• Shop Direct, Next Plc, and Varner have collaborated on the project.
  • Phase one began in July 2018 and focussed on two mills and five villages in the state of Tamil Nadu.
  • Following the success of phase one, the partnership is now gearing up for a second phase, due to launch later this year.
  • This will include an education programme for children aged six to 15, the launch of an app for workers to provide feedback and setting up community centres and resource groups.
The project aims to improve employment conditions for young women in South Indias fabric mills

The project aims to improve employment conditions for young women in South India's fabric mills

The first phase of a project by Shop Direct, Next Plc and Varner to improve employment conditions for young women in South India's fabric mills has engaged almost 9,500 people, with the partnership now gearing up for a second phase, due to launch later this year - with plans including the launch of an app for workers to provide feedback.

Working in collaboration with NGO Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), Shop Direct, Next Plc, and Varner have engaged almost 9,500 people in the first phase of the project which began in July 2018 and focused on two mills and five villages in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Since that point the group says about 950 workers have received training and support to boost life skills, confidence, and awareness of employment rights, with the aim of enhancing peer interaction, improving relationships between workers and managers and establishing better policies, procedures and grievance handling systems.

This was supported by village-based outreach to more than 8,500 people, designed to raise awareness of issues affecting female mill workers among potential employees, their families and local communities. Village committees were established to ensure the protection of child rights and observance of labour laws, while families with young children took part in interactive sessions to learn about issues related to underage employment.

Other community activity included mass awareness days on gender equality and labour welfare, using digital content and actor performances, while young women aged 12 to 17 took part in sessions on personal development, health and life skills leading to the creation of an 'adolescent parliament'. In schools, teachers and students learned about child rights, labour laws and the negative consequences of leaving education early. 

The project also worked with mill recruitment agents to ensure fair, ethical recruitment practices, create a pool of preferred agents and establish a code of conduct, regulated by a committee.

Now, following the success of phase one, Shop Direct, Next and Varner are working with Tamil Nadu-headquartered NGO Rights Education And Development Centre (READ) on the design of a second phase which will launch before the end of 2019. 

Working with an additional mill as well as the mills and villages from phase one, this will include an education programme for children aged six to 15, the launch of an app for workers to provide feedback, and setting up community centres and resource groups.

"The feedback we've received from mill workers and local communities involved with our programme has been very positive and we're now working hard to finalise plans for the next phase," says Carly Bilsbrough, head of CSR at Shop Direct, which operates online retailers Very.co.uk and Littlewoods.com. "In the longer term, we're keen to work with other retailers, mills and communities in Tamil Nadu to improve the lives of young women and their families on an even greater scale."

Chris Grayer, head of CSR at Next Plc, adds: "As part of our commitment to protect human rights in our supply chain, Next continues to work in collaboration with other retailers to further research and establish best practice for worker recruitment in South India's fabric mills.

"The success already achieved from the first year's work has provided benefits, underlining the value of collaboration and recognising the efforts of all stakeholders who have worked together on this programme."

According to the re:source by just-style strategic sourcing tool, India is the largest-cotton producer in the world and has a large and low-cost labour pool; however, its garment industry faces difficulties. Although apparel exports remain an important part of India's GDP, they have been dropping for the last two years, and because of diversification in India's overall exports, apparel's share has declined.