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Epona, NUS and Me - Sarah's Trip to India

 

I recently returned from a trip to India organised by the National Union of Students to view Epona: the Fairtrade company owned by NUS to produce their clothing.  The trip was arranged so that I, amongst a handful of officers from other Students’ Unions across the UK, could see the conditions of workers across the production process of the clothing. This included every stage of manufacture - from the farmers who grew the cotton; to the factories who spun and sewed it into the garments themselves.

We stayed the night in the city of Bhuj in Gujurat state, after having travelled there from Mumbai, where we landed. The following morning we travelled even further North to see the first of several cotton fields. This field was owned by a farmer who is part of an SPO (small producers organisation). This means he, alongside many other small holder farmers in the area are part of a cooperative. There are a number of groups of farmers like this and each area has a representative (a total 11) that sit on a cooperative board who decide how the Fairtrade premium is spent. The Fairtrade premium is an additional amount of money these farmers coops receive on top of the fixed, above market price they individually receive for their raw cotton. Each of these farmers can bid for things or ideas they have or need and then these are prioritised and awarded by the board.

At the farm, we were shown the fields which although grow mostly cotton; also have peanuts which they rotate around the fields which replenishes the nitrogen in the soil, which is good for growing.

We also visited a local school, which is built and funded by the government but has projects within it that are supported by the premium that the farmers get from being part of the SPO. Most of the children are of the local farming families and this means it's free for them to attend. Decisions about the school are made by a committee which includes teachers, parents and local government officials.

We later joined a meeting of Farmers who are part of the cooperative where we asked them about the benefits of Fairtrade for them, as well as the challenges of cotton-farming that they face on a day-to-day basis. The farms, though remote, were beautiful. There were fruit trees providing welcome relief from the 40 degree heat, and we were lucky enough to share delicious food and conversation (via an interpreter) with the farmers and their families.

After the days spent in the North of India, we travelled down to Tirrupur in the South: the biggest exporter of cotton and knitwear products in the whole country. We met with Fairtrade to discuss the criteria by which a textile factory can gain the ‘Fairtrade textile certification’ - which included establishing a living wage for factory workers and improving and changing working conditions.

“I felt quite overwhelmed by the meeting, there’s a huge amount of work to do across the whole industry”

The certification is starting as a pilot and Epona is going to be a part of it. Epona and NUS want to encourage Armstrong (one of the factories that makes Eponas clothes) to be part of the textile certification, it seems like they are pretty engaged and interested but are worried about the commitment and how they would bring about the changes. The difficulty is in getting all subcontractors throughout the whole production process on board. This includes ginning, spinning, knitting, cutting and making.

I felt quite overwhelmed by the meeting, there’s a huge amount of work to do across the whole industry that goes beyond India and this is just to undo a huge injustice and provide a safe and secure working environment, free from exploitation for the workers in these factories. There’s also a cruel irony in the reality that to lobby factories for change Epona has to be a brand that has an increased demand, encouraging consumption in a society which consumes so much already and can rival the big players that play little to no role in clearing up supply chains.  

The next 2 days were spent in factories, following the cotton from the fields through the processing and then on to garment production. It seemed quite lonely work with one worker per machine, checking and monitoring the machines in huge warehouse sized rooms that were hot and extremely noisey.

It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to move miles away from your loved ones to live and work in the same environment and with the same people for months if not years at a time. This is compounded by the fact that workers here are paid less than in the cutting and stitching factories in the more urban city centre, being paid around 65,000-70,000 Rupees (£930-£1,000) a year, for working 48 hours a week, over 6 days. There are three shifts a day, providing 24 hour production. The factory seemed to make efforts to create social activities though, the manager proudly showed us photo albums of parties and talent contests and while we were there we saw two girls in a dance lesson.

In the two factories we saw the huge sheets of cotton being dyed, printed and embroidered, cut and then stitched.

These factories hold a number of accreditations, meaning they are audited around 10-15 times a year. These include Fairwear Foundation, Organic and Fairtrade. A third of their management staff are women and there are around 1,800 workers on the shop floor. 15% of the clothes they produce are fairtrade and it is all organic, with cotton being sourced from a number of places across India. We sat with some of the committee members for a while, who are representatives from the workforce who speak to managers about the improvements they wanted to see. Although the workers were keen to stress the improvements that they had seen from being part of the committee it was also true that the management were in the room with us and so how honest they could be with us what less certain.  

The reality of the situation is that buying Fairtrade or organic or Epona doesn’t mean that you are supporting a perfect industry. There are problems in all of these supply chains and they are environments and jobs that I do no envy. However, the reality of the situation is also that as consumers we have to demand the changes we want to see and do this in our purchases choices. Epona can’t demand better working environments in factories if the numbers of orders they put through the factories are tiny compared to the likes of large high-street brands.

This is where we need SUs to commit to sourcing from Epona for all their clothing and extend this to our Universities too for things like uniforms. Epona and NUS are committed to improving the situations for those people involved in the supply chain and as a student movement we should be involved in bringing about the changes we want to see, even if it's only in a small way.

 

 

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