Top fashion brands’ business practices are undermining progress on ending garment worker exploitation

  • New report reveals major brands’ demands for cheap, fast fashion make it harder for suppliers to provide decent working conditions
  • South Indian garment workers described cases of child and bonded labour, and violations of basic rights in supply chains for brands such as Nike, H&M and Primark
  • Researchers call for new taskforce to address issues around freedom of movement, health and safety, and worker-driven social responsibility

Top fashion companies that are pledging to end worker exploitation in their global supply chains are hampering progress through their own irresponsible sourcing practices, according to a new report.

Experts at the Universities of Sheffield, Bath and Royal Holloway, University of London, found that major brands impose short production windows, cost pressures and constant order fluctuations. These make it difficult for local suppliers to comply with the standards of working conditions that companies including Nike, H&M, Adidas, Primark and Walmart expect.

The report focused on the South Indian garment industry clustered around Tirupur, which accounts for 45-50 per cent – around $3.6 billion in 2017 – of all knitwear exports from India. Suppliers in the region have improved their working conditions over the past decade. However, heightened competition from lower-cost countries like Bangladesh and Ethiopia has meant that brands can force prices down, leaving little scope for further ethical improvements.

The research found that social audits, intended to call out exploitation, are frequently manipulated and cheated by suppliers in order to retain business with brands. Suppliers complain that such ethical certification systems are too costly and add little value.

Interviews with more than 135 business leaders, workers, NGOs, unions and government agencies in the state of Tamil Nadu during 2018 uncovered considerable evidence that while top-down initiatives from brands have led to some improvements in working conditions, they have failed to eradicate labour exploitation.

Professor Genevieve LeBaron, co-author of the report and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, said: “Workers told us about extensive and shocking violations of their rights including routine disregard for health and safety standards, restricted freedom of movement and verbal abuse. They also reported incidents of child and bonded labour, and told us how they suffered from gender discrimination, unfair pay, a lack of contracts, and limited freedom to speak, among other violations of their rights.

“Brands can’t have it both ways. They are demanding ethical labour practices and living wages from suppliers, but they aren’t paying enough or changing their business models to make these possible. It’s crucial that these companies recognise the impact of their requests for cheap, fast fashion on the people who make their clothes.”

Andrew Crane, co-author and Professor of Business and Society at the University of Bath’s School of Management, said: “When we interviewed manufacturers who supply knitwear to major global brands they explained that brands are growing louder in their demands for an end to bad labour practices but they are unwilling to alter their commercial practices to support improvements.

“Brands need to ensure that local businesses are supported in their efforts to pursue decent work, and are not, as is all too often the case, squeezed by buyer demands that push them towards more exploitative practices.”

The researchers did find some cause for optimism from businesses at the bottom of the supply chain – especially mill owners and garment factories – who are pioneering strategies to eradicate exploitation that do not simply rely on audits.

Laura Spence, co-author and Professor of Business Ethics at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “Business owners are bringing in initiatives to upskill workers, branding and product differentiation and investment in automation and cost-saving technologies – all of which have the potential to improve labour standards.

“They are changing their recruitment strategies, for example providing free transportation services to pick up and drop off workers as a strategy to avoid the risks of hostels which tend to restrict workers’ freedom of movement. And they are relocating manufacturing, so that workers can remain closer to home, where they have lower living costs and support from their families and communities.”

The researchers are calling for the formation of a new taskforce in Tirupur to solve the labour issues facing the industry, led by an independent organisation or chair. They highlight three key issues to achieve decent work and economic growth: freedom of movement, health and safety, and worker-driven social responsibility – and have made 12 recommendations to achieve this.

The report, Decent Work and Economic Growth in the Southern Indian Garment Industry, is part of the British Academy’s international programme, Tackling Slavery, Human Trafficking and Child Labour in Modern Business, funded by the British Academy in partnership with the UK Department for International Development.

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