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Clean apparel supply chain needs ethical Indian buyers
18
Apr '16
Industry experts have warned that global retailers' efforts to clean supply chains of slave labour and improve labour conditions will have little impact unless consumers in India demand more ethically produced goods, according to a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India is among the largest manufacturers of textiles and apparel in the world, supplying leading international brands. In and around the southern city of Bengaluru alone, there are some 1,200 garment factories making apparel for global brands.

But it is estimated that the domestic market accounts for more than 40 per cent of the industry's revenue.

Human rights groups say hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises use forced labour and treat workers poorly, with abuses ranging from withheld salaries to debt bondage.

"The industry has the most invisible supply chain. It is also mostly unorganised, which makes it harder to map and regulate," said Mona Gupta, a senior official at India's Apparel Export Promotion Council.

"Domestic consumers should raise their voice. If they insist on buying only ethical products, that will bring pressure on manufacturers," she said at a panel discussion on trafficking and modern day slavery organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Asia Society in Mumbai.

Panelists pointed to the example of Apple Inc., which tackled poor wages and working conditions at the factories of its partner Foxconn in China after criticism from consumers among others.

Estimates of the number of people trapped in forced labour vary. The International Labour Organization says 21 million people are victims of forced labour globally, while the Global Slavery Index says there are 36 million slaves in the world, half of them in India.

The conditions of garment workers in South Asia have come under sharp scrutiny following the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, in which 1,135 workers were killed, many of them employed by suppliers to Western retailers.

In India, despite legislation against bonded labour and child labour, enforcement is weak.

"Unethical practices in the supply chain must be the responsibility of corporations, but corporations first need to accept the problem exists," said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement), which says it has freed more than 85,000 children from various industries.

"Corporations must be proactive and engage with the public, as well," he said.

Global apparel brands H&M, Inditex, C&A and PVH in January committed to improving the lives of workers in Bengaluru, after a report said labourers lived in appalling conditions and were denied decent wages and freedom of movement.

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