Laborers in South India’s textile industry are facing appalling working conditions and abuse, likened to “modern-day slavery,” according to a new report.
The report, titled “Flawed Fabrics” released by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), two nongovernmental labor rights organizations based in the Netherlands, claims that five spinning mills in textile and knitwear hub, Tamil Nadu, are forcing workers to toil for long hours under lackluster conditions. The workforce is mostly made up of women and girls, some as young as 15, who have been lured from their home villages under the promise of well-paying work.
The five spinning mills, Best Cotton Mills, Jeyavishnu Spintex, Premier Mills, Sulochana Cotton Spinning Mills and Super Spinning Mills reportedly supply product for big name brands like C&A, Hanesbrands, Mothercare and Primark. Goods from the mills go to the Indian garment industry and for export to other countries, namely Bangladesh.
After conducting in-depth interviews with 150 workers and analyzing the corporate information and export data of the five companies, researchers found that the workers have been subject to conditions ranging from forced and bonded labor to the worst kinds of child labor.
The workers live in hostels on the factory grounds, and each room and toilet is shared by more than 35 people. They aren’t allowed the leave the hostel unaccompanied and are afforded little outside contact. Mobile phones are not permitted and after-work activities are limited. “Under the pretext of cultural traditions, girls and women are effectively locked up,” the report noted.
Child labor in the mills is rampant as 60 percent of the workers interviewed for the report were under 18 when they began work with the mill.
At four of the five mills, employees are expected to work 60 hours per week or more throughout the year, and overtime and night shifts are obligatory. Most employees work without contracts and many have little to no knowledge of their rights to associate.
According to the report, the long hours and hostile working conditions are taking a toll on the laborers. A 14-year-old girl working at one of the mills reportedly committed suicide earlier this year, and a 17-year-old young woman threatened to kill herself last year because of the oppressive conditions.
Transparency along the supply chain has also been an issue. “The market parties, both producers in Tamil Nadu and buyers from all over the world, are not forthcoming with even basic information,” the report noted. “There is no such thing as supply chain transparency. On the contrary, there is an alarming lack of openness. Buyers hardly provide any information about where they are sourcing from. Precise information about supplier relations is limited and very hard to come by, which makes it difficult to hold companies to account for violations along their supply chain.”
Tamil Nadu is home to 1,600 mills, which employ more than 400,000 workers. According to the report, brands and retailers sourcing from the region have started stepping up audits and creating corrective action plans, but only a small set have started auditing second-tier suppliers, like the spinning mills.
“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,” SOMO researcher Martje Theuws said.
The report’s authors have called on brands to be more transparent about their supplier bases, and to be more ambitious about uncovering and addressing human rights violations.