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Gram Vaani helps Tamil Nadu garment workers air their grievances

A social technology company incubated at IIT Delhi has managed to bring forth steady and sustainable change in unregulated work environments.

, ET Bureau|
Mar 27, 2019, 10.30 AM IST
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Agencies
Mill-workers
In the case of overtime, unpaid work in Dindigul mills, Gram Vaani had received a number of calls and recorded complaints from labour activists and workers like Rani on its IVR platform.
Every morning when the textile mill’s van arrived in the village of Rani (name changed) and the number of workers was lower than necessary for the first shift, the 17-year-old knew she would be working overtime, unpaid, for another day. Much like Rani, workers in India’s textile spinning capital, Dindigul, had to accept unpaid overtime work as a fact of life, with formal redressal mechanisms in their workplaces bringing no help. That, though, has changed now.

A social technology company incubated at IIT Delhi, with the help of labour unions in the textile hubs of Tamil Nadu, has managed to bring forth steady and sustainable change in such unregulated work environments in the last 18 months. The company, Gram Vaani, has been addressing the gap with its interactive voice response (IVR) technology, combined with free-to-air mobile radio stations in Chennai, Dindigul and a recently launched one in Tirupur — all hubs in the global textile and garment manufacturing supply chain. With the touch of a button, factory workers can access information from a rich, curated audio content library created with the help of labour union activists, legal and workforce management experts, on how to withdraw their provident fund saving, raise a sexual assault claim, or report the lack of adequate sanitation provisions and other such issues.

The company was started with the vision of reversing the flow of information from the bottom up — grassroots level to the top. In the case of overtime, unpaid work in Dindigul mills, Gram Vaani had received a number of calls and recorded complaints from labour activists and workers like Rani on its IVR platform.

Following this, the Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association addressed the prevalence of the issue and issued a circular to its 612 member mills. Since 2018, the managements of a number of those mills have committed in writing to fix the problem.

The Tirupur radio station has already notched up 1,500 regular users with 50-150 workers calling in every day, said Orlanda Ruthven, advisor, workforce programme, at Gram Vaani, who is responsible for the company’s work in the southern region.

The other platforms have 100-300 callers daily and reach out to 1,000-2,000 users monthly, she said. “On each of the older platforms (Chennai and Dindigul), upwards of 30 individual activists and listeners (largely factory workers) make over 100 content contributions each month,” added Ruthven.

The company has been using its technology to “largely function as a platform for enforcing existing laws and provisions, and to create awareness of worker entitlement,” Ruthven said. The platform is also backed by the government in Dindigul as it works in conjunction with the district legal aid facility. Thivya Rakini Sesuraj, president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union, who works closely with Gram Vaani and factory workers to address grievances and bargain with factory managements, said: “The platform uses the latest technology and has a labour-friendly mechanism such that the confidentiality of the grievance maker is maintained. Also, a single issue raised by one or two workers on the radio have benefitted entire workforces in the past because of the common nature of the problem.”

Furthermore, the radio stations don’t just work as grievance reporting platforms, said Ruthven. Listeners also call in to touch upon the daily bulletin and listen to the contributions of other workers.
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