Once again, a report by international bodies has levelled serious allegations against the Tamil Nadu textile industry and insisted that ‘Forced labour’ should be considered a major risk throughout the entire Tamil Nadu textile sector. Reacting to the report, a prestigious buyer also confirmed that it found labour abuses in its garment supply chain. The report titled, Spinning Around Workers’ Rights: International Companies Linked to Forced Labour in Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills, is brought up by The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO investigates multinationals); Arisa, an independent human rights organisation (formerly the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN)) and their Indian partners (names not revealed).
In the past ten years, SOMO and Arisa, along with other civil society activists have reported on a range of labour rights violations, including child labour, discrimination on the basis of caste and tribal background and forms of forced labour in garment and textile unit. After analysing the report, it will not be wrong to say that as these NGOs claim that conditions are ‘very bad’, is it not the right time that rather than just bringing out reports (as they are doing this from the last one decade), they should work in collaboration to bring change and improve overall conditions.
The report highlights that workers are too afraid to object to substandard working conditions and excessive overtime for fear of losing their jobs, women are suffering harassment on the factory floor and in the hostels where they are obliged to live, and workers are not being paid a proper wage.
The report is based on interviews (conducted between October 2019 and January 2020) of 725 workers, including 284 women, in 29 spinning mills; for security reasons, mills’ names are anonymised in this report.
The report has named international brands including Sainsbury’s, Next, Gap and Ikea, which it claims are directly or indirectly linked to the mills investigated. Though the brands have denied these claims.
However, irrespective of the claims in the report, the major concern in this regard is that UK’s leading supermarkets Tesco and Next have reacted to the report. Tesco has said that it has found labour abuses in its garment supply chain in southern India after receiving evidence of widespread forced labour involving migrant women in cotton spinning mills across Tamil Nadu.
As per the news of The Guardian, one of Tesco’s supply chains is linked to a spinning mill included in this report. “We take allegations of human rights abuses in our supply chain extremely seriously … While not a direct customer of this mill, we recognise our responsibility towards everyone in our supply chain and are working alongside other brands and with Somo to investigate and ensure improvements are made,” a Tesco spokesperson said.
Next also believes that 6 out of the 29 mills named in the report are linked to its supply chains and it would be investigating the same. In fact Next would be taking joint action with Tesco to try to stop wider abuses throughout the region.
At the same time, IKEA, GAP and Sainsbury denied that they had any links with the mills in the report.
The other aspects
The authors of this report believe that the alleged abuses they found in the 29 mills surveyed are likely to be replicated across the Tamil Nadu textile sector. On the other hand, K. Selvaraju, Secretary-General, The Southern India Mills’ Association (SIMA) said the study does not represent the entire spinning sector in Tamil Nadu. The sector has over 2,000 mills, employing nearly seven lakh workers.
Siddhartha Rajagopal, ED, The Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council (TEXPROCIL) has also raised a question on the methodology of the study and said that it is ‘defective’ as the sample size is not representative. The report tries to ‘generalise stray incidents’. As per him, the findings are baseless and motivated to discredit the Indian spinning industry.
There are other important factors to be taken into consideration like 2 out of the 29 ‘investigated’ mills are public limited companies while 5 are vertically integrated, 7 are members of the BCI and 4 are GOTS-certified. 93 workers of 11 mills said that they have a trade union in their mill. These mills naturally have a good level of transparency and the kind of allegations, this report put, are hard to believe despite having a union.
India is one of the best manufacturing hubs with regard to following compliance but if there are serious issues as this report claims, is it not high time that rather than just highlighting more or less the same thing time and again to create a sensation, these organisations should work together with the industry in harmony to improve things wherever possible?
SOMO and Arisa aim to help enable structural improvements in employment, working and living conditions of the workers in the Indian textile and garment industry, and in particular, the most vulnerable worker groups. And there is no doubt that this aim can be achieved with collective efforts and working with the industry as a supportive partner.
Out of the 725 workers interviewed, the vast majority of 625 workers were living in hostels. The hostels located at the factory premises had 481 respondents and hostels outside the factory premises included 144 respondents workers. It can be noted that mills can improve facilities at the hostels without much investment and they have to understand that this will lead to more productive workers.
Organised Indian textile sector especially working for overseas markets, be it in Tamil Nadu or anywhere in India, should be an example or motivation for unorganised sector. At the same time, the industry should set a mechanism that no such report can harm its image.