One of India’s largest manufacturers of baby and children’s wear has been accused of treating its employees as “bonded laborers” in the aftermath of a violent clash with police that ended with the arrest of more than 170 migrant workers on Christmas.
But headlines that blamed the workers at Kitex Garments, a Kerala-based supplier to multinational retailers such as Carter’s and Walmart, for “going berserk,” “wreaking havoc” and “attacking cops” only tell half the story, according to the All India Lawyers Association for Justice, a coalition of attorneys that published a “fact-finding” investigation into the altercation earlier this month.
Eyewitnesses said tensions escalated after Kitex security guards squared off with a group of migrant workers for their “loud celebrations of Christmas,” resulting in a call to the police. The responding officers refused to listen to the workers’ account of what had transpired, they said, setting off a skirmish that grew physical and resulted in the smashing of a police vehicle.
Fewer than two dozen workers were involved in the incident, yet the police arrested 174 people, including “innocent workers” who were asleep in the dormitories and are now expected to face a criminal trial, the report said. Kitex managers are also allegedly using this incident to “blackmail” other migrant workers.
“There is a strong suspicion of collusion between the management and the police in the registration of the criminal cases and arrests of migrant workers,” the All India Lawyers Association for Justice said, adding that Kitex appears “unconcerned” about the welfare and release of the arrested workers, most of them members of the lower castes who hail from far-flung locations such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and don’t have legal representation.
The report also described workers facing “lives of precariousness” marked by “inhuman living conditions” and “oppressive working conditions” with little to no employment, wage or social security. They also experience alienation from the wider community, since they don’t speak the local language.
“The migrant workers are housed inside the Kitex factory premises in ‘labor camps,’ where the living conditions are dismal,” the report said. “The management bars any entry to the labor camps and the workers too are not allowed to go outside unless permission is granted to them. The cumulative impact of these conditions is that the migrant workers are denied any interaction with the residents of the village in which it is located and, as such, there is no relationship between the migrant workers and the resident population.”
It’s the workers’ inability to leave the locked confines of their “camps” and their constant othering that fuel much of their resentment, the All India Lawyers Association for Justice said. With their limited freedom of movement and lack of access to organizations such as trade unions, the workers are no better than “slaves,” it added.
Carter’s, which also owns OshKosh B’gosh, said it does not tolerate forced labor or “injustice of any kind.”
“We conduct our own audits as well as work with leading certification agencies that have audited and certified this facility,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We have seen no evidence of the reported slave or bonded labor. That said, we will increase our audit frequency at this facility and take appropriate actions should we find any support for these allegations.”
Walmart, which stocks Kitex’s Little Star Organic label exclusively, did not reply to emails seeking comment.
While Kitex Garments did not reply to a request from Sourcing Journal for a statement, managing director Sabu M. Jacob told The Hindu in mid-February that the report was part of a “politically motivated witch hunt” against the company, which employ some 12,500 workers. Kitex’s corporate social responsibility arm, Kizhakkambalam Twenty20, made a foray into electoral politics in 2015.
“That an incident involving the company alone is being studied while overlooking so many other more grievous crimes in the state itself makes the intention of the team suspect,” Jacob said. “There is literally no state government agency left to investigate the company, and yet none of them have found any irregularity. Nor [have we] been indicted in any of the international audits to which we are subjected to as an export-oriented company.”
But “misleading” social audits often provide a “smokescreen” for corporate abuses, said Rosie Monaghan, KnowTheChain researcher and a representative of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Migrant workers have a heightened vulnerability to forced labor risks, especially where they rely on their employer for accommodation, she said.
The organizations have identified allegations of forced labor in the supply chains of 54 percent of the world’s 37 biggest fashion firms, yet only one in 10 companies has been able to demonstrate several instances of providing remedy for workers, suggesting “significant gaps in companies’ approaches to tacking labor rights abuse in their supply chains,” Monaghan told Sourcing Journal.
Nandita Shivakumar, campaigns and communications coordinator at the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes living wages in the garment industry, said that stories of labor violations in Kitex are manifold. She found none of the allegations regarding the mistreatment of migrant workers especially surprising. Limitations in movement and language aside, migrant workers are generally too scared to speak out to officials because they fear the loss of employment, she said.
“Over the last two decades, in garment factories across various parts of India, we have seen young migrants, particularly women, exploited under various ‘schemes,’ with workers given no written contracts, zero social security benefits and are generally asked to work many hours of unpaid overtime, especially when lead times of fashion brands are extremely short,” Shivakumar said. “There are also cases where these migrant women in company hostels have reported severe gender-based violence and harassment from management.”
Labor campaigners have been demanding for years that trade unions must be allowed to meet migrant workers who live in company hostels, she said. The failure to do so drives these workers to “extreme risks.”
“It is important for brands to recognize that when migrant workers are forced to stay in company hostels, with limited mobility and no access to trade unions, the employment relationship can basically take the form of bonded labor,” Shivakumar added.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 2, 2022, with a statement from Carter’s. A separate story was published on March 3, 2022, with Kitex’s response.