H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Columbia Sportswear, and Benetton all sourced from the factory in India

H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Columbia Sportswear, and Benetton all sourced from the factory in India

A report by an international watchdog group is claiming retailers including H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Columbia Sportswear and Benetton have not done enough to stop the violence and abuse against workers at an Indian clothing factory they all source from.

The investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) found that in late March through mid-April 2018, the management of a garment factory in Bangalore, operated by Shahi Exports Pvt Ltd, engaged in a campaign of "vicious repression and retaliation" against workers' exercise of fundamental labour rights. The group says this included physical beatings, death threats, gender, caste and religion-based abuse, threats of mass termination, and the expulsion from the factory of 15 worker activists.

WRC says the violations occurred in the course of a "deliberate effort" by Shahi to repress the organisation of a union at the factory and prevent an increase in garment workers' wages.

Shahi's Unit 8 facility employs around 3,000 workers, and supplies Columbia Sportswear, Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F), Benetton and H&M. The owner, through its more than 50 other production facilities in India, is also a supplier to a number of other major brands and retailers, including American Eagle, C&A, Gap, Inditex (Zara), Marks & Spencer and Primark. It is India's largest garment manufacturer with more than US$850m in annual revenues.

The WRC says it shared the findings and recommendations in the report with Shahi and the brands that are its business partners, and requested the steps they would take to address the situation.

"Unfortunately, while Shahi has agreed, after the exposure of the violations, to reinstate the workers who were the direct victims of the violence, the company has not agreed – and the brands that are its buyers have not required Shahi – to take the basic steps necessary to ensure that they are able to return safely to the factory and that their fundamental right of freedom of association is restored," WRC said in its report.

"Moreover, and quite troublingly, Shahi's customers have refused to require Shahi's management to terminate those managers, supervisors, and employees responsible for the violence – with the result that all of these individuals are still employed by Shahi, and most are still working inside the Unit 8 factory."

The WRC's investigation involved interviews with more than 30 Shahi workers, as well as with local journalists who covered the violence against workers at the factory.

Recommendations for corrective action and remediation include the reinstatement of workers with back pay, the termination of violent managers, supervisors, and employees, restoration of freedom of association, and the compensation of workers for medical expenses, personal property, and pain and suffering.

Brand response

A spokesperson for H&M said the company was "deeply concerned" by the alleged abuse and that it has an ongoing dialogue with the legal worker representatives, which are supported by IndustriAll Global Union, as well as the supplier.

"We believe it is important the legal parties resolve this dispute and we have, since April, handled this with priority and been facilitating the dialogue between them to find a solution. We can assure you that we are extensively using our leverage, and the situation is now moving in the right direction. On Monday, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU) and the factory management, where the factory management has met many of the demands raised by KOOGU.

"Our position is that the right to join or form a trade union and bargain collectively is a fundamental right of workers. The core to our social sustainability strategy is to support well-functioning dialogue between workers representatives and employers, to strengthen the voice of the workers and to enable these rights. The safety and the well-being of the workers should be a priority at all times. Workers representatives shall not be discriminated against and shall have access to carry out their representative functions in the workplace. Even in absence of a trade union in factories, workers should have means of speaking their voice to raise employment related issues without the risk of retaliation."

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Abercombie & Fitch said the company was "deeply disturbed" by what occurred in Shahi's Unit 8 factory.

"Abercrombie & Fitch Co works to ensure that our products are made in safe and responsible facilities and require all factories with whom we work to follow the standards set forth in our Vendor Code of Conduct. We do not tolerate this type of behaviour and since our receipt of the initial report, our team has been working diligently with our agent to ensure corrective action is taken by the vendor in this factory."

The fashion retailer said it agrees with WRC that the burden is on Shahi to fully live up to the corrective action and that the company has made it clear to its agent the urgency of immediately addressing the issues.

"In discussions with our agent, Shahi has confirmed that the requests from WRC will be actioned on. If the corrective steps are not taken, however, including terminating the workers involved, our relationship with Shahi will be terminated."

Benetton Group added it also takes seriously the matters raised in the WRC investigation, and as per its code of conduct, to which all of its suppliers must adhere, the company "unequivocally sustains workers' rights, including their right to assemble."

In a statement, the company added: "Benetton regularly monitors its supply chain, applies rigorous risk assessment and carries out regular, unannounced, audits – in line with the best practices in the industry. We will continue to carry out our own investigation into the allegations as well as increase monitoring frequency of the supplier in question to ensure respect of our code of conduct. We will take appropriate actions if necessary.

"Benetton is in continuous contact with Shahi and we insist Shahi guarantees workers' rights including, but not limited to, health and safety in the workplace and freedom of association. The authority is carrying out its own investigation into the alleged events. Only when the investigation is completed will we be able to draw any conclusions and determine what actions – if any – are necessary and appropriate. Until that time, Benetton will continue in its efforts to remain constantly engaged in the development of this situation."