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Apparel retailers react to India forced labour allegations

By  | 30 October 2014


The Flawed Fabrics report says women and girls - some as young as 15 - are forced to work long hours for low pay
The ‘Flawed Fabrics’ report says women and girls – some as young as 15 – are forced to work long hours for low pay

A number of retailers have responded to allegations of “forced labour” amongst female textile workers in mills in southern India, with H&M blacklisting one of the five named.

report was released by two pressure groups yesterday (29 October) – the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) – after interviewing some 150 workers at five textile mills in Tamil Nadu.

According to the ‘Flawed Fabrics’ report, women and girls – some as young as 15 – are mainly recruited from marginalised Dalit communities in impoverished rural areas, are forced to work long hours for low pay, and live in company-owned hostels and rarely allowed out.

The report said the five mills – Best Cotton Mills, Jeyavishnu Spintex, Premier Mills, Sulochana Cotton Spinning Mills and Super Spinning Mills – supply Western companies and Bangladeshi garment factories, with customers including C&AMothercare, HanesBrands, Sainsbury’s and Primark.

In response to the report, Swedish fashion retailer H&M said sumangali, and all forms of forced or bonded labour are “totally unacceptable…and not compliant” with its Code of Conduct.

The retailer said Super Spinning Mills is not one of its strategic spinning mills and it has no business agreement directly with the company. However, one of H&M’s Bangladesh suppliers does order yarn from the mill, it said.

“As this third-tier spinning mill is unwilling to cooperate with H&M in a transparent way and since we have come so far in our transparency work, we see no other option than to blacklist Super Spinning Mills. This will mean that H&M requires that our suppliers do not order yarn from this spinning mill for H&M orders.

“To be able to support improvements at our suppliers and their supply chain, we need to collaborate closely with them. If this is not possible, we will not be able to monitor, measure or provide additional support where needed. Mutual trust and transparency is important and expected in all of our relationships.”

H&M, which is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), said all its suppliers are informed about sumangali and all forms of forced labour, adding that they must sign a Code of Conduct before they are approved.

“Sumangali mainly occur in spinning mills, which are usually third-tier suppliers and we do not have direct influence on this production stage. Therefore we acknowledge the need of an industry multi-stakeholder approach,” the retailer said.

C&A, which was also named in the report, said it remains convinced that labour and workers’ rights are “one of the most critical and relevant” human rights issues specifically for its business and along its global supply chain.

“In this regard, sumangali is completely unacceptable and could result in the termination of a relationship should we find that the system exists in our suppliers’ operations,” a spokesperson for the retailer said. “C&A has – according to Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Indian law – made a clear commitment to ensure that the system of sumangali (bonded labour) is eradicated in India.

“We fully believe that the elimination of the sumangali system and improvements towards better living conditions in the Tamil Nadu textile industry can only be solved through common action by companies, local manufacturers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and official bodies. Without the support of local partners, however, it will not be possible to abolish the system.”

Primark said factories contracted to supply its garments source from the Jeyavishnu Spinntex mill mentioned in the report. It noted that “working and employment conditions there are generally better than in the other mills surveyed in the report”.

However, it added: “Primark accepts that this mill has issues that need rectification and will be continue to work with them to resolve them. Primark has a responsibility to deal with issues wherever they are found in the company’s supply chain.”

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