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Stitching their trajectories with determination: stories from Indore, India

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Stitching their trajectories with determination: stories from Indore, India

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Many women in Indore work as informal home-based garment workers. This case study demonstrates their commitment to investing in equipment and learning new skills in order to contribute to the family income.

Behind closed doors lies a vast segment of largely invisible women and girls working in India’s flourishing garment industry.
Women working from home account for about 14% of urban employment in India. In low- and middle-income countries, outsourced garment production thrives on account of cheap labour to keep the levels of production high and costs low.

Through pursuing sewing, women can overcome the limitations of little or no education or formal training. Most women stitchers enhance their skills through experience. This helps them get regular and progressively higher paying piece-rate work.

More information: https://www.iied.org/stitching-determination-stories-women-garment-workers-indore-india

Many women in Indore work as informal home-based garment workers. This case study demonstrates their commitment to investing in equipment and learning new skills in order to contribute to the family income.

Behind closed doors lies a vast segment of largely invisible women and girls working in India’s flourishing garment industry.
Women working from home account for about 14% of urban employment in India. In low- and middle-income countries, outsourced garment production thrives on account of cheap labour to keep the levels of production high and costs low.

Through pursuing sewing, women can overcome the limitations of little or no education or formal training. Most women stitchers enhance their skills through experience. This helps them get regular and progressively higher paying piece-rate work.

More information: https://www.iied.org/stitching-determination-stories-women-garment-workers-indore-india

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Stitching their trajectories with determination: stories from Indore, India

