India consistently ranks as the world’s largest recipient of remittances from its overseas community. Of the estimated 25 million Indian nationals living abroad, approximately 40 percent live and work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Verité has been highlighting the exploitation faced by semi or unskilled Indian workers in the GCC and other regions for many years. The March issue of Vision highlighted the launch of a new project, supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to promote safe and fair migration from India to the GCC states.

However, internal migrants moving between states in India are also vulnerable to exploitation, particularly those that find themselves in low-end manufacturing jobs – where labor abuses are rife – making garments, electronics, and other products for sale in global markets. These workers are frequently subjected to similar conditions and abuses to those of cross-border migrants, such as discrimination, harassment, language barriers, and social isolation that increases vulnerability to exploitation. Many are subjected to forced labor or otherwise appalling working conditions.

In most cases, migrant workers are not employed directly by the facility where they work, but instead are contract workers employed through middlemen or third-party contractors (in India these could be village level agents, skill development centers, or placement agencies). The interactions between these contractors and migrant workers tend to be informal and marked by low wages, pay discrimination, excessive overtime, non-payment of social benefits, and other workplace issues.

Verité’s long-term partner in India, the Association for Stimulating Know-How (ASK), through its regular work in the manufacturing sector, is well acquainted with these challenges. During their fieldwork and factory assessments in India, Verité-ASK assessors encounter migrant contract workers living in squalid conditions, enduring harassment (including sexual harassment), and being assigned the most menial and dangerous work without any opportunities for growth. Discrimination, verbal abuse, and involuntary overtime without pay are daily realities.

These problems often escape the attention of the large sourcing brands and companies, as well as consumers. These abuses are difficult to capture through checklist social responsibility audits of limited depth. Often, persons visiting factories either do not know what to look for or are not equipped to interact with workers in their native language or probe these sensitive areas. Many factories and workers are subjected to audits several times per year, are familiar with what to expect, and are coached on how to answer auditor’s questions.

ASK has worked extensively with suppliers and companies to identify and address risks that internal migrant contract workers face and develop programs and strategies to eliminate the exploitation of contract migrant workers. Importantly, this work recognizes the social isolation and abuse faced by contract workers in the larger sphere of labor violations in the workplace. Sometimes, simply having a person to speak to in one’s native language and discussing challenges along with providing information to increase awareness of rights can reveal a problem and initiate a step towards change.

The manufacturing sector in India is heavily reliant on internal migrants. The issues facing these workers are like those endured by their compatriots working abroad. To effectively detect and prevent these issues, brands and their manufacturing partners need to understand the vulnerability faced by contract workers and take a more proactive role in ethically recruiting and directly employing workers. Third party agents and contract labor suppliers need to be monitored through due diligence and held accountable for ensuring workers are provided the complete and correct information prior to departure from their home state. At workplaces, ethical employment under institutionalized management systems to guarantee basic labor rights must be in place. The Verité-ASK partnership believes and knows that these changes are achievable, provided brands and factories are willing participants.

For more information, please contact Jon Pitoniak.