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Indian Garment Giant Refutes ‘Factually Incorrect’ Allegations

India’s largest garment manufacturer is facing more allegations of abuse from its workers.

Speaking to 18 workers from Shahi Exports’ Unit 44, a factory in the municipality of Kuppam in the southeastern state of ​​Andhra Pradesh, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) pieced together a mosaic of labor-rights transgressions, including sub-minimum wages, lack of breaks, unsanitary washrooms and gender-based violence and harassment.

“During the interviews, it became clear to the team that the workers are angry and upset not only with the low wages but also with the lack of dignified working conditions they are forced to face at the factory every day,” the workers’ rights group wrote in a report, which it compiled after 2,000 workers at the Columbia Sportswear supplier staged a five-day demonstration in early May to protest what they said were oppressive working conditions.

Shahi told Sourcing Journal that the AFWA’s accusations are a “gross error,” and that it has asked the workers’ rights organization to retract its report and issue corrections to any media outlet that repeats its claims. Columbia did not respond to a request for comment.

Writing in the report, the AFWA said that verbal abuse and sexual harassment appeared to be the “hallmarks of the management’s working style” at the Kuppam factory, where most chose to work because few alternatives presented themselves. Several workers told investigators that they had quit because they couldn’t cope with the abuse, only to rejoin later because they weren’t able to find other avenues of employment.

“The team was struck by the range of the issues—health issues, accidents, sexual abuse, debt, and basic issues of survival—that these workers, especially women workers in their twenties, were and are facing,” the report said. “Many of these issues have been festering since [the] Shahi factory’s inception in 2016, without any means of redress. There is an urgent need for a platform or a union to take up these issues with the management as and when they appear and work towards resolving them.”

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Many of those who felt victimized said they have stayed silent because they feared retaliation. Several of those interviewed told investigators that female workers who have been directly propositioned for sex are afraid of speaking out even though the problem of sexual harassment is “pervasive and widely prevalent,” they claimed.

Workers also described an atmosphere of coercion. Employees, they said, are barred from speaking to one another on the production line and if caught talking are verbally abused by their supervisors. Workers are also not allowed to use their phones during work hours, not even for emergencies, they said. Anyone found with a phone has it confiscated.

Production targets of 100 garments per hour, they added, are also “unreasonably high” and those who failed to meet quotas face abuse and humiliation in “filthy language” and at “deafening levels.” Caste-based slurs are another common occurrence, the investigative team found.

“As per the workers, such public humiliation aims to serve as a threat to other workers to complete their targets,” the AFWA said. “Several workers confessed to the team that their fear of being abused for missing production targets was so high that they would often skip their lunch break to complete their targets for the day.”

Shahi said that any targets are set in a “completely scientific manner accepted globally.” The company also said that it has a zero-tolerance policy against “any kind of violence, harassment, or shouting” and that any Shahi employee found doing this is liable for disciplinary and legal action.

“In addition to our regular employee training, we have conducted an awareness and reinforcement session with the senior staff members on Shahi’s zero-tolerance policy against verbal abuse, caste-based slurs, sexual harassment, professional misconduct, and retaliation against employees when they bring up grievances and complaints,” it said. “Shahi’s comprehensive non-retaliation policy seeks to prevent victimization and other retaliatory behavior against any employee, whether their report/accusation is true or false (subject to investigation/evidence and due course).”

In addition, Shahi said that it will be bringing BSR’s HERrespect program, which promotes gender equality and “tackles violence against women by addressing the root causes of violence in the workplace,” to Unit 44. This, the company said, will complement an eight-month ​​Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement, or PACE, program that 400 of the unit’s women employees have already undergone and another 200 are poised to go through, although the Gap-backed initiative has attracted criticism in the past for making little difference at Shahi or elsewhere.

Workers who were interviewed said they receive only a half-hour break for lunch. And because workers are required to deposit their belongings in a storage room, even this respite is often cut short by the long queues of people waiting to retrieve their lunches from their bags. Workers who spend more than a couple of minutes inside the “extremely unclean” washrooms, they added, are forced out by whistle-blowing guards who are stationed outside. (All of this is “factually incorrect,” Shahi said.)

