#SustainabilitySeries: Ways to improve working conditions of garment factory labor

Apparel Cut & Sew Production is the most labor intensive part of the process

Cut & sew operations are labor intensive and are performed primarily in low wage countries. While there are several centers in developed countries closer to the markets, but there contribution to the overall production is minuscule. China has traditionally accounted for lion’s share of the operations but more than 50 other countries have substantial establishments of apparel manufacturing.

Spotlight on Health & Safety of factory workers

Work in the garment factories are sites for a complex array of health and safety concerns. Garment factory workers who operate sewing machines perform precise and repetitive tasks, frequently for 10–12 hours a day, and for six days a week. The workers are usually seated at flat, non-adjustable workstations where they rapidly sew, cut, and trim — visually demanding tasks in workplaces where the quality of the lighting varies widely. The workplaces are commonly subject to poor ventilation, intense heat, clouds of airborne fiber dust, cluttered workspaces, and unsanitary factory conditions.

Seating of garment factory workers

Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation

Workers are perpetually exposed to cotton dust in garment factories during fabric cutting, weaving and knitting. As they handle and sew fabrics, lint and other small particles are released into the air and into their lungs. Research has persistently demonstrated the relationship between garment work, endotoxin exposure, and higher levels of respiratory illness, including some forms that can go undiagnosed.

Workplace Lighting

Garment workers, especially those who spend years sewing 10–12 hours a day and 5–6 days a week in under lit workplaces, often complain about their vision. Several surveys have reported widespread instances of lighting at garment factory worksites as insufficient.

Workplace Temperatures

One of the most frequently expressed concern is about workers being exposed to erratic temperatures at workplace. Many workers face heat-related discomfort and illness, and is particularly more challenging for garment factories because workers are in tightly enclosed workspace, laboring long hours over strings of hot days in a row, with little to no ventilation or air conditioning.

Toilet Hygiene and Sanitation

Surveys and studies regularly find workers reporting inadequate number of toilets and even when they are available, bathrooms are generally soiled and unmaintained. There is a common tendency among the workers to reduce their toilet visits not only because of their uncleanness, but also because they fear pay reductions for taking too long for bathroom breaks. This practice is know to lead to urinary infections and other, more serious, health consequences.

Drinking Water

Many surveys report of garment workers not having fresh potable water at their workplace. In several instances while the water is available, it was not clean and distributed in old, dirty containers. As a result many workers bring their own water and reduce consumption which is a issue particularly in hot seasons.

Disease Vectors and Pests

Surveys often find that workers report presence of rodents and cockroaches in the workplace. Beside pests, there is additional concern about exposure of workers to indoor mold, which is directly related to a variety of health effects such as allergic reactions, skin irritation, coughing and headaches.

So what holds the problem from being fixed ?

Over last few years, there has been a significant increase in awareness of this issue globally including among consumers. The consumer groups as well as several human rights organisations have been putting pressure on the brands and retailers to provide visibility on the working conditions. But so far, not much has changed.

How to find a practical solution to the problem?

These conditions prevail in the garment factories because the manufacturing has become a very thin margin and low profitability operation. The factories save costs by under-investing in facilities and forcing overtime.

Improved profitability from more efficient factory operations

It is widely accepted in industry discourse that improvement in productivity is an important part of “the solution” to achieve improved well being of millions of garment workers. Improvement in efficiency reduces the manufacturing cost per garment which could be directed towards better well being of the factory workers.

A better working place is good for factory owners too

The deterioration of health conditions impact workers of all ages and physical strength. Studies find workers who are dehydrated and facing severe discomfort have impaired cognitive performance and amplified psychological strain. This results in decreased productivity, increased quality errors, and inflated accident rates. When workers are overheated, exhausted, and distracted, and are under pressure to work fast, they overlook procedures. This not only increases injury rates among garment workers, who use equipment that slice and singe, such as sewing machines, large scissors, and steam irons and presses, but it also increases the loss time for factories.

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Sandeep Raghuwanshi

Sandeep Raghuwanshi

Sandeep Raghuwanshi is the founder of Silaé, a corporate sustainability firm that assists corporates improve ESG performance through scalable solutions.