NEW DELHI, India — A report released by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international alliance of trade unions and labor-rights activists, has alleged persistent abuses at San Francisco-based Gap’s supplier factories in India, Indonesia and Cambodia.
The report, which surveyed 150 workers across the three countries, noted that “significant gaps remained in stemming abuses” across the company’s supply chain, “despite its widely publicized commitments to stem these.”
Calling for a binding regulation of the global supply chain by the International Labor Organization, which will meet to discuss the issue later this month, Anannya Bhattacharjee of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance told WWD that the report on Gap was symbolic of a larger problem.
“The problem is larger than The Gap. The global supply chain needs a binding regulation. Rights violations are fundamentally linked to the structure of the global garment value chain. The ILO must also take action, set global standards across industries and pass a binding convention to regulate global supply chains.”
She said this was an important need that had not been sufficiently addressed since global supply chains began. “However, the employers’ lobby has not allowed the ILO to hold the discussion. It is high time this is done,” she observed, adding that after the scale of the Rana Plaza disaster, when more than 1,100 workers lost their lives after an eight-story building collapsed in Bangladesh in April 2013, many of these matters have come to the forefront.
The report on Gap is part of a series on “Workers’ Voice From Global Supply Chains: A Report to the ILO 2016,” detailing supply chain malpractices and recommendations for the ILO to amend them through binding regulation.
On Thursday, Asia Floor Wage Alliance published a similar report on Swedish retailer H&M citing human rights and labor abuses for workers in factories in Cambodia and India.
A similar report on Wal-Mart is expected shortly.
Asked why these particular companies had been chosen, Bhattacharjee claimed the companies were in the habit of “whitewashing issues” and citing many of the issues as “common problems linked to the long term while workers are suffering.”
The report on H&M, based on interviews with 251 factory workers in Cambodia and India, noted that workers faced problems such as low wages, fixed-term contracts, forced overtime and losing their jobs if pregnant.
The report cited long working hours as an endemic problem, with Indian workers reportedly working at least nine to 17 hours a day, and Cambodian workers doing two hours of overtime daily, which was expected by employers.
Termination of employment due to pregnancy was cited as a common problem. “All 50 workers interviewed in H&M’s Indian supplier factories reported that women are fired from their jobs during a pregnancy. Workers from 11 out of the 12 H&M supplier factors surveyed in Cambodia, who are predominantly women, reported witnessing or experiencing termination of employment during pregnancy,” the report noted.
The report also cited the illegal use of short-term contracts, with nine out of 11 H&M supplier factories in Phnom Penh surveyed continuing to employ workers on fixed duration contracts, despite H&M’s stated commitment to change these policies.
Sexual harassment was also cited as a major concern, with workers from nine out of 12 factories surveyed reportedly experiencing sexual harassment in their workplaces. “Only 27 out of 201 workers expressed having knowledge of a mode of addressing harassment within their workplaces,” the report said.
It also pointed to the failure of paying a living wage to workers.
“H&M proudly announced reduced overtimes, higher wages and increased worker satisfaction in the company’s living wage pilot programs. However, these outcomes are impossible to verify, as H&M has refused to disclose the names of these model factories or the methodology for determining wages,” said Athit Kong, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union. “Further, despite their much-publicized partnerships with groups working to improve conditions across the supply chain, information about actions taken under these collaborations is not easily available.”
In response, H&M commented that the report “raises important issues and we are dedicated to contributing to positive long-term development for the people working in the textile industry in our sourcing markets. The issues addressed in the report are industrywide problems. They are often difficult to address as an individual company and we firmly believe that collaboration is key. That is why partnerships with organizations such as the ILO, Better Work, SIDA as well as global and local trade unions are important.”
Pointing out that H&M signed a unique General Framework Agreement with the global union IndustriALL Global Union and the Swedish trade union IF Metall in November, the company noted: “We share the belief that collaboration and a well-functioning dialogue between the parties on the labor market is necessary for lasting improvements for the garment workers in all areas of working conditions. H&M has been working actively for many years to help strengthen the textile workers’ situation.
“The long-term process of improving the textile industry continues step-by-step. The continued presence of long-term, responsible buyers is vital to the future development of countries such as Cambodia and India, and we want to continue to contribute to increased improvements in these markets,” the company commented.
Many of the problems cited for the supplier factories for Gap were similar.
The problems with all four factories supplying to the Gap investigated in India included the employment of a non-standard or a short-term contract workforce and workers who work on piece-rate. “An estimated 60 to 80 percent of the garment workforce is employed as contract workers, who lack job security, social security benefits and freedom of association,” the report said.
Payments for overtime work were not consistent with national standards, even while the minimum wages were met causing underpayment of total earned wages, the report said, pointing out that wages for workers producing Gap garments in these production hubs consistently fell far short of living wages. It also focused on the fact that workers were “forced to do overtime and could not refuse it, with reported penalties for refusing overtime including dismissal from work and physical and verbal abuse.”
“Health consequences faced by workers in India’s garment industry include respiratory illnesses, including silicosis from sandblasting, tuberculosis and ergonomic issues such as back pain,” the report noted.
Other points included the violent suppression of workers who mobilized to demand a living wage and sexual harassment, including sexual comments and advances, inappropriate touching and bodily contact initiated by both managers and male coworkers encountered by one in five garment workers.
“Gap has publicly committed to several initiatives for improving the lives of employees worldwide and has declared stringent monitoring mechanisms in its factories. There are severe shortcomings in their implementation,” Ismet Inoni, head of the Department of Advocacy, Federation of Independent Trade Unions — Indonesia, said in a statement. Among these, she listed several reasons, including the company policy of not disclosing factory locations, its failure to include subcontracted factories or those that do not produce goods year-round where a majority of abuses occur and that a monitoring report had not been released since 2012.
Both reports have a set of recommendations.
“These recommendations — which include, for the first time, an outline for an international, cross-border living wage — are essential in improving the lives of billions of workers in Asia, the United States and worldwide,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice.