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

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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

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