When Kishore Sharfudeen—a soft-spoken father of two from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu—joined the hosiery manufacturer SNQS International Socks as a personnel manager in 2001, a new world opened up to him. Eight years as a junior lawyer had left him disillusioned, and his new employer, based in the city of Coimbatore, seemed to offer an easier living supplying European brands like Primark and H&M with knitted socks.
His main tasks were looking after the factory’s approximately 300 workers—mostly young women from villages across Tamil Nadu—by making sure their workplace and living accommodations met Indian safety and health norms. “I learned so much at that place,” recalled Kishore of his five and a half years at the factory when we met on a late September morning in the lobby of my hotel in Coimbatore. “It was a precious experience.”
It’s rare to hear praise about a sector that has long been synonymous with hyper-exploitative sweatshop conditions, but SNQS was an outlier, he said. While the workers were only paid minimum wage, or around $40 a month, he took pride in making sure the factory and the hostel were in good condition and that the workers ate a healthy diet and had enough free time to rest between shifts.
In fact, Kishore’s subsequent experiences in the industry made him realize just how unusual that was. The sock factory didn’t typify basic standards of safety and competence. As he would soon learn, it was about as good as things got.
Kishore entered the fast-fashion industry at a time of great transformation. The new millennium had brought with it an age of “corporate responsibility,” and Western brands from Gap to Benetton pledged to push their suppliers to respect international labor standards, prevent accidents, treat workers with dignity, and not use child labor. Amid these promises, the “social audit”—also known as the “ethical audit”—was born.