International efforts to make it easier for garment workers in India to speak out against sexual harassment, dangerous working conditions and abuses are failing, campaigners said on Tuesday.
The U.S.-based certifying agency Social Accountability International (SAI) and Britain’s Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) – an alliance of unions, firms, and charities – are not enforcing procedures they set up to protect workers, they said.
“The organizations are violating the rules of the mechanisms they created by not taking time-bound action against complaints that come up,” said S. James Victor, director of Serene Secular Social Service Society, which works to empower garment workers.
“They are far removed from ground reality. The fact is that every day a worker continues to face workplace harassment in the spinning mills and garment factories of Tamil Nadu.”
From high-street clothing stores to supermarkets, major brands are facing rising consumer pressure to improve conditions along their global supply chains, render them slavery-free and ensure fair wages.
Many of the 1,500 mills in Tamil Nadu state – the largest hub in India’s $40 billion-a-year textile and garment industry – operate informally with poor regulation and few formal grievance mechanisms for workers, most of whom are women, campaigners say.
“Workers are being victimised, harassed and management are literally going after them for raising any complaint,” said Sujata Mody of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union, which has about 3,000 active members.
“The issue could be about a toilet break, sick leave or sexual harassment. No complaint is tolerated or redressed.”
Following reports that girls as young as 14 were lured from rural areas to work long hours in mills and factories without contracts, and often held capture in company-run hostels, global rights groups have tried to improve accountability.
Manufacturers who comply with voluntary labour standards introduced by SAI receive certification, with some 300 certified factories employing about 64,000 workers in south India, according to SAI senior director Rochelle Zaid.