CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the 55-year-old woman stood up to speak at a meeting of shoemakers in south India earlier this month, she was seeing her employers for the first time.
She told them about the decades she had spent hunched up in her home, repeatedly pulling a needle through tough leather as she sewed shoe uppers, the meager income she earned, her failing eyesight and the wounds on her hands.
For manufacturers and brands, her story was a revelation.
The meeting brought women workers, manufacturers, charities and brands face-to-face for the first time in a bid to map the role of homeworkers - an “invisible workforce” in a global supply chain making high-end shoes - and improve conditions.
“It was a historical meeting in that sense,” said Annie Delaney of the Australian RMIT School of Management, who has documented the condition of homeworkers and attended the meeting a fortnight ago in Vellore in Tamil Nadu.
“Homeworkers described their reality. It was a powerful experience for not just the women but also for the manufacturers and brands who were meeting them for the first time.”
There are hundreds of thousands of women from poor, marginalized families who work for cash, stitching, embroidering and weaving at home to put the finishing touches to products that are sold globally, campaigners said.
Most of them are not recognized as formal workers so have no access to social security or fair wages.
Vellore district in Tamil Nadu is the hub of a growing industry in India producing leather footwear for export. In 2016, India exported 236 million pairs of shoes up from 206 million in 2015, according to the World Footwear Yearbook.
It also has one of the highest concentrations of homeworkers in India - largely women handstitching uppers of leather shoes.
While factories in the area employ people at higher salaries to assemble the shoes, manufacturers find it cheaper to outsource the labor intensive process of stitching uppers to women who work from home, using middlemen, campaigners said.
The meeting saw Britain-based Pentland Brands - the first company to map homeworkers in its supply chain - share their interventions with other participating brands including UK-based Clarks and the Switzerland-based AstorMueller Group, according to a stakeholder who attended the closed door meeting.
None of the companies were immediately available to comment.
Pentland, with annual sales of USD $3 billion across 190 countries, owns sports, outdoor and fashion brands including Berghaus, Speedo, and holds a majority stake of JD Sports.
Since 2016, Pentland has worked with non-profit groups Cividep in India and Homeworkers Worldwide to identify homeworkers making shoes for them and is at present mapping their pay and hours worked to ensure better wages.
No one from Pentland was immediately available to comment on the initiative, which according to their website aims to provide direct employment to homeworkers, better training and to work with suppliers for sustainable improvement of labor conditions.
Campaigners say homeworkers are paid by the piece and the exact number of hours they work are not tracked.
The women are paid less than $0.14 per pair of shoes, which are sold in Britain for between $60 and $140, according to a 2016 report by Cividep India and British non-government organizations Homeworkers Worldwide and Labour Behind the Label.
The report highlighted how the industry relies on homeworkers who earn less than the minimum wage, lack legal rights and suffer from chronic headaches and body pain.
“Homeworkers have been under the radar for a long time,” Delaney said. “A start was made in Vellore to collaborate and ensure they get their dues.”