Abuse and low pay rife at big brand suppliers

Indian workers sew at a garment factory on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. Photo / AP
Indian workers sew at a garment factory on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. Photo / AP

Workers making clothes that end up in some of the world's biggest-name stores have testified to a shocking regime of abuse, threats and poverty pay. Many workers in Indian factories earn so little that an entire month's wages would not buy a single item they produce.

Physical and verbal abuse is rife, while female workers who fail to meet impossible targets say they are berated, called "dogs and donkeys", and told to "go and die".

Many workers who toil long hours in an attempt to support their families claim they are cheated out of their dues by their employers.

The allegations, which will be of concern to household names including Gap, H&M, British retailer Next and Walmart were made at a human rights tribunal in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru last week.

The "national people's tribunal for living wages and decent working conditions for garment workers" was convened to investigate human rights abuses in the garment industry.

Sakamma, a 42-year-old mother of two working for Gap supplier Texport in Bengaluru, said she earned just 22p (42c) an hour and that when she finished at the factory she had to work as a domestic help to top up her wages.

"They sell one piece of clothing for more than I get paid in a month," she said. "We don't have a good life, we live in pain and die in pain."

She said workers faced abuse if they failed to meet quotas. "They want 150 pieces an hour. When we can't meet the targets, the abuse starts. There is too much pressure; it is like torture.

"We can't take breaks or drink water or go to the toilet. The supervisors are on our backs all the time," she said. "They call us donkey, owl [associated with evil], dog and insult us ... make us stand in front of everyone, tell us to go and die."

A spokesman for Texport denied setting unachievable targets and said abuse of workers was not tolerated. Gap said: "These allegations describe conduct that violates our code of vendor conduct. We are looking into this matter and will take appropriate action with our vendors, depending on our findings."

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which organised the tribunal, wants companies to pay a minimum living wage of 12,096 rupees ($264) a month. But the tribunal heard that a factory supplying Gap and Next paid as little as 26p an hour.

The supplier - Pearl Global, based in Gurgaon in Haryana state - admits it has underpaid workers for overtime and has required them to work illegally long hours, but said it had now repaid them. Pearl Global was first exposed for rights abuses in 2010 when it traded as House of Pearl.

Ashok Kumar Singh, 29, who works for Gap supplier Modelama Exports in Gurgaon, said workers were taught to lie to auditors sent to check up on working conditions.

"Before a visit they gather all the workers around and tell them what to say. If we don't say what we are told, we are fired."

- Observer

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