ARISA Hosts a Session on Caste-Based Discrimination
4th March 2021
‘Caste-based discrimination, an Invisible Issue in the Garment Industry in South Asia’ was presented by IDSN, READ (India), ETI (UK) and Advocating Rights in South Asia (ARISA, Netherlands) on 25th February, with our Director Meena Varma amongst the line-up. There were participants from the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Norway, India and the UK, consisting of both NGOs and companies from the garment industry, ably hosted by Sandra Claassen from ARISA.
Kicking off the proceedings, Meena introduced the issue of caste-based discrimination and why it needs to be addressed. She emphasised the key labour rights issues arising from caste discrimination, including bonded and forced labour, no rights to freedom of association, hazardous and poor working conditions, child labour, low pay, longer working hours, gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Some disturbing figures were given, including that in the carpet industry 20% of all workers are children under the age of 14. Of particular worry right now, following on from the pandemic, is that some states in India have sanctioned extensive relaxations of key labour laws, citing the need for economic recovery – but without considering the increased discrimination against Dalits. Meena stressed how important it was to address the situation, and that companies should adopt solutions from the ETI Caste in Global Supply Chains Guidance document.
This presentation was followed by Karuppasamy from READ (a former DSN-UK project partner), who gave case studies from a Survey on Caste-Based Discrimination in the Textile Supply Chain. Focusing on textile workers in Tamil Nadu, he highlighted how women are facing intersectional discrimination, and are recruited through multiple exploitative schemes: only 40% of workers in the industry are permanent. Karuppasamy emphasised that as soon as a caste name is given, Dalits are treated differently, and many workers have to apply multiple times for a job. Indeed, 68% of workers believe there is caste discrimination in the industry, with 72% suffering abuse by management on the basis of caste and 78% claiming that there is discrimination amongst co-workers. ‘Lower’ caste workers say that overtime and target completion disproportionately fall on them, with little ability to question management, as they are voiceless. Untouchability practices are common: Dalits can’t drink from the common drinking system and must bring their own bottles from home and eat separately from other workers as so-called ‘upper’ caste people consider that sharing food and drinking water with Dalits is a curse. Disturbingly, 90% of lower caste workers are not part of a committee (chosen by management), so that the interests of Dalit workers are completely ignored. Wages differ based on caste, as do promotions, and on industry transportation Dalits must not touch ‘upper’ caste workers or sit next to them on buses, often leaving them to travel standing up. Lastly, 61% of lower caste workers say that they don’t have the same access to accident compensation, and often there is only first aid treatment in government or private hospitals, but for other treatment they must bear the medical expenses themselves.
Glenn Bradley from Hardscape UK presented next, giving a personal insight with ‘My Journey to Understanding and Addressing Dalit Rights and Caste-Based Discrimination in our Supply Chains’. He took the audience through his journey of discovery while working in the natural stone sector, and the difficulties in convincing his suppliers to treat Dalits equally after witnessing the levels of discrimination. Despite being involved in the industry since 1999, it wasn’t until 2012 that he saw real change as the ETI base code was rolled out and ETI’s Rajasthan Sandstone Working Group was set up. This began a process to educate, inform and support, identifying who were Dalits within the staff and ensuring that they had PPE and equipment on the same level as other workers. A process of training people, not just Dalits, of their rights and the importance of participation took place, aiming to change the attitudes of the entire staff on equality. Glenn stressed that there were six steps necessary to resolve the problem in the industry: education and training; political lobbying; mark 1 eyeball in supply chains; pressure for honesty; teach Indian suppliers that this is a human rights violation; and not purchasing from suppliers where discrimination was still evident. He finished by stressing that if a company wants to call themselves ethical, they need to go past the gimmicks and consider human rights to bring about meaningful change.
Finally, Peter McAllister from ETI UK presented ‘Key Messages for Businesses on how to address Caste in Global Supply Chains’. He argued that applying the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights means identifying salient risk. Due to the high numbers of migrant and seasonal workers, and particularly Dalit workers, there is considered to be a high risk of caste-based discrimination in South Asian supply chains. Although companies may carry out audits on their suppliers, they are typically blind to the presence of caste-based discrimination, and unaware that Dalits, particularly women, are vulnerable to abuse, discrimination, long hours, sexual harassment, child and forced labour. Therefore, it is essential to assume that caste is a potential risk factor and enhanced due diligence is needed. Regular social audits are not enough, and instead it is important to increase internal awareness by working with local experts to help promote change in the workplace. Peter was keen to point out that companies tackling caste-based discrimination shouldn’t expect problems to be solved in a year, and that it requires commitment and hard work.
All in all, it was a highly successful session, with a varied group of speakers that went beyond the theoretical and into real-life experience. ARISA and the participating groups hope that the companies who attended will start to consider caste-based discrimination with greater intent to make change.