Threads of Labor

Pictured Above: Sanchita Saxena
Pictured Above: Sanchita Saxena

Mumbai 30 July, 2015- Amidst the old grandeur of St. Xavier's College, Asia Society in partnership with the Department of Public Policy and Economics at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai hosted a stimulating discussion labor behind the Asian textile industry with Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, Executive Director of the Institute of South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Saxena began the afternoon by providing background on the issue with industry comparisons and an explanation of her domestic coalition theory from her book, Made in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia: The Labor Behind the Global Garments and Textiles Industries. She then presented her four key findings: the significance of changing the role of labor in coalitions, the importance of private sector organizations to ensure the representation of labor, the problems with top-down programs, and the need to delink the concepts of improved working conditions and worker empowerment.

The crux of the problem, according to Saxena, is that workers are the recipients of policies and not members of networks. In other words, they are not part of the discussion that brings about change in factories. As trade unions do not represent workers well, progress in facilitating dialogue amongst labor groups and the state has been slow in all three countries. Saxena highlighted the example of the passivity in employee councils in Sri Lanka, where workers submit their ideas in suggestion boxes. In Cambodia, a different problem plagues unions-political affiliation.

Saxena argued that although labor conditions have been improved, workers had not been empowered. The predominant narrative of the success of meeting ILO standards has shielded organizations from doing more. However, she did appreciate the progress that has already been made. 'The Guilt Free Garments' campaign and eco-friendly factories in Sri Lanka and the female-led worker federations in Bangladesh serve as shining examples of the changes that have been made.

She suggested that institutions should support current labor movements instead of starting their own and focus on tackling the sub-contractor problem. As the afternoon came to an end, she projected her optimism for the workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka in the years to come.

Reported by: Mallika Iyer, Intern, Asia Society India Centre.

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