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Report sheds light on appalling working conditions in spinning mills

Just when it seemed that the garment industry was on its way to becoming more responsible - with efforts by individual brands and retailers and the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance making progress - another jack-in-the-box jumps out of it, this time in the form of the very fabric clothes are made of. A new report looks at the situation at South Indian spinning mills and finds appalling conditions.

Titled "Flawed Fabrics - The abuse of girls and women workers in the South Indian textile industry", the report scrutinized the conditions at five Tamil Nadu spinning mills, namely Best Cotton Mills, Jeyavishnu Spintex, Premier Mills, Sulochana Cotton Spinning Mills and Super Spinning Mills. Tamil Nadu is a major hub in the global textile and knitwear industry, producing cotton yarn and fabrics for further processing in the Indian and international garment industry, particular in Bangladesh where it is used to make ready-made garments for clients like C&A, Mothercare, HanesBrands, Sainsbury’s and Primark. In fact, two of the mills are supplying to garment factories in Bangladesh that fall under the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

Spinning mills in Tamil Nadu supply to RMG units in Bangladesh

Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 mills, with a workforce of more than 400,000 people, of which 60 percent are girls and young women under 18. The joint report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) based its research on in-depth interviews with 151 of these workers, combined with an analysis of corporate information and export data regarding the companies involved.

The women and girls who work in the spinning mills of Tamil Nadu, some as young as 15, are mostly recruited from marginalised Dalit communities in impoverished rural areas. They have been lured from their home with attractive promises of decent jobs and good pay but in reality, they have to work under appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery and the worst forms of child labour.

They are forced to work long hours for low wages, there are no contracts or payslips, no paid leave, no paid sick leave. They live in very basic company-run hostels and are hardly ever allowed to leave the company compound; one young worker compared it to a "semi-prison". Needless to say, there is nowhere to complain and there are no trade unions to speak up for these workers.

Report sheds light on appalling working conditions in spinning mills

Women's hostels are 'semi-prisons'

And after a long day of work, there is little to look forward to - it is mandatory for the young women who come from out of town to stay in the hostels located on the factory grounds. The facilities are very basic and one room often houses 35 women; one toilet and bathroom is shared by 35-40 workers. Cell phones are not allowed, neither is leaving the hostel alone, making contact to the outside world and after-work activities almost impossible. Not surprisingly, the state of the mental health of these women is poor and suicides do occur.

For most of us - if put in the shoes of the girls working in the spinning mills - the working hours alone would be enough to break us. They range from a minimum of 54 and 56 working hours per week (at Jeyavishnu Sulochana, respectively) to 68 at Best and Super and up to 72 hours at Premier. That means slogging for at least eight hours to more than ten hours a day with only a short break - 10 whole minutes at Premier (for tea and toilet as specified) and 30-40 minutes at the other mills. Thus, workers drink very little throughout the day to avoid having to go to the toilet, causing dehydration and serious bladder, kidney and liver implications in the long run.

Of the retailers mentioned, only Primark already issued an official statement on its website, saying that the company “*shares the concern of SOMO and ICN over working and employment conditions in the Southern Indian cotton mill industry”. However, Primark denies sourcing from Sulochana mills, blaming false claims made on the Sulochana website. The textile discounter admits to using Jeyavishnu Spinntex though, saying that “Primark accepts that this mill has issues that need rectification and will continue to work with them to resolve them.“

Primark refers to previous inspections

The company also referred to inspections by specialist auditors and a program put into place at Jevavishnu in 2012 to improve women's health, saying that it is “already bringing benefits”. In addition, Primark states it would put its “Fair Hiring, Fair Labour programme in place in the mill as soon as possible, to continue the process of improving working and employment conditions”.

Though the report indicates to have received responses from C&A, H&M, Mothercare, Sainsbury’s, Standard Chartered Bank and Raiffeisen Bank (Czech Republic) as well, none of the retailers had issued an official statement at the time of going to press.It recommends for retailers, brands and manufacturers to “identify, prevent and mitigate risks and negative impacts in their supply chain, in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” and to insist on transparency in the whole supply chain.