NGOs Spare No One in the Supply Chain with a Series of Reports
• India has been targeted for specific issues and factories • Worker organisations criticised for not doing their work properly • Brands hauled up for overlooking violations
In the last one year, a dozen or so reports have been released by various NGOs, or what the international media calls ‘watchdog agencies’ on labour rights’ violations in garment manufacturing countries. The common thread that runs through all the reports is that despite claims to the contrary, workers are still facing many issues, including harassment and physical abuse at factories. Even retailers are many a time turning a blind eye to get products as per their lead time and price point requirements. Though the concern for the workers is justified and more changes do need to happen, the way these reports are put together and presented is questionable, as is the intention behind the reports.
This is not the first time, nor is this the last time when the authenticity and credibility of a report is being questioned. In the past also, Apparel Online had dug deep into these reports and even presented viewpoints of companies mentioned in the report. More often than not, these companies refute the allegations made and claim that their side of the story is not presented, some even altogether reject the methodology used to collect the data. Readers may recall that in March 2016, the report ‘Unfree and Unfair’ released by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), an independent NGO, made some serious allegations against India’s top exporters in Bangalore that run hostel facilities for their workers. The report claimed that the garment workers still face serious issues like poor living conditions and restricted freedom of movement despite commitments from big brands to address these problems.
Apparel Online was unconvinced about the findings of the report and contacted the companies mentioned for direct clarification. As expected the feedback was of disbelief and anger against the intention of the report, an indication of how NGOs are systematically ruining the reputation of exporters and the country in particular. What was most disturbing and is true for almost all reports that are released by ‘Watch Groups’ is that the report was based mostly on desk research, hearsay and interviews with some migrant workers working in the named factories. The number of workers interviewed were also too few per company to justify a generic statement of non-compliance; and most importantly, the companies; were not contacted for their feedback…; both factors raise doubt on the ‘real’ intention of the report.
The WRC report hits directly at India’s largest exporter…
The various reports released in the last one year are no different, the most talked about report being
the Worker Rights Consortium Assessment Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd. (Bangalore, India) Findings And Recommendations – released in June. Rarely do we see a report that is so pointed and specific to a company. Many damaging allegations have been made, as the report claims that mid-level professionals of the export house threatened and misbehaved with the workers who were asking for increase in wages. There are serious allegations of abuse and violence on the managers of the company.
“An investigation by the WRC has found that from late March through mid-April 2018, the management of Shahi Exports was engaged in a campaign of vicious repression and retaliation against workers’ exercise of fundamental labour rights, which included physical beatings; death threats; gender, caste, and religionbased abuse; threats of mass termination; and the expulsion of 15 worker activists from the factory. The violations occurred at Shahi’s Unit 8 factory in Bangalore, in the course of a deliberate effort by Shahi to repress the organisation of a union at the factory and, relatedly, prevent an increase in garment workers’ wages,” the report reads.
In response to Apparel Online’s query for clarification on the news of allegations made by WRC, Anant Ahuja, Director, Shahi Exports came forward to put the records straight. “Shahi does not agree with the allegations made in the report. This report lacks proper evidence and is one-sided. It is a partial account of what we have done on the matter, as WRC decided to release the report while our internal investigations and actions were underway. They have also outrightly refused to accept local Government and judicial authorities and are propagating allegations based on solely their own investigation,” he said forcefully.
Going deeper into the accusations, Anant pointed out that the allegations made against Shahi managers of beating, verbal abuse, including caste and religion-based, are all criminal offences. Caste and religion-based allegations have entitlement to upfront bail provisions not available to accused persons. A police complaint was registered by the employees on the day of the event. The state police have since carried out investigation as mandated under law. “We remain in support of handling this issue and full cooperation will be given to the authorities,” added Anant. Police authorities, the state agency handling criminal offenses, are yet to conclude their findings. Meanwhile, 34 employees who were present during the event have given a statement to police that these allegations are not true. An independent NGO investigation of over 300 employees was conducted at the factory which did not confirm the allegations of the WRC report.
Taking the situation head-on, the company has taken quick and proactive steps to address the allegations. The 15 employees who were initially suspended by Shahi were offered reinstatement back to the factory with all their wages back for the period under suspension, and according to Shahi management, all rejoined on June 27. The company has also unconditionally expressed regret to the concerned 15 workmen for the hardship caused to them on 4th April and assured them of their commitment toward their safety and comfort at the job.
Further, the Shahi personnel against whom allegations have been made are suspended, and based on an investigation to be carried out by a senior management committee, Shahi has assured that severe punitive action will be taken against them if found guilty. It has been categorically stated that Shahi recognises freedom of expression and has agreed to constructively engage with the Karnataka Garment Workers Union and hold discussions on issues faced by workers.
There were also certain allegations of loss of valuables by some of the workmen, and Shahi has agreed to restore all the valuables and if same cannot be restored, then Shahi has agreed to compensate the financial value of the same. In response to the proactive approach of Shahi management, the local union has agreed to stop all criticism of Shahi in front of the press and social media as their issues have been resolved and to ensure that there is no ambiguity of understanding as Shahi has already entered into a written agreement with the union and the 15 employee representatives concerned mentioning all above points.
The management is confident that the proactive steps taken and the
MoU entered with Union and the 15 workmen representatives should be a clear and irrevocable indication that Shahi does not tolerate any violence or violation of human rights at all. Throughout the company’s unblemished record of 44-year history, there has never been a violent event in any of their factories. “Shahi has always stood for workers advancement, and the company continues to align its growth with the development of people. We have conducted business and grown over the last several decades due to our straight-forwardness and openness in doing business. We affirm our commitment to working together with all stakeholders and would welcome all views, proposals and opinions. It is feedback which allows us to constantly improve. However, we do hope that in expecting us to be more responsible as a business, the stakeholders would not themselves act irresponsibly,” said Anant passionately.