  1. 1. Stitching their trajectories with determination: stories of women garment workers in Indore, India A photo essay Siddharth Agarwal, Kanupriya Kothiwal, Shabnam Verma Urban Health Resource Centre, India
  2. 2. Acknowledgments: The authors gratefully acknowledge the efforts of Neeraj Verma, Neha Mandloi, Ankush Rathore and Sunita Yadav in gathering data of case studies and pictures featured in this photo essay. Gratitude is also extended to all the women stitchers who devoted their time and generously shared their life circumstances and experiences. Note: The names of all respondents who are featured in this research article have been pseudonymised to protect their identity and for confidentiality. Disclaimer: This research was commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Global Health Research Group using UK aid from the UK government. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.
  3. 3. Key messages • Women residing in informal settlements in Indore see stitching as a dependable source of income owing to the flourishing garment industry of the city. They steadily enhance skills and save money to purchase sewing machines to pursue this work. • They earn on a piece-rate basis. Earning grows as they develop skills to undertake more complex tasks such as stitching shirts. • A few women are own account workers. They use their sewing and stitching skills to pursue more customised tailoring as per clients’ needs. • Women carry a strong motivation to educate children and contribute to family income and progress of the household. • Workers face muscular pain because of operating the pedalled sewing machine all day, eye strain and headaches. • The experiences of women in this photo essay represent a large number of women garment workers in the slums of Indore.
  4. 4. Introduction Behind closed doors lies a vast segment of largely invisible women and girls working in India’s flourishing garment industry exemplifying woes of informal home-based workers. Women working from home account for about 14% share in urban employment in India (Chen and Sinha, 2016). In low and middle income countries, outsourced garment production (Delahanty, 1999) thrives on account of cheap labour to keep the levels of production high and costs low. Home-based garment workers studied were of two types: a) Sub contracted workers: Homeworkers receive work orders with specifications from firms, traders usually through their intermediaries, are provided with raw materials, and are paid on piece-rate basis. b) Own account operators: Own account operators take up custom tailoring and garment decoration work. They are approached by customers who prefer getting their clothes stitched as per their requirements. They aspire to and learn decorative stitching skills. Owing to these skills, they can earn more than contracted workers.
  5. 5. Indore as a hub of garment manufacturing Indore is an emerging ready-made garment manufacturer and exporter in Madhya Pradesh (Mezzadri, and Srivastava, 2015). The closure of many textile mills after 1975 in Indore paved way for the emergence of home- based garment manufacturing (UNDP, 2009). Indore’s garment manufacturers utilise the “competitive advantage” of using the services of low-wage workers to make profits. In this photo essay, we present narratives of women home-based garment workers from slums and informal settlements of Indore. They contribute to family income and climb the aspirational ladder of ensuring their families’ wellbeing.
  6. 6. Early-career stitcher working to support the family “When I learn the skill of stitching designer blouses, I am likely to get more customers and earn more.” - Gayatri 24-year-old Gayatri is an own account worker. She was compelled to take up stitching as her husband suffered kidney damage and was no longer able to work. The family tries to manage expenses of her husband’s dialysis twice a month through loans. Gayatri uses the sewing machine that was given by her parents as part of her dowry. She had learnt stitching at a vocational training centre before her marriage. She can stitch blouses and salwar-kameez (a lower and top combination dress commonly worn by girls and women in South Asia). Gayatri started sewing after the COVID lockdown of 2021. She mostly gets work of stitching blouses and very few get salwar-kameez stitched. She earns approximately INR 500 per month. She earns 50 INR for a simple blouse while 100 INR for a blouse with a thin inner lining. Gayatri says: “My daughter is quite young and needs care. So, I cannot devote much time to stitching.” To improve her income prospects, Gayatri tried to establish a rapport with a garment manufacturer, but that did not materialise. The family’s expenses are also supported by Gayatri’s father in-law who sells potatoes and onions and by her mother-in-law who works as a domestic help. Gayatri wishes to learn how to stitch “designer blouses” which are sowed in different fashionable designs and have decorative embellishments stitched onto the blouse. Gayatri says: “When I learn the skill of stitching designer blouses, I am likely to get more customers and earn more.”
  7. 7. Gayatri sewing a blouse on a pedalled machine
  8. 8. Raising stitching skills to custom tailoring with creativity “Mostly during festivals and the wedding season, the flow of work increases. I like doing this work as I am able to contribute to family income”- Ganga Ganga, 48, is an “own account” home-based stitcher. She developed an interest in stitching after moving to a neighbourhood in Indore where women stitched on a regular basis. She learnt sewing from her neighbours and saved money to purchase a sewing machine. She started stitching dresses for children in the locality. In the ensuing years, she diversified her work by making creative designs of western clothing such as midi dresses*, skirts and designer shirts with decorations of pearl embellishments and patterns. “People come to me for stitching of blouses and lehengas**, sarees*** and other dresses to be decorated in different patterns and designs. Mostly during festivals and the wedding season, the flow of work increases. I like doing this work as I am able to contribute to family income,” Ganga says. “I face the challenge of weak eyesight. It is particularly difficult when one has to insert the thread in the eye of the needle,” says Ganga. She wears spectacles while stitching. She also experiences headaches after a day’s work and tries to rest in the evening. After efforts of years, the family now has a two-storeyed house in their slum. Her daughter stays with her husband. Her two sons are pursuing independent jobs after technical education. * A single piece dress worn mostly by girl children from the collars to the knees. ** A full ankle-length skirt and a blouse worn adorned with various embellishments by Indian women, usually on formal or ceremonial occasions. ***A garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from South Asia. It is also a standard form of clothing worn by women in slums and informal settlements of India.
  9. 9. Ganga provides customised tailoring involving decoration with embellishments in different patterns.
  10. 10. Stitching to get her children educated despite husband’s fragile health “ I taught at a small local school for two years to save money for a sewing machine” – Sarita Sarita’s family’s expenses increased with the birth of her two children. Having learnt stitching at her mother’s home, she decided to sew but was unable to procure a sewing machine. She started assisting a neighbourhood woman in her stitching work and also attended a stitching course at a vocational training center. “Being a matriculate I taught at a small local school to save money for a sewing machine. I was able to do my household chores and give time to the family,” Sarita says. She started with stitching shirt collars for a few years, before graduating to stitch shirts. 44-year-old Sarita says: “Ever since I have started stitching shirts, my earning has improved as compared to when I stitched only collars.” Despite her husband’s fragile health, she ensured education for her two children. Presently, her sons are pursuing college-level technical education after schooling.
  11. 11. Sarita taught at a local school for two years to save money to purchase a sewing machine.
