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New Report: Modern day slavery in the Indian textile industry

‘Flawed Fabrics’ – a new report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) – shows that workers are still facing appalling labour conditions that amount to forced labour in the export-oriented Southern Indian textile industry. The women and girls who work in the spinning mills of Tamil Nadu, some as young as 15, are mostly recruited from marginalised Dalit communities in impoverished rural areas. They are forced to work long hours for low wages. They live in very basic company-run hostels and are hardly ever allowed to leave the company compound. The researched spinning mills have Western companies and Bangladesh garment factories among their customers, including C&A, Mothercare, HanesBrands, Sainsbury’s and Primark.

The report portrays the situation in five spinning mills in Tamil Nadu,  which is a major hub in the global textile and knitwear industry: Best Cotton Mills, Jeyavishnu Spintex, Premier Mills, Sulochana Cotton  Spinning Mills and Super Spinning Mills. The research is based on  in-depth interviews with 150 workers combined with an analysis of  corporate information and export data regarding the companies involved.  Spinning mills in this region produce cotton yarn and fabrics, both for  further processing in the Indian garment industry and for export to  other countries, in particular Bangladesh.

The teenage girls and young women told researchers how they had been  lured from their home villages with attractive promises of decent jobs  and good pay. In reality, however, they are working under appalling  conditions that amount to modern day slavery and the worst forms of  child labour. Workers don’t get contracts or payslips. Workers have  nowhere to go to express their grievances. In the mills there are no  trade unions or functioning complaint mechanisms. One interviewed worker  at Sulochana Cotton Spinning Mills said of her living conditions: "I  do not like the hostel; there is no entertainment and no outside  contact and is very far from the town. It is like a semi-prison."

Two mills were found to be supplying Bangladesh garment factories that  fall under the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. As such  the report presents a direct link between the Accord’s signatories and  unacceptable labour rights violations in India. Due to a lack of  transparency in the garment sector, SOMO and ICN could not establish  which signatories, All Western retailers and fashion brands, source from  these factories. The export data also link the investigated spinning  mills to three foreign banks: Standard Chartered Bank, The Bank of Tokyo  Mitsubishi and Raiffeisenbank. These banks provide financial services  to the spinning mills and their customers. However, referring to banking  security and privacy, the banks refused to disclose any details.

In the past few years, brands and retailers sourcing from Tamil Nadu  have started to step up audits and corrective actions plans at the level  of end-manufacturing units (first tier suppliers). However, only a  small number of brands and retailers have started mapping and to some  extent auditing their second-tier suppliers. The vast majority of buyers  do not engage in monitoring and corrective actions at the level of the  spinning mills (which are second-tier suppliers). Two of the researched  mills received a certification (SA8000) for adhering to international  labour standards, while this report shows labour conditions at these  mills are far from acceptable.

SOMO researcher Martje Theuws says: "Business efforts are failing to  address labour rights violations effectively. Corporate auditing is not  geared towards detecting forced labour and other major labour rights  infringements. Moreover, there is a near complete lack of supply chain  transparency. Local trade unions and labour groups are consistently  ignored."

In addition, ICN programme officer Marijn Peepercamp states: "Governments  at the buying end of the supply chain are failing to ensure that  companies live up to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.  The state duty to protect and the corporate responsibility to respect  human rights as laid down in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and  Human Rights are not being respected."

The authors of the report, SOMO and ICN, call upon all corporate actors  along the global garment supply chain – from spinning mills to fashion  brands – to be more transparent about their supplier base. They have to  be more ambitious in detecting and addressing human rights violations by  allowing trade unions and civil society organisations to play their  specific roles. In addition, buying practices (including pricing) need  to allow for decent working conditions so that girls and young women in  Tamil Nadu no longer have to face appalling working conditions that are  tantamount to forced labour.

>> Download the report Flawed Fabrics (pdf)