Supermarket giant admits to forced labor in its supply chain

A new report by the NGOs Somo and Arisa investigating 29 spinning mills in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has found several international brands implicated in forced labor through their supply chains.

One of the world’s largest retailers, U.K. groceries and general merchandise company, Tesco Ltd, is one of those companies. Tesco has admitted that it is indeed tied to one of the named suppliers in the report.

They have publicly committed to further investigations and ensuring “improvements are made.” Another guilty company, Next plc, has also admitted fault and a similar pledge to do better, moves that Freedom United welcomes as an acknowledgement of responsibility.

Other companies, such as Ikea, Gap, and Sainsbury’s, deny any ties to the identified suppliers and therefore any need for further auditing.

Tamil Nadu spinning mills, which supply threads for garments purchased by companies in Europe and North America, have been implicated in this abuse for years.

Young woman and even girls are exploited under this widespread practice known locally as the ‘sumangali scheme’, so called because through the 3 – 5 year contract she is paid a lump sum that can be put to her dowry.

The Guardian reports,

A worker at one of the mills spoken to by the researchers said: “We do not get proper sleep. We always have to work. We often have to work two shifts and sometimes even three shifts. This makes us feel tired and drowsy. But we cannot take any rest.”

Hundreds of workers had no choice but to live in overcrowded and “unhygienic” hostels, miles from their families and with no paid leave. Workers described severe limitations on their freedom, saying that while they were not working they had to remain in dormitories and were closely monitored.

Women reported feeling unsafe and that they were subject to sexual harassment, in the factories and their accommodation. They described male managers, supervisors, hostel staff and co-workers touching them inappropriately and making sexual comments, often under cover of loud machine noise.

The new report uses the 11 indicators of forced labor as defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to assess the working and living conditions in the 29 spinning mils.

Understanding the complexity and opacity of supply chains, they not only looked at direct suppliers to parent companies but also third-party suppliers in other countries. For example, many clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka use yarn or cloth made in Tamil Nadu. This widens the net of participation in forced labor systems.

In total, ten international companies were identified in the report. The others are Carrefour, Marc O’Polo, The Cookie Company Group, WE Fashion, and Zeeman.

While it remains to be seen whether Tesco and Next will conduct the required checks and preventative next steps to remove forced labor from their supply chains, their admission of fault is a step in the right direction.

However, the responsibility to ensure giant companies are compliant with international human rights standards shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of small NGOs. Companies must be vigilant about their supply chains and states must hold them accountable if they are not.

Join Freedom United’s campaign to call on governments to put people before profits by calling on the U.S., U.K., and E.U. to pass mandatory human rights due diligence legislation that would require big corporations to take preventative measures throughout their production system – without waiting for appalling reports of human rights abuses.

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