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Supply Chain
‘Unfree and Unfair’ Report Prompts Brand Commitments to Improve Labor Conditions

Labor conditions in the apparel industry are an ongoing struggle even for brands with substantial purchasing power.

Labor conditions in the apparel industry are an ongoing struggle even for brands with substantial purchasing power. Since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013, dozens of brands and industry organizations have committed to various approaches to ensuring worker safety and improving wages, but progress has been slow and conditions remain largely untenable Now, a new report has revealed yet more unfair treatment of garment factory workers.

Bangalore, India is a major hub for the apparel industry and a city where up to 80 percent of garment workers are believed to be migrant workers, who are particularly vulnerable to unfair treatment since they often do not speak the local language and rely on company-provided accommodations. A recent investigation targeted four garment factories in Bangalore – suppliers of GAP, H&M, C&A, and Inditex, the parent company of Zara – and found that the factory-owned hostels provided inadequate living conditions and restricted freedom of movement.

The paper Unfree and Unfair, released in January by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), includes a collection of evidence from a mix of desk research, interviews with over 110 factory workers, and interviews with members of the Garment Labour Union (GLU) in Bangalore.

“Nothing is good. But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way,” one worker explained.

Women workers are only allowed to leave the hostel once a week, usually for two hours on Sundays to purchase groceries or other essential items. They must register with a security guard before they are allowed to leave, and all of their departure and return times (including when they are leaving to go to work) are recorded by the guards. While at work, they are regularly scolded by their supervisors, but most workers are afraid to talk about any abuse they might be facing and have no effective means of pursuing grievance redressal.

The facilities reportedly lack basic amenities, such as proper furniture, cupboards, beds and mattresses, and in most cases, money is deducted from the workers’ salary for accommodation, electricity and water. To make matters worse, migrant workers are sometimes over-charged for these accommodations compared to local workers. For example, one factory had separate hostels for migrant workers from North India, who paid around €27 (about US $29.50) for food and accommodation, while local workers paid around €19 (about US $20.70) per month for the same in their own hostels.

On average the garment workers receive between roughly US $103.70 and $125.50 per month, which just above the official minimum wage range between roughly US $101.50 and $112.50 that went into effect on April 1, 2015. The ICN asserts that these wages still do not add up to a decent living wage.

With the exception of GAP, all of the multinational brands sourcing from the garment factories have promised to take action.

C&A, H&M and Inditex announced to work together toward a coordinated and collaborative approach to improve the living conditions of the migrant garment workers, according to ICN. They plan to work with the GLU and Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), as well as local NGO Gram Tarang, to implement a training and grievance handling system, review curfew regulations at hostels, investigate conditions, and reinforce compliance with existing guidelines, among other measures. They have also said that they will engage with the wider industry to establish and implement comprehensive standards for recruitment, accommodation, grievance handling, training and development of migrant workers.

These brands are no stranger to this issue. Zara is one of the best-known fast fashion clothiers, receiving new products as often as twice a week. H&M, despite its leadership in the circular economy movement and commitment to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, has been accused of dragging its feet on worker safety. The retailer has frequently missed deadlines for remediation work in its supplier factories, including the installation of fire doors.

These failures have often overshadowed brands' attempts to tackle labor conditions. The web of subcontractors makes eliminating the issue – or even knowing where their products are being made – incredibly difficult. Among their latest efforts, C&A launched an online challenge in partnership with Ashoka Changemakers in September (for which the finalists will be announced on February 17); and H&M joined a group of some of the world’s largest retailers, NGOs and industry groups in October to launch the Social and Labor Convergence Project, an initiative that aims to establish a standardized methodology for social and labor performance in apparel and footwear supply chains.