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June - July 2008

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Oxfam’s work in India

Amit Vatsyayan, Oxfam Programme Officer from Southern India, visited the UK this week to talk about his work with cotton farmers, weavers and garment makers in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

India is making headlines today as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, however the growth also marks stark inequality. Cotton-Textile is one of the leading industries in India but not all of those involved in the cotton textile supply chain have benefited equally from the progress made. We spoke to Amit about the issues and why gifts from the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue are proving so important in helping people work their way out of poverty.

What work is Oxfam doing?

Oxfam works with 7 partners in the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, training for farmers to switch from chemical to organic farming methods, helping farmers to join co-operatives, training handloom weavers develop new products from cotton yarn, access the markets for raw cotton as well as textiles promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, help garment makers improve their living and working conditions and helping facilitate producer owned trading companies and workers unions.

Can you say in particular how Oxfam works with the farming communities?

There is a real problem with farmers committing suicide. Over 100,000 have taken their own lives in the last decade, often driven by factors beyond their control. It starts with the farms being reliant on seeds and pesticides from large trans-national commercial organisations, whose prices are ever increasing. As the prices rise, the farmers struggle to make a profit on their crops. Then increasingly at market, the farmers are not in a position to bargain as they are isolated small holders and traders/processors of cotton are very large and control the prices, the other challenge is from international prices of cotton which are vulnerable to offloading of subsidised cotton by richer countries. So as the farmers fall into debt, with the government supported rural banks not willing to provide credit to defaulting farmers, the farmers are forced to take loans from exploitative moneylenders who charge interest rates of up to 300%. Driven to desperation by the constant humiliation of not making ends meet, the farmers are so desperate that they can see no other way out than committing suicide.

We work with farmers to train them in organic methods and help them switch to low cost non-chemical farming. Farmers are also shown how to diversify their crops, so that everything doesn’t depend on just one crop for their livelihoods. Women farmers are empowered to be progressive and are peers in their communities, championing organic farming. Co-operatives have been established and training on markets and opportunities give the farmers power for greater access and prices. Last year, £85,000 of Oxfam Unwrapped money was used for seeds, co-operative and marketing skills and gender training. It made a huge difference to the lives of thousands of people.

In the communities Oxfam and its partners work in, the suicide rates are falling, social attitudes are being challenged and peer-to-peer growth across the communities is motivating change.

What issues face weavers and garment workers?

Weavers struggle to access social security, credit and market. For example, wages haven’t been increased for 15 years despite the major growth in the textile industry. We met a weaver who was literally dying on the street and was rescued by our partner organisation. He said he had worked until he physically couldn’t do it anymore. “The day you can’t weave, you are left to die on the road”. In addition to helping form co-operatives, which generate higher incomes for families, we help facilitate local groups and advocacy projects so that weavers can lobby the government for better working conditions, development of handloom as a competitive eco friendly product and demand social security.

For garment workers, there is rampant exploitation as large brands subcontract their garment making to factories in countries such as India, Bangladesh etc. in their bid to keep lowered production cost, many times the responsibility of retaining ethical standards and better working conditions is on the factory bosses and not the brand, there is widespread abuse of rights, ranging from sexual harassment to non-payment of pensions and Gratuity. Some of the larger Brands have developed standards for compliance for the factories, but a significant number of factories put up the standards as window dressing when brand audits happen.

Oxfam and its partners facilitate workers, mostly women to gain knowledge about their rights as women and as workers, support the garment workers to form local committees, women workers social organisations and the setting up of a union to ensure worker’s rights. We provide a space to meet, provide counselling and litigation support and also lobby the government for recognition that the labour laws must be enforced. We also work with brands to continue the pressure from them as buyers for better ethical practices from factories. Things are changing, but there is a long way to go.

People can help by supporting Oxfam Unwrapped, which directly funds our work in these communities and by looking beyond the brand, to see how ethical a big clothing name actually is.

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