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Flawed Fabrics – the abuse of girls and women workers in the South Indian textile industry

This report highlights serious labour and human rights violations faced by girls and young women employed in the Tamil Nadu spinning industry in South India, a major hub in the global knitwear sector.

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SOMO – Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, and ICN – India Committee of the Netherlands

Description: The report portrays the situation in the spinning units of five textile and garment enterprises in Tamil Nadu, South India. The mills are part of the supply chains of European and US clothing brands and retailers, as units of vertically integrated Indian companies that engage in the production for ready-made garments. The evidence uncovered by the report highlights issues of:

  1. Forced, bonded and child labour in the spinning mills: recruiters convince parents in impoverished rural areas to send their daughters to the mills with false promises of well paid jobs, comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and opportunities for training and schooling, as well as a lump sum payment of three years at the end of their contracts. Among the workers interviewed, 60% were 15 years old when they began working.
  2. Limited freedom of movement, and demanding work environment: living in the mills’ hostels for those who come from other districts or villages is mandatory. Rooms and toilets are shared by up to 45 people. Workers are not allowed to leave the hostel on their own or have a mobile phone - they may only contact their family through the hostel phone. On the job, employees must work over 60 hours a week all year around, with mandatory overtime and nightshifts. Humiliating disciplinary measures are applied, only short breaks are allowed, and sick leave is unpaid.
  3. Contracts and wages: workers rarely sign a contract upon entering employment and receive no payslips – salaries are paid in cash, and they range between 25€ and 52€ a month, which is substantially below the minimum wage. The lump sum which workers are promised upon their contract’s expiry is made up of the contributions made to the Provident Fund (PF). However, many workers do not have a PF registration number, which means that employers fail to transfer the required contribution to the PF for them. There is a real danger that these workers may never receive the promised lump sum.
  4. Right of association and lack of transparency: the notion of freedom of association is a dead letter for the workers who interviewed for this research. It is clear that the majority of workers lacks information about their legal rights under Indian or International law. This may be because criminalisation, threats against labour activists or striking workers, violence against union members and NGO representatives is common practice in India. In addition, researchers found an alarming lack of transparency when gathering data for this report. The market parties, both producers in Tamil Nadu and buyers from all over the world, are not forthcoming with even basic information. 

Recommendations: SOMO and ICN strongly affirm that buyers’ supply chain responsibility extends beyond first-tier suppliers to second and further tiers, including spinning mills. This notion of extended supply chain responsibility is supported by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Brands, retailers, and manufacturers should identify, prevent and mitigate risks and negative impacts in their supply chain and business relations, and develop strategies to address these risks. These may include:

  1. Supply chain mapping: brands and retailers should focus on gaining full understanding of their supply chains. This includes second and further tier suppliers, subcontracted units, down to the informal sector. This includes, for example, spinning units within both vertically integrated suppliers and stand-alone yarn and fabrics suppliers. Companies should map their entire supply chain and provide transparency about their supplier base.
  2. Transparency: Brands and retailers should share information about first and further-tier suppliers, including factory names, possible alternative factory names, locations, whether they are strategic suppliers, the duration of the supplier relationship, etc.
  3. Identifying risks: there is now ample evidence about the widespread labour rights violations that are plaguing the Tamil Nadu textiles and garments industry. In particular, the presence of migrant workers among the workforce and the lodging of these workers in factory hostels should be a red flag for companies sourcing from these regions.
  4. Ensure ILO labour standards are respected: at the same time, buyers should refrain from discountinuing relations with suppliers based on non-compliance. To ‘cut and run’ is not an effective way of impressing upon suppliers that they should improve labour conditions.
  5. Respect for trade union rights: buying companies have a role to play in ensuring that independent trade unions can play their designated role, and should support as well as facilitate the training of management, workers and workers’ representatives (both separately and jointly) in freedom of association, collective bargaining, labour-management relations, child labour, etc.
  6. Cooperation with other civil society stakeholders in order to adequately identify and address human rights and labour rights risks
  7. Establish genuine and credible grievance mechanisms that meet the following core criteria: legitimacy, accessibility, predictability, equality, compatibility with internationally acceptable rights, and transparency.
  8. Increase leverage: cooperation with other buyers is crucial. Joining forces in a multi-stakeholder setting is fundamental to increase leverage vis-à-vis suppliers.
  9. Monitoring and improvement beyond first-tier supplier: brands and retailers should accept a broad definition of supply chain responsibility beyond the Cut Make and Trim (CMT) phase to include not only the end assembly phase but also the preceding steps, including the spinning and weaving phases.

The authors suggest that buying companies should ultimately reform their purchasing practices to enable respect for labour rights at their first and further tier supplier. Ways to do so include:

  1. Having a pricing policy that takes into account the social and environmental quality of sourced products, 
  2. Building long term, stable buyer-supplier relationships, and
  3. Having a ‘labour rights sensitive’ production planning, including reasonable supply lead times, predictability of orders and minimizing last-minute changes.