CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Clothing factories in southern India will have to stop putting teenage girls on night shifts under a new code of conduct that follows complaints of abuse of the largely female workforce.
Workers aged 16-19 will also be allowed to take time off during their periods and no one will be made to work more than nine hours under the new guidelines from the Southern India Mills' Association (SIMA) that came into effect this month.
"The idea is to help manufacturers understand how an employee should be treated, right from recruitment to retirement," said Selvaraju Kandaswamy, secretary general of the association, which has more than 700 members.
"We also want to create confidence in the mind of the global buyer that workers' needs are being taken into account and we have zero tolerance to any form of abuse."
An estimated 45 million workers, mostly women, are employed in India's thriving garment industry, with major hubs in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
They have limited or no legal protection and few formal grievance mechanisms.
Numerous studies have shown that low pay, intimidation, sexual harassment and other abusive working conditions are common, with the standard working week often exceeding 60 hours.
A report last year by Better Buying, a U.S.-based group that rates the purchasing practices of brands and retailers, said pressure on suppliers to deliver more quickly and cheaply had contributed to labour abuses.
The new code of conduct, which is voluntary, says factories should not employ anyone under 16 or make people work more than nine hours in a day. They must also allow workers the freedom of association and create effective grievance mechanisms.
It also addresses the issues of sexual harassment, maternity benefits, migrant workers and minimum wages and says women cannot be fired when they are pregnant.
Much of this is already required under Indian law. The code is intended to help factories meet international labour standards as well as complying with legal requirements.
"This code is very important because it updates employers about the latest laws and will create a safer work place for the thousands of women employed in the industry," said Kannagi Packianathan, chairwoman of the Tamil Nadu state commission for women.
"We are also working in tandem to create clear ground rules where women employees are concerned, and are insisting on the prevention of sexual harassment laws being implemented."