CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A fish tank with expensive Arowana fish is prominently displayed in many factories making hosiery in the Indian textile hub of Tirupur - the owners believe it will bring them wealth.
But any prosperity is limited to factory owners. Few profits trickle down to the tens of thousands of workers they employ, says filmmaker P.R. Amudhan, who has made a documentary that chronicles the plight of those at the bottom of a global supply chain.
The name of his film, “Dollar City”, refers to the southern Indian city, which is home to an expanding garment industry, one of the pillars of India’s economy - and the foreign exchange it generates through exports.
“It is the owners who are receiving, enjoying and consuming the dollars that come into this city, which produces garments for brands across the world,” Amudhan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The worker earns very little in the city that is often referred to as dollar city. And today, there is complicit silence on the issue, even the super exploited worker is not complaining.”
The film has been screened 50 times across India since its release on May 1, to audiences that include manufacturers, workers and policymakers - sparking a debate on what some unions fear is the acceptance of exploitative conditions in the sector.
“The documentary has revealed the enormous power wielded by the garment industry, the abominable conditions in which factory workers live and work in Tirupur,” Sujatha Mody, president of Garment and Fashion Workers Union, wrote in a blog after watching a screening with workers in Chennai.
Other viewers were shocked by the urban squalor and poverty in Tirupur.
India is one of the world’s largest textile and garment manufacturers serving the international and increasingly, domestic market.
Many of the workers employed in the $40-billion-a-year industry are trapped in debt bondage, face abuse or are forced to work long hours in poor conditions, campaigners say.
Traditionally, the dyeing units, spinning mills and apparel factories have drawn on cheap labor from villages across the southern state of Tamil Nadu to cater to the demand from Western high street shops.
“Tirupur is a massive attraction for young workers because the city promises a better future,” said Amudhan.
“But if they want to be part of it, they have to follow the script. There is no room for questions or protest, not even when the better future does not materialize.”
The documentary, which also explores the government’s complacency in implementing labor laws, featured uncomplaining, muted voices of workers from Tirupur.
“None of the garment workers interviewed in the film spoke of their difficulties,” Mody said.
But at screenings in Chennai, New Delhi and Hyderabad, this silence was questioned.
“I view it as a collective crime, where everyone is equally responsible, even the worker,” Amudhan said.
“It has the workers’ consent, the unions are lethargic, the government is complacent and aspirational manufacturers are busy chasing profits.”
Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org