image: H&M

image: H&M

In Southern India lies Bengaluru, the third most populous city in the nation and what has been coined the “Silicon Valley of India” thanks to its $150-plus billion information technology sector, which contributes nearly 10 percent to India’s GDP. Aside from the technological capabilities being borne in Bengaluru – which was known as Bangalore until its renaming in late 2014, the city is also home to one of India’s many thriving garment manufacturing hubs.

Western apparel giants have come to routinely source low-cost garments and accessories from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Pakistan, as the cost of manufacturing in China has spiked over the past decade, paired with the fact that the U.S. has, for years, put limits on the volume of specific products, including garments, being imported from China. But while major retail players have looked with increasing frequency to India, among other southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries, the nation remains rife with labor concerns, including below-living-wage payment averages and a truly rampant culture of sexual harassment and other abuses in the workplace.

This is something that was highlighted recently by the Worker Rights Consortium (“WRC”). According to a new report by the Washington, D.C.-based independent labor rights organization, a garment factory in Bengaluru – which acts as a supplier to Columbia Sportswear, Abercrombie & Fitch, Benetton, and H&M, among others – has threatened and assaulted laborers for seeking to unionize, and to enter into negotiations over pay and labor conditions. 

In particular, WRC claims that in April, supervisors at the Unit 8 factory – which employs nearly 3,000 workers – were “engaged in vicious retaliation against workers’ exercise of labor rights, including physical beatings, death threats, threats of mass termination and the expulsion from the factory of 15 worker activists.”

One woman was allegedly told by a supervisor, “It won’t be a sin if people kill you and get rid of you; you should be shot and disposed of,” and then directed other workers to “kill her,” leading to her being beaten, nearly strangled, and hospitalized overnight. A supervisor instructed that another female garment worker be beaten and killed, and while this woman survived, she has badly beaten and robbed. 

The violence occurred, per the WRC, “in the course of a deliberate effort by [Shahi Export Pvt, which owns the Unit 8 factory, among others] to repress the organization of a union at Unit 8 and, relatedly, prevent an increase in wages,” and follows from the manufacturing giant’s aggressive attempts to lobby the local government to cancel a planned increase in the minimum wage for garment workers. According to the WRC, labors at Unit 8 earn an estimated average hourly wage of US $0.62.

As India’s largest garment manufacturer, Shahi supplies many other major brands and retailers, including American Eagle, Children’s Place, Gap, Zara’s parent company Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Primark, Puma, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger’s parent company, Uniqlo, and Walmart, among others.

The WRC states that it has shared its findings and recommendations with Shahi and the brands at issue, and requested that they indicate the steps they will take to address the assaults, death threats, and other abuses committed. However, according to the WRC, “Shahi has not agreed to take – and Columbia and other brands have not required Shahi to take – the basic steps necessary to ensure that workers are able to return safely to the factory and that their fundamental right of freedom of association is restored.”

“Columbia and other brands are, instead, siding with Shahi’s positon that it should not have to take any disciplinary action against these individuals unless they are found responsible by Shahi itself – or by the local police (the same police who came to the factory at management’s request; who stood by and watched while the workers were beaten; and who, nearly three months later, have arrested no one),” the WRC continued on to note. 

A representative for H&M told TFL on Monday, “We are deeply concerned by the alleged abuse against workers at one of our suppliers. We have an ongoing dialogue with the legal worker representatives which are supported by IndustriALL Global Union, as well as the supplier. We believe it is important that the legal parties resolve this dispute and we have since April handled this with priority and been facilitating the dialogue between them to find a solution. We can assure you that we are extensively using our leverage.” 

Abel Navarrete, Vice President for Corporate Responsibility for Columbia Sportswear, said in a statement released to TFL, “We have insisted that Shahi management take immediate action to address the situation, including: reinstate suspended workers, pay medical expenses of workers, return any personal property of workers, engage in constructive and meaningful engagement with the union, and discipline any employees that are found to have engaged in violence or acts of discrimination.” 

It is worth noting that neither H&M nor Columbia have not cut ties with Shahi following the violent outbreak in April. Mr. Navarrese said in his statement that Columbia has “required Shahi to undertake these actions immediately and we will monitor progress with weekly meetings. If meaningful and prompt progress is not made toward meeting these requirements, we will take necessary steps, including reducing or ceasing production in the factory.” 

Representatives for Abercrombie & Fitch and Benetton were not immediately available for comment.