Steps

When I was younger, I used to sit by my mother’s feet and watched as she carefully sewed buttons onto a shirt cuff for her next client. I’d been fascinated by the colorful cloths, threads, and ribbons she kept lined up against the wall behind her sewing machine, daydreaming of the dresses and purses just waiting to be made. She made it seem so easy and fun. I didn’t realize how much time and effort she put into each of the garments she made until we visited the garment factories these past couple weeks in Delhi and Bangalore.

Shahi Exports is India’s largest exporter in the garment industry and has about 50 factories throughout India. We spent all of last Friday visiting the main factory in Delhi and learning about all the intricate steps that go into making a garment, from design and pattern-making to the painstaking task of putting the whole thing together. It was so cool for me to see things that I had been so familiar with during my childhood done on such a large scale. Shahi utilizes the assembly line model in which each worker is responsible for a single task in a long chain of steps towards that final garment, increasing efficiency and quality immensely. This is critical in enabling them to meet the high demand of their buyers.

Approximately 70% of the workers that Shahi employs are women, many of whom travel from small, rural villages to semi-urban or urban factories to work full-time jobs. The company has a strong focus on vertical integration and provides a free, month-long training program to all their workers before they enter the factories. In addition to technical skills, the workers are provided soft skills training that can be used both inside and outside the work place. Although the garment industry has a notorious reputation for terrible working conditions, everyone that we have encountered at Shahi have expressed a genuine care for the well-being of their workers.

Over the past couple weeks, we interns have been busy talking with people from various departments in the company. The garment industry faces a very high turnover rate, and Shahi is no exception. This is a huge concern for management in the company, and they are hoping that our projects will help determine and deal with the main problems that affect the high worker attrition and absenteeism rates. I found it pretty overwhelming at first. With so many factors that play into a worker’s professional and personal life, it was difficult to pick a starting point. Every day, we would meet with someone new, someone who had a different perspective, someone who gave us new information and new data that we had to sort through. While we know that there is genuine concern for employees, we have to keep in mind that, as a for-profit company, Shahi’s primary focus is on its production. I have to admit, I came into this internship with grand, lofty plans to make an immediate, tangible difference in these workers’ lives, but the short two months that we have with Shahi has forced me to be realistic about what I wanted to accomplish during my time here and the steps that I can slowly take to reaching a goal.

I called my mom amidst all my confusion. Her home back in Viet Nam had been on a small farm in the countryside. She too had migrated to the bustling city of Sai Gon to study and to work. Luckily she had avoided the hardships of the garment industry, but she had many friends who took that route and recounted to me the main problems that they had encountered during those times. She reminded me that I couldn’t address every aspect of the problem and that sometimes I’d have to go back to the basics to approach the bigger issue at hand, step by step.

After countless meetings, data, and cups of chai, I’ve decided to focus my efforts on the intersection of nutrition and mental health for the migrant female workers in the company. Basic nutrition is a huge issue in India – over 50% of women in India are malnourished – and is oftentimes overlooked due to the problem of diseases such as anemia. I strongly believe that preventative measures are just as, if not more, important as treatment of diseases themselves. As is the case in many places, including the US, mental health is a taboo topic which desperately needs additional exploration. Its study regarding the garment industry is almost non-existent. Now, what do nutrition and mental health have to do with each other? Quite a lot, in fact. Key nutrients that workers may not be getting are directly responsible for their mood and levels of energy, affecting how they respond to pressures in the workplace, and which will in turn further contribute to their mental state of mind. Migrant workers especially encounter difficulty adjusting to urban life and knowing where and how to access the resources necessary to take care of themselves. I realize that there is so much research that can be done regarding these two topics and their intersection, but in addition to that, my hope is to develop one solid initiative by the end of the two months that will be able to improve these workers’ lives in some way.

Maybe I’m being too idealistic, and maybe I’m too ambitious, but I’m really excited to see where the next couple of weeks will find me.

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About Chan Nguyen