2024 May 27

Monitoring partner profile: Cividep

Learn more about the work of Electronics Watch monitoring partners in production regions, and how they support workers in attaining their rights. In this interview, we talk to Gokhularaj R about Cividep, and how they are improving the working conditions of vulnerable workers in global supply chains.

Name of monitoring partner: Cividep India

Based in Bangalore, India, Cividep aims to improve the working conditions of vulnerable workers in global supply chains. They educate workers about labour rights, research working and living conditions, participate in international campaigns, and convene multi-stakeholder forums to encourage brands and other stakeholders to work towards better employment conditions.

Interviewee: Gokhularaj R, Project coordinator

1. What are the top two issues facing the workers you support in India?

Tamil Nadu is emerging as a major hub for electronics manufacturing in India. The Sriperumbudur Special Economic Zone (SEZ) houses one of the biggest electronics industry clusters in India that employs more than 60,000 workers. These workers are predominantly female intra-state migrants and first-generation industrial workers across Tamil Nadu.

One top issue is that more than 80% of the workforce in the electronics industry consists of contract or temporary workers. The contractualisation of the electronics and extractive workforces, and profit out of their precariousness, is one of our key focus areas. Contract workers do not receive any formal employment agreement or appointment letter from their agencies, and have no job security. Their wages are slightly higher than the minimum wage, inadequate to make a decent living, and they do not receive any paid leave. Furthermore, arbitrary deductions are made from their salaries for taking leave.

Despite all workers contributing to social security from their wages, many workers face difficulties in accessing and utilizing these benefits due to a lack of awareness. The digitalisation of the process also becomes a barrier. We aim to increase their access to social security and benefits through workers' education and assistance offered in our SEZ Workers Resource Centre.

2. Young women make up a large proportion of the workforce in the growing electronics sector in India: what specific challenges are they facing?

Restriction of freedom of movement, above all. A few companies (mostly Chinese and Taiwanese companies) have built hostels/dormitories for the workers. As part of their recruitment process, workers are mandated to stay in the company-provided hostel, and their movements are closely monitored and highly restricted to factories and hostels. Workers can't step out of the factory or hostel premises without a 'valid reason' and the prior permission of the line leader, HR, hostel warden and parents.

Women often leave after a few years as these factories don't provide maternity benefits to contract workers, which makes it difficult for migrant women to continue working in this sector. While it offers job opportunities for women, it creates low-skilled, low-paid precarious jobs with no security, stagnant wages, and poor working conditions. A large number of educated women find it difficult to continue working in this sector as it holds no future for them.

Almost all women workers are recruited through contract agencies that have little or no awareness of their rights. Women bear the brunt of poor working conditions and facilities in factories. They are deprived of adequate water and restroom breaks, given low-quality food, and sometimes, one worker is assigned to do the work of multiple workers. Due to an inefficient grievance redressal mechanism and the fear of losing their jobs, many workers choose not to question or report their concerns.

3. Tell us about a workers' rights success story or achievement you are most proud of.

Cividep educates and engages first-generation industrial workers in the electronics sector on their rights and entitlements. We build a connection with workers by educating them, and this helps us earn their trust and makes them feel comfortable reaching out to us for any concerns they may have.

We were able to assist and guide a worker in accessing the Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) hospital, which resulted in saving her father's life by providing timely surgery at no cost. This helped the worker avoid spending a significant amount of money on the private healthcare system and prevented unnecessary financial burden on the family.

A group of workers were once trapped and held captive by women who disguised themselves as offering a better-paying job, but then demanded ransom money. The workers immediately contacted our team for help. Through the immediate coordination of our field team with the police department, we were able to swiftly rescue the workers.

Hundreds of workers at a factory were denied their legally mandated annual bonuses, even though they were eligible for them. We reached out to these workers and informed them of their entitlements. With their cooperation, we gathered evidence and reported the violation to Electronics Watch. Our efforts resulted in the workers receiving their bonuses within a few months.

4. What are the biggest challenges in your monitoring work right now?

Access to workers. Many contract agencies help workers in finding accommodation, and many new workers expect this, or for contract agencies to offer housing. This nexus between contract agencies and landlords intimidates workers so they don't interact with us. In some cases, landlords prevent us from interacting with workers.

Workers are spread out in a 50 km radius. Many workers choose to reside in remote villages where rents are low compared to nearby towns and cities. These factors limit our staff from accessing workers across a wider area.

The floating nature of workforce is also a challenge. Due to precarious working conditions, a large number of workers regularly enter and exit the sector, and we are constantly trapped in the challenge of making new connections with workers.

5. What are Cividep's goals for the next 2-5 years?

Cividep's main goal is to improve working conditions in the Garments, Leather and Electronics sector supply chains by strengthening the two pillars of our work, corporate accountability and workers' rights.

As India moves towards public disclosure of companies on ESG factors through Business Responsibility and Sustainability Reporting (BRSR), simultaneous HRDD developments in Europe drive our focus on bringing accountability and mitigating human and labour rights risks in supply chains. We do this through evidence-based research and advocacy, and promoting responsible business practices through public stakeholder engagement and social dialogue.

We aim to scale up our worker engagement by shifting from a sectoral to a geography-based approach, to strengthen solidarity through workers' education, digital intervention and building support systems. We plan to advance our workers' education and engagement on digital platforms, in conjunction with our traditional approach, to reach out to a larger number of workers. We are working to create strategic partnerships and synergies among worker groups, unions, civil society organizations, and government agencies to address workers' issues beyond the workplace, such as decent housing. To provide a better support system for workers in industrial clusters, we plan to strengthen grievance redressal mechanisms at the factory and local labour administration levels by creating legal support for workers and effectively channelling and reporting grievances to the appropriate authorities.

6. How does the partnership with Electronics Watch support your work?

Our partnership with Electronics Watch helps us continue to monitor the working conditions and do elaborate fieldwork in the SEZ. The monitoring work enables us to document issues of workers, gather evidence and promote dialogue among workers through workers' education.

The Electronics Watch impact model enabled us to create an avenue for electronics workers in India to pursue a remedy, enabled workers' access to remedy, and amplified workers' voices among affiliates and brands.

7. What changes would you like to see for workers' rights, in India or  internationally?

Considering India's move towards a new labour regime, condensing 44 labour laws into 4 labour codes, we would like to track and analyse these changes in our environment with a perspective of what impact they have on workers' lives. We would like to make these stories and data on impact visible and accessible to the general public, as well as influential actors in the supply chain. Contractualisation of the workforce across the world, including India, deprives workers of decent work and life; effective labour administration and implementation in the spirit of the law has immense scope to address the precariousness of the larger workforce. We would also like to see greater transparency and accountability in supply chains, through mandating public disclosure of business activity beyond ESG factors and human rights due diligence practice internationally.