WASHINGTON — A new report alleging “modern-day slavery” in five Indian textile mills prompted at least three of the Western retailers — H&M, Primark and C&A — linked to the factories on Tuesday to pledge to take either punitive or remedial action.
The report, “Flawed Fabrics,” was released by the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands, two human and labor rights nongovernmental organizations based in the Netherlands, detailing alleged egregious abuses found at Indian textile spinning mills in Tamil Nadu, considered a major hub in the global textile and knitwear industry.
Based on in-depth interviews with 150 workers at the five mills, researchers said they found some of the worst abuses of garment workers in the world, ranging from forced and bonded labor imprisoning the workers in virtual slavery to deplorable working conditions and the worst forms of child labor, according to the report.
The mills named in the report are Best Cotton Mills, a cotton yarn spinner and knitwear maker employing 5,000 people; Jeyavishnu Spintex, the spinning division of a vertically integrated knitwear manufacturer named K.M. Knitwear; Premier Mills, part of The Premier Group, a manufacturer and exporter of fine-combed cotton yarn employing 5,000 workers; Sulochana Cotton Spinning Mills, part of The Sulochana Group, producing cotton yarns and employing 1,500 workers, and Super Spinning Mills, part of the Sara Elgi Group, producing 100 percent cotton yarn.
Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 mills, with a workforce of more than 400,000 workers, according to the report. Sixty percent of the labor force consists of girls and young women.
The young women and girls toiling in the five mills told researchers they were lured away from their villages on the promise of decent jobs and wages, but instead were forced to work without a contract or pay slips up to 60 hours a week or more year-round, were not allowed to leave hostels where they lived without supervision, were forced to endure “humiliating” disciplinary measures and work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Conditions were said to be so extreme and severe that one 14-year-old girl reportedly committed suicide in March and another threatened to kill herself, according to the report.
In addition, the mills recruited workers on the promise of paying them a lump sum at the end of their contracts, but there was no form of a written contract and workers often did not know how much was owed to them.
The practice in India is known as a “Sumangali Scheme,” which has been used by textile and garment producers to “keep workers in a position of bonded labor.” Often the majority of workers are “Dalit” girls who are younger than 18, come from poor families and agree to work for a lump sum of money to be paid out when their contract is complete and so that it can be used for their dowry, said the report.
H&M said it plans to “blacklist” Super Spinning Mills. The retailer said it is not a strategic mill and does not have a direct business agreement with H&M. The indirect connection is through one of H&M’s suppliers in Bangladesh that has ordered yarns from Super Spinning, H&M said.
“As this third-tier spinning mill is unwilling to cooperate with H&M in a transparent way and since we have come so far in our transparency work, we see no other option than to blacklist Super Spinning Mills,” the company said. “This will mean that H&M requires that our suppliers do not order yarn from this spinning mill for H&M orders.”
The retailer said, “Sumangali and all forms of forced or bonded labor are totally unacceptable…and not compliant with our code of conduct.” The company said the practice mainly occurs in third-tier suppliers over which it does not have direct influence.
“Therefore, we acknowledge the need of an industry multistakeholder approach,” said H&M, noting that it is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative that addresses exploitative labor practices in Tamil Nadu’s garment and textile sector, particularly those associated with those types of schemes.
Primark denied any links to the Sulochana mill, as alleged in the report, but acknowledged that contractors supplying apparel to the British firm source from Jeyavishnu.
“The company notes that working and employment conditions there are generally better than in the other mills surveyed in the report,” Primark said. “However, Primark accepts that this mill has issues that need rectification and will continue to work with them to resolve them.”
Primark said retailers often do not have direct relationships with spinning mills in their supply chains, which means they have “little leverage” over them.
The retailer also said it plans to implement at Jeyavishnu “as soon as possible” a program it has with Verité, an international NGO and member of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, called “Fair Hiring, Fair Labor.” The program was launched in 2012 to build management systems capacity and internal self-monitoring and provide practical guidance and tool kits for recruiters, screen brokers and labor agents, and provide on-site management and monitor hostel management.
“Sumangali is completely unacceptable and could result in the termination of a relationship should we find that the system exists in our suppliers’ operations,” said C&A, linked indirectly to Best Cotton. The company said it has made a commitment to ensure that the system of Sumangali is “eradicated in India,” but noted that without the support of local partners “it will not be possible to abolish the system.”
Hanesbrands does business with Best Corp., parent of Best Cotton Mills, for production of certain types of underwear. The company said it will “thoroughly review the report, conduct an appropriate investigation and review its findings with the Fair Labor Association,” of which it is a member. Hanesbrands said outside audits have been conducted on Best Corp. and it is in “good standing.”
“Our compliance program goal is to work with facilities to drive continuous improvement, but we will stop doing business with a factory if it fails to correct deficiencies in a timely manner or if we discover “zero-tolerance” issues such as child labor, sexual or physical assault or auditor bribery,” the company said. “We have disapproved 25 factories in 2014 alone.”
Costco Wholesale, also named in the report and tied to Best Cotton Mills, did not respond to a request for comment.