Tamil Nadu’s exploited garment workers need help from British justice

Eighteen months ago the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers, and prompting global shock and outrage.

Companies responded by promising to improve their act: more than 150 international retailers signed up to the Bangladesh accord on fire and building safety, a legally binding agreement designed to make factories safer for workers.

As a result of the accord, garment factories in Bangladesh are now being properly inspected for the first time, bringing key safety issues to light.

Although not everything is resolved – victims and families of people killed in the disaster are still waiting for full compensation – the accord does at least show that companies can be made to acknowledge and act upon their supply-chain responsibility.

MDG : Woman working at spinning wheel in a weaving factory, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India
Spinning mills in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu supply a number of well-known European and US brands and retailers. Photograph: Alamy

The problem is that the accord covers only garment factories in Bangladesh, and focuses on safety. Other important labour rights issues persist in Bangladesh, and in many other countries that are part of the global garment supply chain, such as India, Pakistan, China and Cambodia.

Flawed fabrics, a report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Somo) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), shows that in spinning mills in Tamil Nadu, in south India, teenage girls and young women are working under conditions that amount to slavery and the worst forms of child labour.

The mills supply a number of well-known European and US brands and retailers. Two of the five mills export yarn and fabrics to garment factories in Bangladesh that are covered by the accord.

One hundred and fifty workers from five spinning mills were interviewed for the report, which reveals that girls as young as 15 are being recruited from marginalised Dalit communities in impoverished rural areas in India. They are lured with promises of decent jobs, good wages and a lump-sum payment. But the reality is a 68-hour working week, poverty wages, no contracts or payslips, and being locked inside factory and dormitory compounds during working and non-working hours.

Trade unions and labour rights organisations are ignored – or repressed – leaving workers with no means of expressing their grievances. Corporate inspections are failing to detect these serious labour rights violations and are often only carried out at end-manufacturing units. As a result, the dominant business model for many retailers – flexible production, low prices and fast deliveries – translates into highly precarious working conditions, particularly in low-cost countries.

This is not the first time that the abuse of young women and girls in garment supply chains in Tamil Nadu has been highlighted. What the report lays bare is the lack of corporate commitment when it comes to addressing labour rights abuses in the supply chain. All corporate actors in the global garment supply chain – from spinning mills to fashion brands, from business associations to banks providing credit – should map their supply chains, scale up due-diligence activities, allow trade unions and civil society organisations to play their designated roles, and integrate their corporate accountability commitments into their sourcing practices.

But action by the brands needs to be complemented by action by governments. There is an opportunity to level the playing field to ensure that leading companies that are taking steps to respect workers in their supply chains are not undermined by those that are not.

In line with its commitments under the business and human rights action plan published last year, the UK government needs to set out what it will do to ensure access to justice for victims such as the young women in Tamil Nadu. And it needs to tackle the specific issue of modern slavery in supply chains.

The modern-day slavery bill is going through parliament now, and the government has announced that it will table an amendment to require companies to report on what they are doing to eradicate slavery in their supply chains. This is a welcome development, but parliament needs to make sure that the new law leads to real change on the ground.

However, transparency isn’t enough, and will not directly help the victims. Where there have been clear abuses of people’s rights that result wholly or partly from the decisions of UK companies, the victims should be able to get justice and see the companies held to account in the UK. This would change the culture of impunity within brands’ and retailers’ sourcing decisions.

Access to justice in the UK could provide victims with a remedy as a parallel option to the slow, sometimes biased justice systems in low-cost sourcing countries. All the UK political parties should be clear about what they plan to do to hold UK companies to account in Britain. Somo, ICN and Traidcraft demand that companies stop taking decisions that result in people being abused overseas.

 -Fiona Gooch is a senior policy adviser at Traidcraft. Martje Theuws and Pauline Overeem are researchers at the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Somo) (Courtesy – The Guardian)