India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments

India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments

An increase in the traceability and transparency of the full supply chain is just one of the recommendations made to brands and retailers sourcing leather from India, in a new report that claims the rights of leather workers in the country are systematically violated.

The 'Do leather workers matter?' research by the India Committee of Netherlands (ICN), found that around 2.5m workers in the Indian leather industry often face unacceptable working conditions that violate their human rights and seriously affect their health.

The report focuses on three main production areas that supply hides, leather garments, accessories, and footwear for export, namely Kolkata, Agra and the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster in Tamil Nadu.

Together the states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal (production centre in Kolkata) and Uttar Pradesh (main production centres in Kanpur and Agra) account for about 90% of all tanneries in India.

The report says that while toxic chemicals used in tanneries often very negatively impacts the health of the workers, lesser known abuses include wages below the stipulated minimum wage, child labour, the exploitation of home-based workers, the difficulty of organising trade unions, and the discrimination of the Dalits - or 'outcastes' - leather workers.

A large number of major brands source footwear, leather garments, leather goods and accessories from India, including H&M, C&A, Primark, Esprit, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Mango, Puma, and Marks & Spencer.

The country is the world's second largest producer of footwear and leather garments, while its footwear sector specialises in medium to high priced leather footwear, particularly menswear. Meanwhile, almost 90% of India's footwear exports goes to the European Union.

While the report does not look into the supply chains of specific brands, it more generally sketches human rights violations in leather and leather goods production in the country.

A draft version of the report was initially shared with a range of companies and CSR initiatives. In a joint statement, 12 member companies of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) welcomed the ICN report, adding "taken together we recognise the very concerning issues in the leather supply chain".

According to the ICN, the group also agreed on the need for a collective response to the issues, adding: "We commit to working with international and national stakeholders to develop a strategic response to the issues in our leather supply chain."

In total, 19 companies, including C&A, H&M, Primark, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Next, Tesco, and Sainsbury's reacted to the report as well as two CSR initiatives, the Leather Working Group and MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands).

Most companies recognised the urgency to address the issues identified in the research, with some sharing concrete commitments to combat adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their supply chains, the ICN says.

The report adds, it is "important" that companies map their supply chains including both tanneries and subcontractors, to identify labour rights issues throughout the chain, paying particular attention to gender and caste discrimination. It also "highly recommends" off-worksite interviews with workers in social audits and regular engagement with representatives of the local community.

Meanwhile, CSR initiatives – including multi-stakeholder initiatives - should also include health and safety and labour conditions in their audits. Monitoring should cover all tiers of their supply chain, including tanneries.

And these CSR initiatives should be transparent in relation to code of conduct, license agreements, procedures, audit manuals, control systems, results, etc. Apart from internal transparency, greater supply chain public disclosure – including locations and audits - would help to give credibility to the efforts of companies and enable affected individuals and groups to effectively operate as stakeholders, ICN adds.

Other recommendations include long-term business relationships and collaboration between companies sourcing from the country to increase leverage; the mandatory written contracts and equal treatment; the importance of unions and collective bargaining; a company level grievance mechanisms and space for civil society.