Report implicates international retailers in forced labor at India’s spinning mills
06/06/2021 // Nolan Barton // Views

A recent report produced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) Somo and Arisa has implicated international retailers Tesco, Sainsbury's, Ikea and Next for allegedly benefiting from forced labor at spinning mills in India.

"In some cases, Somo and Arisa found links between the investigated mills and these international companies. In other cases, there are links between the mother company that encompasses the mill and the international companies," the report stated.

According to the report, an investigation had identified a "serious risk" of workers trapped in forced labor conditions at 29 spinning mills in Tamil Nadu that produce yarn and fabrics for the international clothing and textile industry.

"Based on our research, we conclude that the living and working conditions in the textile industry in Tamil Nadu are deplorable. In the worst case, this amounts to forced labor. Buying companies must take measures to prevent forced labor from occurring in their supply chains, and take account of the risk of forced labor in their purchasing practices," said Somo researcher Pauline Overeem.

Retailers deny knowledge of forced labor involving suppliers

Tesco, Sainsbury's and Ikea denied any knowledge of forced labor involving their suppliers. Next did not immediately respond to a request for comments.

"We take allegations of human rights abuses in our supply chain extremely seriously and conduct regular and thorough checks to ensure workers are treated fairly," a Tesco spokesperson said. "While not a direct customer of this mill, we recognize our responsibility to everyone in our supply chain and are working alongside other brands and with Somo to investigate and ensure improvements are made."


A spokesperson for Sainsbury's said the retailer "has no relationship with the mill" mentioned in the report and information about the retailer in the report is "misleading."

"We source from a small proportion of other sites in the region and none of them feature in Somo's report. All of our suppliers are expected to meet our high ethical sourcing standards. They are regularly required to demonstrate this and we work closely with our suppliers to address any concerns," the Sainsbury's spokesperson said.

An Ikea spokesperson said the mill claimed to have a connection with the company "is neither a supplier nor a sub-supplier." The spokesperson added that while the mill in question is connected to Jansons Industries, a parent company to one of its suppliers, Ikea has no legal right to enforce its code of conduct or carry out associated audits. (Related: Entire fashion industry complicit in forced labor of Uyghurs in China, rights groups say.)

Some 725 workers from the mills were interviewed by researchers from Somo and Arisa. They stated in their report that workers at the mills were forced to work excessive overtime and not paid a proper wage, while female workers faced harassment both on the worksites and hostels where they are obliged to live.

The researchers wrote that the situation has only worsened since the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. There are "more forced overtime, less salary and mass dismissals," they stated in the report.

Dow Jones: Modern slavery is world's fastest growing criminal enterprise

The pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for workers and for people affected by modern slavery. Its impacts have been uneven and often concentrated on those who were already disadvantaged in society. Supply chains have been disrupted and many workers have lost their jobs and been forced to look for opportunities in struggling economies, which are typically rife with exploitation.

Rapid changes in labor supply and demand have tempted some businesses to use it as an excuse to exploit vulnerable workers or force them to work through the pandemic. The pandemic have also made it more difficult for people caught up in modern slavery to come forward.

A Dow Jones report claimed that modern slavery generates $150 billion a year. The report defined modern slavery as situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception and/or abuse of power. Prior to the pandemic, the International Labor Organization estimated that there were 16 million victims of forced labor in the global supply chains. That number could be higher post-pandemic.

"It is the world's fastest-growing criminal enterprise, hiding in plain sight. The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has created the perfect breeding ground for this issue to thrive in corporate supply chains, and many companies could be unwittingly falling foul of anti-slavery laws as a result," the Dow Jones report said.

"Obviously, people should care about whether they're participating in a global industry founded on capitalizing on human misery," said Ingrid Verschuren, head of data strategy at Dow Jones.

Dow Jones has partnered with Edelman Data & Intelligence to help businesses understand how modern slavery has evolved with the pandemic. As part of their research, they focused on six sub-types of modern slavery: labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, organ harvesting, domestic servitude, forced criminality and forced marriage. (Related: Democrats now party of child trafficking and slavery as left-wing mob protests arrests of child traffickers.)

The result of their research indicates that human traffickers have responded to lockdowns by diverting their focus away from sex work towards forms of labor exploitation that are more likely to be part of company supply chains. Labor exploitation overtook sexual exploitation as the most reported trafficking type following the onset of the pandemic, making up 41 percent of all cases reported to NGOs.

The research found that news coverage of supply chain disruption increased by 2,000 percent in March last year and that COVID-19 had taken media focus away from the slavery industry. News coverage of modern slavery incidents fell by 25 percent between January and June 2020 compared to the previous year.

"Modern slavery presents particular challenges when it comes to operating global supply chains, especially given the disruption created by COVID-19," said Verschuren.

"Once headlines about the pandemic begin to recede, it will free up space for slavery to be back on the news agenda and companies need to get ahead of the curve if they want to guarantee the integrity of their supply chains, and keep their names out of those headlines."

Follow for more news and information related to forced labor and modern slavery.

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