Even the organisations committed to workers and their rights have not been spared…
A report by three international NGOs claims that Social Accountability International (SAI) and Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) have failed to deliver on promises to deal effectively with concrete complaints about abusive labour conditions for girls and young women in the textile and apparel industries of South India. While SAI is a social certification organisation for factories and organisations, ETI is an alliance of companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations working to improve the lives of workers.
‘Case closed, problems persist’, a report of 27 pages by The India Committee of the Netherlands
(ICN), the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), Netherlands, and Homeworkers Worldwide (HWW), UK reads that the grievance mechanisms of ETI and SAI fail to benefit young women and girls in the South Indian textile industries. The factories/spinning mills involved in the complaint procedures under review are working with top global brands.
The report exploreds how concrete complaints were dealt with by ETI and SAI and whether their complaint systems met the standards of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. It further recommends that ETI and SAI urgently improve their procedures in terms of accessibility, legitimacy, transparency, predictability, equitability, and rights-compatibility to help tackle labour abuses.
For many years, these NGOs have been reporting issues in Tamil Nadu (southern Indian state and major textile and apparel production hub, exporting its products to all major brands across the globe). In their current report, it has been insisted that the long and drawn-out way complaints have been handled by both ETI and SAI has not resulted in tangible improvements for young women workers. “ETI did not take a leading role in settling the complaint. This was mostly left to the complainant and the ETI member company. There is no evidence that the grievance procedure improved labour conditions in the spinning mills and factories concerned,” the report reads.
In the meanwhile, observing the criticality and addressing the reports on garment & textile worker-related cases in the textile hub of south
India – Tamil Nadu, counselling sessions for the workers have been initiated by Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association (TASMA) that represents more than 650 mills. It is hoped that the counselling sessions will help the young talent of the textile industry to release their work-related stress and deal better with the situation. They are also being encouraged to report harassment at workplace.
Work pressure, trauma, ill-treatment and sexual harassment are the major problems being faced by workers employed in textile mills in the state. The workforce, majorly represented by young women, is compelled to work for long hours and forced to live in unauthorised hostels. A series of deaths reported in textile factories and hostels raises questions on safety of the workers. Reports claim that some of the cases related to deaths are ‘suicidal’ and a proper investigation has not been carried out in such cases. In the first three months of this year, 23 such deaths were reported in
Tamil Nadu, especially. Tirupur and Erode districts – collectively known as ‘Textile Valley of India’, where majority of the industry is located.
Brands also not Spared! Latest report on workplace safety slams GAP, H&M, Walmart for gender-based violence in Asian factories
The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) has come up with three separate reports which claim that the women workers who work at the supplier units of leading fashion retail players like H&M, GAP Inc. and Walmart, are at risk of assault, sexual abuse and other harassment every day. Notably, AFWA is a global coalition of trade unions, worker and human rights that is actively working to enhance the lives of garment factory workers in the Asian countries.
The reports by the association claim to have evidence based on the investigation that took place
between January and May this year in nine production hubs across India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia that proves genderbased violence taking place in H&M, Walmart and GAP Inc. apparel supplying factories. The AFWA has presented the results of its investigation to ILO (International Labour Organisation).
H&M reportedly spoke on the issue, and said, “The company believes that violence against women is one of the most rampant human rights violations; this investigation clearly suggests the need of continuously addressing such situations. We will go through every section of the report and follow up on factory-level with our local teams based in each production country,” the retailer maintained. On similar lines, both Gap and
Walmart have also committed to look into the matter and have ensured that such practices will be strictly dealt with. Gap’s official release said, “We are deeply concerned by the allegations raised in this report, and our Global Sustainability team is currently conducting additional due diligence to investigate and address the allegations raised within it. Further, we have initiated a dialogue with some of our key implementing partners, among them CARE, ILO Better Work, and Verité, to discuss how our industry can accelerate its effort to address this global, systemic issue.”
Walmart’s statement mentioned:
“The allegations in the report are concerning, and we welcome the opportunity to identify areas for improvement. Walmart is committed to supporting our suppliers, advocating for workers in the supply chain and helping lead the effort to combat forced labour and human trafficking.” Markedly, AFWA’s investigation in India included factory workers from four cities – Bangalore, Gurgaon, Tirupur and Haryana, the key apparel clusters in the country. Anannya Bhattacharjee, International Coordinator, AFWA reportedly said that the multi-billion dollar companies have failed their workers, employers and consumers. Anannya and her team have been criticised many times for what the industry perceives as anti-industry activities.
It remains to be seen, how ILO and all the three respective brands act on this issue that is constantly tarnishing the image of the industry. The Clean Clothes Campaign, a campaign that aims towards improving the working conditions and empowerment of workers in the global apparel industry, has also expressed its concern over the matter and said that these reports are not just a worrying sign for the three mentioned brands but it is also a reality-check for the whole garment industry.
There needs to be a balance between NGO activities and the improvement monitoring systems, so that real progress can happen on worker issues. No one is denying that problems exist, but these issues can only be addressed by working together for collective identification of problems and brainstorming on solutions, and not by pointing fingers and making individual points to score over each other!
Governments need to look deeply into transparency and other mandatory human rights processes in an apparel company’s supply chain. Only they can impose penalties on noncompliant companies, and only they can set enforceable standards that truly level the playing field for businesses and workers.
Cividep India and Fair Wear Foundation have worked on reducing economic discrimination, training women for supervisory roles