Where hope begins with slave wages

Tim McGirk in Govindpuri reports on life and work in a sweatshop
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The Independent Online
A westerner might look upon the dirty lanes of Govindpuri, thrumming with the sound of a thousand sewing machines stitching up the new summer clothes for Britain's shops, as Asian exploitation at its worst.

But Mohammed Hassan - a young tailor who is bent over his machine from 7am to midnight earning around pounds 75 a month - sees it differently. He came to Govindpuri, a slum outside Delhi, from his village in Bihar. It is a wretched place in northern India, cursed by droughts, and where landowners raise private armies to keep their peasants in medieval servitude.

"The earth had grown too hard to plow. I have eight in my family to feed, and the most that I could earn working another man's land in my village was 800 rupees (pounds 14) a month," said Mohammed, one of 25 tailors in sweaty undershirts lined up rows behind sewing machines.

In Govindpuri, Mohammed's life may seem, in a westerner's eyes, to be a pit of misery. But compared to what he has escaped from in Bihar, stitching for 17 hours a day allows him a glimmer of optimism.

Oxfam's campaign to improve working conditions for millions of garment workers around the world by putting pressure on the High Street retailers may be well-intended - but as difficult to define as it is to enforce. By British labour standards, Mohammed is little better than a slave. Yet by Indian standards, he is doing well. He has lifted himself out of poverty and saved his family from starvation. Many in Bihar envy him.

In Govindpuri, nobody forces Mohammed to work. He is paid by the piece, so the more he sews, the more money he can send back to his grateful family. Lately, he has been stitching pea-green shorts that women in Europe will be wearing on the beach. It is an article of clothing so outside Mohammed's cultural realm as to be outlandish; his wife would be stoned by mobs if she wore British High Street chic in Bihar.

C&A, Next, French Connection, Monsoon, Burton, Littlewoods, Harrods and other UK retailers buy garments made in Govindpuri. The British firms can, and sometimes do, ensure that working and safety conditions are adequate in the bigger factories they use throughout Asia. India has strong, garment workers unions.

Sitting at his desk behind portraits of Lenin and Ganesh, the Hindu elephant- god, a union boss explained that many export garment factories comply with the government's safety code and pay the minimum wage of pounds 36 minimum a month, for an eight hour day, with Sunday off.

But neither the Indian unions - nor the UK clothing buyers - have any way to monitor conditions in Govindpuri's estimated 2,000 little sewing shops. The big factories cannot handle the huge demand from the US and Europe, so they contract out to shops in the labyrinth of Govindpuri's back alleys.

Meenakshi Mehta, a social researcher, said, "It's not that easy to pass judgement on what are admittedly pretty bad conditions here. But if England stops buying these clothes from India, it will mean that these tailors will be worse off. They'll lose their jobs."