The demand for fast fashion at cheap prices means that brands ramp up penalties and put pressure on suppliers to deliver in short production windows

The demand for fast fashion at cheap prices means that brands ramp up penalties and put pressure on suppliers to deliver in short production windows

A new report has surfaced alleging that many of the top fashion brands pledging to end worker exploitation in supply chains are instead hampering progress through "irresponsible sourcing practices."

The 'Decent Work and Economic Growth in the South Indian Garment Industry' report from the University of Bath explores the working conditions in the Southern Indian garment sector.

It points to issues such as short production windows, cost pressures and constant fluctuations in orders by brands and retailers that make it very difficult for local suppliers to comply with the standards on decent working practice that the companies say they expect.

Of the brands called out, it names Nike, Adidas, Primark, H&M and Walmart. However, a closer look at the report fails to establish specific links between factories where the violations are occurring and the brands sourcing from those factories.

Tirupur "major player" in Indian garment sector

The South Indian garment industry clustered around Tirupur accounts for 45-50% – around $3.6bn 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.

"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," says Andrew Crane, professor of business and society at the University of Bath's School of Management, one of the five authors of the study. 

"Brands do try to improve working conditions in their supply chains but their own sourcing practices often prevent meaningful change from happening. The demand for fast fashion at cheap prices means that brands ramp up penalties and put pressure on suppliers to deliver at low cost in short production windows. This makes it harder for suppliers to comply with the labour standards that brands expect.

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

"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," adds Professor Crane.

The report is based on interviews with over 135 business leaders, workers, NGOs, unions and government agencies in the state of Tamil Nadu during 2018 and claims to have 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."

"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, amongst other violations of their rights," says co-author Genevieve LeBaron, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.

Researchers 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.

"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," adds Laura Spence, professor of business Ethics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

"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.

Brand reaction

Some of the brands mentioned in the report shared their feedback with just-style.

Adidas: "As far as we can see, the report contains no concrete allegations against any of our suppliers that we could look into. Adidas is committed to ensuring fair labour practices, fair wages and safe working conditions in factories throughout our global supply chain."

We audit every supplier's factory at least once a year, sometimes more, to check if our standards are being met

Primark: "It matters hugely to us that our products are made with great care and respect for workers' rights. It's why we have a team of over 110 specialists based in key sourcing countries whose job it is to monitor the standards in our supply chain. Every factory making Primark products must commit to meet our Code of Conduct, which is based on the UN International Labour Organisation's standards, and we audit every supplier's factory at least once a year, sometimes more, to check if our standards are being met."

H&M: "There is no direct link to H&M Group in the report, but we fully agree that responsible purchasing practices are crucial for brands to be able to support the textile and garment industry to develop in a sustainable way, as well as give long-term benefits to garment workers and suppliers. We are therefore continuously working to improve our purchasing practices, making sure we are a fair business partner and that we do business in a responsible way. We regularly ask our suppliers through surveys how they want us to improve and we base our work on this feedback. From 2014 to 2018, the suppliers' perception of H&M group as a fair business partner increased from 76% to 93%. Within the industry approach ACT, where several international brands and the global union IndustriAll collaborate, we are working to develop a shared understanding on what responsible purchasing practices are. By signing ACT's Memorandum of Understanding, H&M group commits to ensure that its purchasing practices support a living wage as well as having long-term partnerships with suppliers."

Walmart and Nike did not return request for comment.