Welcome to the Leather Town. Welcome to Ambur, a dry, dusty town on the national highway between Bangalore and Chennai, in the north of India's Tamil Nadu state. With more than one hundred tanneries, factories and numerous smaller units scattered across the town, Ambur is a major export hub for leather and footwear products from India. Yet a large part of the production process is actually hidden behind the walls of Ambur's family houses. Missing from any official statistics and often overlooked by trade unions, the most labour-intensive part of the shoe production process happens at home. In Sumitra's simple, one roomed house for example.
Indeed, while most parts of the shoe-making process, such as the cutting of the leather, the pattern-making and the final assembly, are carried out in factories and workshops, the stitching of the uppers is most often carried out by homeworkers. Ambur's homeworkers stitch the uppers by hand at their homes, after which the uppers are joined to the soles in factories, either in India or in European countries such as the UK, Portugal or Slovakia to make up the finished shoes. This type of home based work is far removed from any artisanal model of production: the raw materials and the model of the shoe, the number of stitches and the technique are entirely determined by the factory. The work is usually distributed by intermediaries, so the homeworkers often do not know the name of the manufacturer producing the shoes. The intermediaries set the piece rate, usually considerably below minimum wage rates, and also determine the volume of work, which may be highly irregular.
A day in the life: Sumitra’s story
Sumitra is one of Ambur's homeworkers. Her day usually starts at 6 am. "Sometimes I wake up with swollen fingers, as I work late at night. The middlemen come over late and give us the pieces to assemble, saying 'it is urgent'. But after I complete a pair, it takes about an hour for my hands to return to their normal condition. So I don’t take on any urgent work anymore."
The most common model of shoes that Sumitra stitches is men’s loafers or casual shoes, although occasionally she also works on women’s and children’s shoes. The process of stitching the uppers involves pushing a needle through pre-punched holes in the two parts of the upper and pulling the thick thread through, then pulling the stitch to the right tension. Sumitra usually sits on the floor, crouched over the work for long hours.
“No way stitching the uppers is good work at all," Sumitra replies resolutely when we ask about her job. "We suffer from pains in the chest. Our hands get infected because of the germs in the leather. Sometimes I am afraid that the chemicals in the leather will infect the food I am preparing afterwards," she warns.
Stitching at home in Ambur is far from a profitable business: for each pair of shoes, Sumitra earns less than 10 eurocents. "We are paid a piece-rate by the middleman, according to how many pairs we complete and varying according to the model of shoe. But we need to bear some costs ourselves as well. While we receive the thread to stitch shoe uppers, we always have to buy our own needles."
But Sumitra carries on, as home based work allows her to take care of her daughters and remain closely involved in their education. "If I would go out to work, I could not take proper care of my girls. I would come home in the evening, exhausted, and my daughters would tell me: you go your way, we go our way".
Homeworkers fighting back
Meanwhile, a number of organisations are attempting to bring homeworkers together so to advance their interests and campaign for improved labour conditions. Homeworkers World Wide is one of these. We spoke with Lucy Brill, Research Co-ordinator at the organisation.
- First of all, how polluting is the leather industry in Ambur? Domestic workers like Sumitra send out clear warning signals about harmful effects on health and environment.
"Pollution caused by the leather industry, particularly the tanneries, is well documented, and anecdotally we have been told that agriculture in the Ambur region has been virtually wiped out as a result. Tannery workers face serious heath and safety risks; for example, ten migrant workers were killed following an accident at a tannery in Ranipet in Vellore district in January 2015."
- What are the solutions you are proposing to protect homeworkers?
"The first stage is for the manufacturers and retailers to recognise that they are using homeworkers in their production chains, and to take responsibility for their pay and conditions. At present, most homeworking is completely informal and unregulated; intermediaries set the piece rates and manufacturers often have no formal link with the women workers who handstitch their shoes. It is also important for homeworkers themselves to be actively involved in any initiative to improve their situation, so that they can identify priorities for action and also to ensure that the results can be monitored."
- In your view, what is the role that brands and retailers can play?
"Existing initiatives, where they exist, tend to concentrate on the very top of the supply chain and particularly on the large factories. Few brands make meaningful efforts to monitor further down the chain even to subcontracting factories or to address the issues of workers in the informal economy. Unless brands and retailers investigate beyond their first tier suppliers, homeworkers will remain an invisible workforce excluded from efforts to improve the industry.
This invisibility is exacerbated by the almost total lack of transparency provided by brands and retailers, who continue to show great reluctance to share information on suppliers and supply chains. This insistence on commercial confidentiality in relation to sourcing makes it difficult for workers and campaigners alike to hold companies to account on their codes of conduct. Whilst some companies are beginning to publish more information about their supply chains, this is still rare."
- The report "Stitching our shoes" came out in Spring last year (March 2016). Have you seen any improvement since?
"HWW is currently working with one brand that has committed to tracing the homeworkers within its supply chain and seeking ways to improve their situation; the Indian labour rights NGO, Cividep is leading this work on the ground in Ambur. Although other brands have recognized that homeworking may be an issue within their leather footwear supply chains, to date we have seen little evidence of concrete actions to improve homeworkers’ working conditions."