer. It provides women with a chance to hone their skills and earn critical income for their families. “There’s much more transparency and control when we are working through a center,” says Reema Agrawal, a senior Social Responsibility Specialist for Gap Inc. in New Delhi. (It’s important to note that men also do handwork and benefit from greater visibility into the handwork supply chain and limitations on the use of subcontracting.)
Housed in a temple, the brightly colored center – which opened in 2010 – features a sewing circle of women who otherwise would have few options outside of the informal economy to survive financially. Approximately 350 women are currently undergoing skill training or working on actual products for the international market. By directly linking exporters with the community, we’ve removed the multiple tiers of subcontracting in the traditional handwork supply chain. The arrangement is more efficient for suppliers because work is organized in one location. Most important, it makes working conditions more transparent. “It’s a win-win situation,” Reema says. “It gives flexibility to the factories and to the women.”
Gap inc. organized an unusual collaboration to create this program, including representatives from government, NGOs, other buying houses and suppliers who normally don’t work together. The project is managed by the Society for the Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM). As part of the collaboration, The Pearl Academy of Fashion provided women with additional training to deepen their skills. Under the program’s structure, women can earn greater pay as they increase their skill level.
The Mewat Center is a small, unique program that brings multiple benefits – increased empowerment, skill improvement, transparency and efficiency. It enables women to continue doing work that is vital to their financial survival. Our goal is to respect the best of this tradition and the opportunities it provides to women, while addressing the issues that such work can entail. The Mewat Center is a reminder that no embroidery or beading can be thought of apart from the person who created it.