The National Peoples Tribunal on the Right to a Living Wage took place in India last week

The 'National People's Tribunal on the Right to a Living Wage' took place in India last week

International brands and retailers are being urged to address "human rights abuses" faced by workers in the Indian garment industry after a tribunal staged last week heard testimonies from over 250 workers on pay and conditions.

The verdict follows a mock trial-like event in Bangalore, where a panel of judges found overwhelming evidence of "grave and systematic violations of individual and collective human rights" suffered by garment workers.

They are now calling for immediate action from a variety of stakeholders on issues such as a living wage and decent working conditions.

"You end up like a machine working on a machine," one 36-year-old garment worker said about the production targets at factories producing for high street brands such as Gap, H&M and Next.

Illegal compulsory overtime, systematic denial of social security payments, sexual harassment and gender discrimination, as well as active suppression of the right to freedom of association in the industry, were also said to be prevalent. 

Workers generally confirmed that their salaries came in below living wage levels to support themselves and their families - and that to meet their basic needs many are compelled to do long hours of overtime.

Campaigners say wages below poverty levels are an on-going problem in the Indian garment industry, which exports EUR7284m of clothing for European consumers each year.

The monthly minimum wage for garment workers in Bangalore is INR4472 (US$81), which is said to be only 43% of a living wage enough to support a family. Minimum wages for garment workers should be fixed at INR12,000 (US$216), labour groups say.

Another common problem is what many workers call "wage theft" through underpayment, non-payment, late payment and illegal deductions. Overtime hours are often underestimated, and paid at a single rate instead of the statutory double rate. 

All testimonies pointed to long working days of up to 12 hours or more. And many also noted there is no provision for holidays, no leave or sick leave, and that working on Sundays is common.

A vase number of workers in the Indian garment sector only have casual employment status, shifting from temporary jobs between factories with few of the entitlements that come with longer-term employment agreements.

And a large majority are migrants, 'supplied' by labour brokers, violating basic International Labor Organization (ILO) principles that workers should not be charged for services provided by labour agents.

The role of brands and retailers
One of the main concerns is the relentless pace of work - and the role played by brands and retailers in their demands for fast turnaround.

Workers cut short their breaks, and even avoid drinking water so they do not need to use the toilet, to try to meet unattainable production targets demanded by manufacturers chasing the tight lead times set by their customers.

In Gurgaon, workers reported overtime rates of up to 40 hours a week or 200 hours a month due to pressure to meet targets.

From a retailer's perspective, representatives from Swedish fashion brand H&M told the tribunal they work with about 700 suppliers in India, and have a head office in Bangalore with 128 employees, including a special section on sustainability.

The firm said it recognised "industry wide" problems such as overtime (with just 17% suppliers compliant on this score), high levels of contract workers especially around Delhi, and the issue of fair or living wages. 

But the retailer described its relationship with suppliers overall as "cat and mouse" - lacking in trust yet nonetheless placing responsibility on them to maintain labour and other standards. H&M also emphasised the need to train suppliers to take more responsibility for upholding rights.

Although its inspection visits are often presented as "surprise inspections", the "practical problems" of keeping them unannounced mean factories are likely to be spruced up ahead of the team visits.

Workers also complain they are not being integrated in the inspection process, and often have to make testimonies in front of management representatives.

"Indifferent" attitude
As well as calling for action to be taken by Indian government, state officials and labour officers, other stakeholders were slated for their "attitude of non-response, if not indifference."

Despite their claims to promote transparency and to comply with codes of conduct, international brands, national employers and suppliers were all criticised for their lack of action.

Codes of conduct are "strictly internal, not open to authorities and consumers, without reliable or timely data, never going beyond statements about future 'pilot experiments' which are never implemented," the tribunal said.

It added that this non-transparency provides "a specific and powerful mechanism to avoid being accountable."

"Brands have to recognise that complicity in the violation of the basic rights of workers, the myth of surprise inspections by their representatives, the need for skill training to stabilise the workforce, and their own role in the setting of impossibly high production targets.

"Moreover, they must confront the myth that their profitability and competitiveness will be negatively affected by wage increases.

"Unless these are taken into account, our recommendations to them would remain a mockery: where human rights are violated, their declarations of goodwill imply an unwillingness to change. 

"Rather than empty gestures of goodwill, this Jury demands more credibility on the part of employers by participating in a genuine dialogue with parity among all stakeholders."

Anannya Bhattacharjee, co-ordinator of the International Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which helped stage the 'National People's Tribunal on the Right to a Living Wage', said the event "reveals a chasm between the CSR speak of international garment companies and the real situation faced by Asian garment workers."