Less than two weeks ago, on July 4th 2016, 55 businesses, their trade organisations, the Dutch government and several NGOs (including Solidaridad, UNICEF Netherlands, the Stop Child Labour Coalition and the India Committee of the Netherlands) signed the Agreement on a Sustainable Garment and Textile Sector. This agreement is an important step towards more responsible business conduct, as the parties have agreed to work together on nine thematic issues, including prevention and addressing discrimination, child labour and forced labour in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Turkey. This week I talked to Gerard Oonk, the director of the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) about this agreement, his work, and the current state of affairs in India.
The India Committee of the Netherlands
Entering the ICN’s headquarters in Utrecht, you would not immediately think this is an NGO to be reckoned with. Consisting of only a few rooms, the hot and slightly stuffy ICN offices are located on the top floor of an old stately building in the city centre of Utrecht. Gerard Oonk, longstanding director of the ICN, welcomes me into what looks like a library/conference-room. He apologizes for possibly being without much inspiration, as he has spent the day behind his computer working on the compulsory annual reports. As soon as he starts talking however, there is no shortage of inspiration nor energy: After more than 30 years Oonk is still fighting passionately for the betterment of the lives of the marginalized in India.
While it still only consists of 5 people – explaining the modest HQ – over the years the ICN has built an impressive track record and reputation. “Early on we started working together with other organisations”, Oonk explains, “because in that way, even as a small organisation, you can be much more influential in larger contexts.” One of the main examples of such collaborations is the Stop Child Labour Coalition, of which the ICN is one of the initiators. “If you want to get things done for India, your scope has to be broader, because there is very little ‘India-specific’ policy”, says Oonk. Thus, being part of a coalition that addresses the issue of child labour in general is not only a way to have more leverage; it is also instrumental for the betterment of India in particular. It is clear then that the ICN’s geographical focus is India, but Oonk explains that the committee has also selected 3 main themes to work: Child labour, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and the position of the Dalits. “Apart from establishing a large network, our great strength lies in our expertise”, says Oonk. So, instead of moving from one theme to another every few years and throwing away its built up expertise, for years now the ICN has stuck to what it knows best – and very successfully so.
How the ICN works
Within the scope of the ICN’s thematic framework the committee engages in a number of activities. Throughout the years it has continuously tried to inform the public about the current state of affairs of human rights in India. “We are also deeply involved in research into many sectors of industry – including garment and textile production, stone quarries, seeds – and how to translate this research to business and politics”, Oonk adds. The ICN has published a number of reports, based on research done by their partners ‘on the ground’ under the guidance of the committee’s team. More than anything however, the ICN is active in ‘advocacy and lobby’. For Oonk, trying to influence policy-makers is day-to-day business.
The process leading up to the signing of the covenant last week is a good example of the way in which the ICN operates. It started with informing and putting pressure on political parties, to get the issues at hand on the agenda. Following the publication of an ICN research-report there was a parliamentary motion about the banishment of child labour in the clothing sector. “And naturally we used this to address trade organisations, that were already in the middle of discussions about how to deal with this problem anyway, because of the huge amounts of critique directed at them”, Oonk continues. Pressure mounted further with the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which drew worldwide attention to the horrendous circumstances of people working in the garment industry. It was becoming increasingly clear that the textile sector as a whole had to act.
This process eventually led to the drawing up of an extensive agreement – composed with the input of, among others, the ICN -, which was signed last week. While this is undoubtedly a momentous achievement, it still remains to be seen how and when the promises in the covenant will be put into actual practice. Thus, for Oonk and his team it by no means marks the final chapter of their work.
In the fields of child labour and CSR important steps may be on their way, but a situation that remains largely unchanged – one that is particular to the Indian context - is that of the position of the ‘untouchables’ or Dalits.
Even though India has been a democracy for almost 70 years, the systemic perpetuation of caste discrimination – at a level you would only expect under authoritarian regimes - is still entrenched in Indian society. When I ask Oonk whether the Dalits have been able to benefit from India’s growing economy he hesitates for a moment and then says ‘no’. “There may be more people that are now doing a little better, but the gap between rich and poor has grown”. He continues by explaining that the caste system does more than dictate the Dalits’ social position: “It not only emphasizes that you deserve less, economically, but also that you are less yourself, as a human being.” As a result the Dalits continue to be at the bottom of the production chain as well as at the bottom of society.
Bringing about significant change with regards to this issue turns out to be an incredibly difficult task. Oonk explains that even though the Dalit-question is finally on the UN-agenda, no country is willing to step up and act, because the Indian government is dead set against any external involvement. “They may be willing to talk about child labour, but not about the caste system”. And anyone who is getting too critical will find that the Indian government has a very effective defence mechanism. Oonk himself is a clear example: For 12 years now he has not been allowed access to India, and he has little hope that he ever will again. Organisations that fight for the position of the Dalits are faced with similar obstacles, making their work more difficult, although new means of communication also make it easier to ‘globalize’ the issue says Oonk. Thus, like child labour and precarious working and living conditions of many, its ugly nexus with the caste system forms a major challenge for companies with a presence in India. But, unlike child labour, the position of the Dalits is a very unpopular issue, for potential donors as well as for the Indian government. The one source of hope for Oonk are the UN human rights treaty, bodies and rapporteurs, which so far have not been scared off by Indian resistance and continue to address the inhuman treatment of the untouchables. The ICN, meanwhile, continues its efforts, even though its hard work yields limited results.
Slowly the temperature rises in the little attic in the middle of Utrecht. While I could be talking to Gerard Oonk for hours – this is a man with expertise and experience to fill a library – I look at my watch and decide it is time for the ALP-traditional: What does the future hold?
“CSR or rather the relation between business and human rights is becoming less of a noncommittal hobby of a few companies, and becoming more part of international discourse”, he says. According to Oonk internationally agreed upon normative frameworks - like the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and other slowly growing regulation - may bring about real change. And yet the ICN front man wonders if CSR will ever be a main driving force of our economy, or will continue to be somewhat of an add-on..
“But we have to continue our efforts, join forces and do what we can to support organizations in India and elsewhere fighting for their rights’’,Oonk adds. And so, despite his not all too optimistic view of the future and notwithstanding the inability to travel to the country he has made into his life’s work, Oonk is not planning to stop his efforts anytime soon. “These things do not keep me from going on”, he says, “not in the least because of the bond I have with people there; people I have been working with for so long and who continue to do their very best as well”.
An hour later I am on a train back home, leaving Utrecht behind. Gerard Oonk has left me with a sense of urgency and a mixture of feelings. There is hope for a more sustainable future, but there are also great and devastating economic forces at work; forces that we may not be able to control. Progress is definitely happening – just think of this new textile-agreement – but some things remain unchanged. How many children are still sowing our clothes? How many women continue to be underpaid and mistreated? Why are the Dalits still left to fend for themselves; who is going to stand up and act? Why does the public not know about India’s tricks to stop others from interfering? After my visit to the India Committee of the Netherlands I seem to have more questions than answers. And as the train pulls in I stand up to put my jacket on. Before I do I take a quick look at the label, and I cannot help but feel a little guilty: ‘Made in Bangladesh’.
 source: https://business-humanrights.org/sites/default/files/reports-and-materials/CSR-Asia-article-on-caste-system-19-May-2010.pdf