As a result of the high-stress environment, workers frequently faint on the production floor, the report said. And rather than try to “destress the work environment,” Unit 44’s management provides those workers with glucose before returning them to their tasks “almost immediately,” it added. Accidents ​​such as fingers being cut by machines or needles, too, are “routine.”

“The safety of our workers is paramount and overseen by the safety officer at all our units as mandated by law,” Shahi said. “We run specialized awareness programs with the support of medical staff to raise awareness on health topics ranging from nutrition to anemia.” In 2020, in partnership with Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, it launched a program providing awareness and iron tablets to anemic women, the manufacturer added.

The AFWA said that unskilled workers who are usually trainees are paid roughly 6,000 rupees ($75.14) a month while semi-skilled workers earn between 8,000 to 9,000 rupees ($100.19 to $112.71). This is lower than the 10,500 to 11,000 rupees ($131.50 and $137.76) that Shahi employees receive in Karnataka and the 11,000 rupees they receive in Haryana and the National Capital Region, it said.

“When workers raised concerns over this disparity, the Shahi management at Kuppam responded with statements such as, ‘That is a city, this is a village. This salary is more than enough for Kuppam village” or “If you raise this issue again, we will close the Shahi factory at Kuppam and leave.” The minimum wage payable for tailors in Andhra Pradesh has been approximately 11,000 rupees since April 1, meaning that Unit 44’s management “has not paid the statutorily mandated wages” since that time, the report said.

Shahi called the claims “absolutely incorrect and…tantamount to misrepresentation.” The deputy labor commissioner from the State Labour Department, it said, visited Unit 44 in May and after a “thorough inspection/investigation” of records and data found the Kuppam factory to be in compliance with the government order.

“​​It is pertinent to bring on record that the current level of wages being paid is more than the wages prescribed by the government notifications issued from time to time,” Shahi added.

The AFWA wrote in the report that Unit 44 maintains a division under the human resources department to handle workers’ grievances but that the employees themselves lacked any faith in their ability to address their issues.

“They accused these committees of being biased toward the management and being anti-worker,” the report said. “Workers complained that they had no voice in the meetings convened, and only workers who were friendly with the management are made part of them. It was mentioned that the management themselves drafted the reports produced by these committees with no worker input, merely for meeting auditing requirements.”

Shahi disputed this, saying that grievance-redressal mechanisms such as suggestion boxes, committees, and helplines, including an SMS and voice communication tool called Inache, abound for workers to express any grouses. Workers can also directly approach human resources for assistance, it said.

“All workers are trained on how to use these mechanisms,” Shahi said. “The escalation matrix is displayed in a hierarchy chart on the shop floor for easy access to remediation (a standard practice across Shahi and mandated by law). A refresher training for all workers on how to access and track the status of their grievances is also underway.”

The AFWA said, however, that it expects Shahi’s brass to engage in “meaningful dialogue” with worker representatives and the AFWA to address “statutory violations, unfair labor practices and retaliation against its workers.” It also said that Shahi is “no stranger” to labor-rights violations and that media and fact-finding investigations have documented many of these.

“Workers in these factories have accused the Shahi management of violations ranging from indulging in criminal violence against workers, (in a Shahi facility in Karnataka, managers physically assaulted 10 workers who organized with a trade union), refusing to pay decent wages, retaliating against workers for unionizing, to creating a culture of impunity around sexual and verbal harassment,” the report said.

Still, Shahi insists it’s compliant with all national laws, international labor standards and brands’ codes of conduct.

“We hope to always pursue our goal of being ethical as we grow to create more jobs to better the welfare prospects of our workers and their families,” it said. “We are open to hearing from responsible stakeholders and working together to resolve critical issues in the industry. However, while we welcome AFWA as a stakeholder partner and are open to dialogue, we assert that AFWA has made several factual errors in its report.”