A report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) has exposed appalling labor conditions within 5 spinning mills in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India.
Researchers for the two labor-rights NGOs interviewed approximately 30 workers at each of the 5 mills and reported evidence of bonded labor, unsanitary conditions, 68-hour working weeks, and humiliating disciplinary procedures. The mills named in the report are Best Cotton Mills, Jeyavishnu Spintex, Premier Mills, Sulochana Cotton Spinning Mills, and Super Spinning Mills.
Immediately following the report’s appearance, retailers outside India with direct or indirect connections to the mills began to respond to the alleged revelations.
H&M, whose garments contain yarn sourced from Super Spinning Mills, “blacklisted” the mill immediately, and released the following statement: “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… This will mean that H&M requires that our suppliers do not order yarn from this spinning mill for H&M orders.”
As H&M’s statement suggests, while Western retailers may not directly receive products from mills engaging in exploitative practices, their suppliers may. The lack of transparency in the supply chain means retailers can end up supporting “Sumangali work,” or the exploitation of young girls by means of a lure of a lump sum of money, indirectly.
Primark, another retailer named in the report, works with contractors who source yarn from Jeyavishnu Spintex. Like H&M, Primark responded to the report by pointing out that retailers have “little leverage” over the practices of second-tier spinning mills. They did, however, accept that Jeyavishnu “has issues that need rectification and [Primark] will continue to work with them to resolve them.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced Western companies are advocating as effectively for transparency as they ought to. While failing to claim responsibility for the lower ends of their supply chain, companies still benefit from low-cost yarn. One of the problems the report highlights is precisely the failure of retailers to audit their second-tier suppliers: “Business efforts are failing to address labor rights violations effectively. Corporate auditing is not geared towards detecting forced labor and other major labor rights infringements,” writes researcher Martje Theuws.
Rather than letting British and American companies blacklist or “worth with” exploitative spinning mills as they see fit, Martje Theuws, Pauline Overeem, and Fiona Gooch – writing in The Guardian – argue that all companies need to be made legally accountable for their direct and indirect sourcing practices.
The victims of Sumangali, they write, need more than supply-chain transparency, but legal protection in British courts: “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.”
Too complex to answer here is the legal question as to whether the abuse of people’s rights in Tamil Nadu results partly from the sourcing decisions of UK companies – or if, as H&M and Primark seem to want to suggest, it’s mainly the responsibility of local spinning mills.