Kitex Garments “categorically” refuted allegations that its migrant workforce is being treated as “bonded laborers.”
The India-based garment manufacturer, which supplies baby and children’s wear to retailers such as Carter’s and Walmart, told Sourcing Journal that all its workers are “free to come and go as they choose when not working” and that any suggestions to the contrary are “false.”
Kitex took issue with a report, published last month by the All India Lawyers Association for Justice following a violent skirmish between workers and police that led to the arrest of more than 170 people over Christmas. The “fact-checking” investigation blamed “dismal” living conditions in “labor camps” on factory premises for stoking tensions among its lower-caste employees, many of whom hail from far-flung regions such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and don’t speak the local language.
“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.
But Donnie Hodge, president and COO of Kitex’s U.S. arm, said the police report showed no such complicity with Kitex executives. He also disputed the characterization of its in-house facilities, which include housing, dining and medical and are provided free of charge to any of its 12,500 workers who choose to utilize them. “We are very proud of [them],” he said.
Hodge noted that more than 90 independent audits have been conducted at Kitex over the past five years, including four in the past two months alone.
“None of them have revealed the alleged issues,” he said. “We pride ourselves on our ethical standards including operating with full transparency and we are proud of our ongoing track record in compliance.”
Carter’s, which also owns OshKosh B’gosh, told Sourcing Journal that 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 said. “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 requests for comment.
Nandita Shivakumar, campaigns and communications coordinator at the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes living wages in the garment, previously told Sourcing Journal that migrant workers the world over are especially vulnerable to labor abuses. She said their freedom of movement is often curtailed and they are generally too scared to speak out to officials because they fear retribution or the loss of employment.
“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.”
Kitex, whose revenues reached 2.05 billion Indian rupees ($27 million) in the fiscal third quarter ended Dec. 31, boasts the highest standards of any manufacturer in the world, Hodge said. He said the company seeks to be completely transparent and both auditors and its customers have complete access to its facilities and workers.
“We take very seriously our commitment to our trusted brands, partners, customers and employees and will continue to uphold the highest ethical standards in the industry,” he added.
Seventy percent of the workers who were arrested, Hodge said, will be charged with less serious crimes. Although they will receive court-appointment free legal counsel, they can only leave jail before their trial if they post bail.
“Kitex has decided to post bail for this group and allow them to come back to work and use our facilities until their trials occur,” he said. “If they are either acquitted or charges dropped they will be allowed to continue as permanent employees.”