When it comes to ending worker exploitation in the global garment supply chain, brands, it would appear, are their own worst enemy. That includes major companies like Adidas, H&M, Nike, Primark and Walmart, according to a new report from British researchers who found that “irresponsible” sourcing practices such as narrow production time windows, pricing squeezes and inconsistent production orders make it difficult for local suppliers to improve working conditions.
“Decent Work and Economic Growth in the Southern Indian Garment Industry,” published Wednesday by the University of Bath, the University of Sheffield and Royal Holloway, University of London, hones in on the South Indian garment industry surrounding Tirupur, which generates up to 50 percent of all knitwear exports from India, but is facing increasing competition from countries with cheaper labor, like Bangladesh and Ethiopia. This means brands can force prices down, the report’s authors said, “leaving little scope for further ethical improvements.”
Researchers drew on 135 interviews and follow-up consultations with businesses, workers, non-governmental organizations, labor unions and government agencies for the report, which concludes that while top-down initiatives have led to some improvements in working conditions, they have failed to weed out even the worst forms of exploitation.
“Workers told us about extensive and shocking violations of their rights, including routine disregard for health and safety standards, restricted freedom of movement and verbal abuse,” Genevieve LeBaron, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and co-director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, said in a statement. “They also reported incidents of child and bonded labor, and told us how they suffered from gender discrimination, unfair pay, a lack of contracts and limited freedom to speak, among other violations of their rights.”
Researchers also heard from manufacturers who complained about major global brands demanding an end to bad labor practices on one hand but unwilling to change their practices to support improvements on the other.
“Brands can’t have it both ways,” LeBaron said. “They are demanding ethical labor practices and living wages from suppliers, but they aren’t paying enough or changing their business models to make these possible. It’s crucial that these companies recognize the impact of their requests for cheap, fast fashion on the people who make their clothes.”
The report called into question the effectiveness of social audits. One factory owner described certification systems as “the mafia”—they’re expensive and are necessary to retain customers but add little value in the end. Most of the workers interviewed had never witnessed a social audit, or if they had, were not directly approached by inspectors, researchers said. Workers who have been questioned by auditors said they were coached on what to say. Safety precautions or equipment, they noted, might be trotted out for the duration of the inspection but disappear as soon as the auditors leave.
Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Researchers also uncovered promising strategies by several mill and factory owners to improve labor conditions without audits.
“Business owners are bringing in initiatives to upskill workers, branding and product differentiation and investment in automation and cost-saving technologies—all of which have the potential to improve labor standards,” said Laura Spence, professor of business ethics at Royal Holloway, University of London. “They are changing their recruitment strategies, for example providing free transportation services to pick up and drop off workers as a strategy to avoid the risks of hostels which tend to restrict workers’ freedom of movement. And they are relocating manufacturing, so that workers can remain closer to home, where they have lower living costs and support from their families and communities.”
But more can still be done, which is why the researchers are calling for the formation of a task force in Tirupur, led by an independent organization or chair, to tackle labor issues in the industry, including freedom of movement, health and safety and worker-driven social responsibility.
“Brands need to ensure that local businesses are supported in their efforts to pursue decent work, and are not, as is all too often the case, squeezed by buyer demands that push them towards more exploitative practices,” said Andrew Crane, professor of business and society at the University of Bath’s School of Management.