  12. 12. Learning and stitching carry bags to educate girl children “It was not easy to bring up children with only a single person’s income. I took up stitching to support family income” - Phoolwati Phoolwati was educated only until grade 8th. She used to stitch mostly in her domestic sphere which included stitching the broken buttons of her blouse and repairing her children’s clothes. As her children grew up, she felt the need to pursue this work for additional income after observing a woman sewing for a contractor. “It was not easy to bring up children with only a single person’s income. I took up stitching to support the family’s income,” recalls Phoolwati. She observed neighbourhood women stitching bags and took some samples of carry bags to practice on a small sewing machine she owned. Acquiring the skill in a few days, she took stitching work on contract from a factory manager who used to provide her material to make carry bags for a famous chain of sweets and dry salted snacks. With her savings and loan from beesi**** , she upgraded her sewing machine to a more technically advanced one. Her two daughters assist in sewing work enabling her to sew more. Her elder daughter is pursuing university education while the younger one is in school. Pointing to her semi-built house structure and cramped surroundings, she says: “We have not yet invested in our house. What I and my husband earn, we spend on paying the education fees for our children. It is important to educate children. They will know a way out of poverty.” ****Beesi are a form of informal rotating savings and credit association. Each member contributes a weekly or monthly sum and the pot is given to a member selected randomly by lottery. In these Beesi networks, members can transfer their right to the funds to another person in the network.
  13. 13. Phoolwati stitches carry bags to educate her girl children.
  14. 14. Perseverance to learn sewing despite failures and becoming a home-based stitcher “Working at a garment factory helped me learn basic skills of stitching. After a lot of effort and practice, I learnt to stitch.” – Ratna Ratna is only educated until matriculation (class X) and had no prior experience of sewing when she got married. She worked for one year in an factory where incense sticks were manufactured, to save money to purchase a sewing machine. She also worked at a garment factory to acquire the skills and experience of sewing. “Working at a garment factory helped me learn basic skills of stitching. After a lot of effort and practice, I learnt to stitch,” she says. When she was able to purchase a sewing machine, she started making collars for shirts. After a few years of stitching collars, she eventually could stitch an entire shirt. Recalling her initial years of stitching she says: “Earlier I was not able to stitch properly and the shirt would turn out to be haphazardly stitched. I kept trying as I knew that this work will help me contribute more to the family income and give me the independence to spend on children’s education and the family’s healthcare. These days it is important for both women and men of a family to work.” Ratna and her husband work to meet the family’s expenses, educate their children and for steady progress of the household. Ratna’s husband is a driver for a mini-pick-up truck. Ratna’s daughter studies in kindergarten while her son is in class IV.
  15. 15. Ratna learnt how to stitch shirts after a lot of practice and perseverance.
  16. 16. What do these stories tell us? • In most Indian families stitching is inherent to the culture. Most women gain some experience to sewing from adolescence. Many women have turned their traditional work of sewing for repairing and stitching family’s garments into an income-generating pursuit as illustrated by the stories of Gayatri, Sarita, Ganga, Ratna and Phoolwati. • Through pursuing sewing, women overcome the limitations of little or no education or formal training in any work. Most women stitchers enhance their skills through work experience. This helps them get regular and progressively higher paying piece-rate work. • Our research shows that these home-based workers are strongly motivated to educate children and contribute to family income and therefore pursue home-based stitching. • In addition to taking charge of the two traditional roles of child rearing and caring, adult care and domestic work, these women take on a third income-generating role. The art of performing the “triple role” by these women demonstrates their immense contribution to the family and to the household’s income (Fajarwati et al., 2016). • Investment in equipment is crucial for most home-based garment workers. They save for this by doing low- paying jobs, as illustrated in cases of many women. They identify work opportunities through social networks with neighbourhood women. Participation in community savings groups helps in taking loans for upgrading machinery to increase output.
  17. 17. • Stitching work is available throughout the year owing to Indore being a hub of garment manufacturing. Those with more skills do work involving more finesse (stitching shirts, decorative stitching) and get paid more compared to those who stitch smaller and simpler items such as shirt collars. • For women who have lost their husband or the husband is unable to work owing to illness, the burden of managing the financial needs of a family falls on them. • While the initial years are challenging, home-based women stitchers in these stories demonstrate that perseverance helped establish them. Women like Ganga turn their refined skill and artistic instinct into an opportunity to tailor more customised clothing. • Despite facing occupational health challenges, women continue to pursue this economic opportunity as it generates income from home. Daughters’ support plays a crucial role in enabling them to sustain this work. What do these stories tell us? (continued)
  18. 18. Conclusion Despite their contribution to the garment industry and comprising a sizeable proportion of the workforce, home-based women garment workers remain invisible in labour estimates. Survey interviewers and male household representatives often do not recognise women as workers. The process of socialisation among women themselves discredits women from being perceived as “workers” (Devaraja, and Wickramasinghe 2014; Mahadevia et al, 2014). Women, as depicted in this photo essay, take advantage of the opportunities, pursue stitching with perseverance, contribute to their children’s education and the progress of their families despite adverse circumstances. These five cases of home-based stitchers represent the lives of an enormous number of women in Indore’s slums and informal settlements.
  19. 19. References • Mezzadri, A., & Srivastava, R. (2015). Labour regimes in the Indian garment sector: capital-labour relations, social reproduction and labour standards in the National Capital Region. https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/21328/1/Mezzadr_file106927.pdf • Chen, M. A., & Sinha, S. (2016). Home-based workers and cities. Environment and Urbanization, 28(2), 343-358. • Delahanty, J. (1999). A Common Thread: Issues for Women Workers in the Garment Sector. The North-South Institute for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), International Development Research Centre (IDRC). http://www.nsi-ins.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/1999-A-Common-Thread-Issues-for-Women-Workers-in-the- Garment-Sector.pdf • United Nations Development Programme (2009) Global Financial Crisis and India’s Informal Economy: Review of Key Sectors. https://www.undp.org/content/dam/india/docs/sewa_web_final.pdf • Fajarwati, A., Mei, E. T. W., Hasanati, S., & Sari, I. M. (2016). The productive and reproductive activities of women as form of adaptation and post-disaster livelihood strategies in Huntap Kuwang and Huntap Plosokerep. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 227, 370-377. • Devaraja, T. S., & Wickramasinghe, A. (2014). Microenterprise success of home-based garment makers in Bangalore, India. International Journal of Indian Culture and Business Management, 9(3), 371- 387. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275579947_Microenterprise_success_of_home- based_garment_makers_in_Bangalore_India • Mahadevia, Darshini, Aseem Mishra, and Suchita Vyas. "Home-based workers in Ahmedabad, India." (2014). https://smartnet.niua.org/sites/default/files/webform/IEMS-Ahmedabad-Home-Based-Workers-City-Report.pdf

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