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My Broken Record on Supply Chains

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Yes, I’ve said this 1000 times before. And I will say it 1000 times in the future. The only way to stop the exploitation of the world’s poorest in the global supply chain is to create global labor standards that hold the western companies buying the material legally accountable for everything that happens in those supply chains. The reason for that is that it’s the only way to stop things such as child slavery in the apparel industry. Even if India banned that child slavery, if Pakistan allows it, the contractors are just going to move there if it’s cheaper. That’s not acceptable. And the working conditions and lives of these young workers are very, very, very bad.

India is one of the world’s largest textile and garment manufacturers. The southern state of Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 mills, employing between 200,000 and 400,000 workers. Traditionally the dyeing units, spinning mills and apparel factories have drawn on cheap labor from villages across Tamil Nadu to turn cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes, most of it for Western high street shops.

Most workers are young women from poor, illiterate and low-caste or “Dalit” communities, who often face intimidation, sexually offensive remarks and harassment. ICN said in more than half of the mills it researched, workers were not allowed to leave company-controlled hostels after working hours. Only 39 mills paid the minimum wage and in half the mills, a standard working week involved 60 hours or more of work.

“Supervisors torture girls to extract work beyond their capacity,” ICN quoted an 18-year-old former worker as saying.

Another teenage girl, Kalaichelvi, who earned around 8,000 rupees ($118) a month, told researchers she was forced to work for 12 hours straight with no breaks for lunch or to use the bathroom. She said she suffered from burning eyes, rashes, fever, aching legs and stomach problems due to the working conditions.

About a third of the yarn produced by workers like Kalaichelvi is used in export factories in Tamil Nadu that produce garments for many global brands. Citing poor enforcement of labor laws and “superficial audits” by buying brands, the ICN called on the industry and government to map supply chains and publish sourcing details. It also called for factories that upheld standards to be rewarded.

Moving ahead with the sort of solutions in this report make sense and are more pragmatic than mine, but are ultimately not nearly enough. If Walmart or whoever doesn’t want to pay fines, it needs to make sure its clothing is not made by children, needs to ensure its contractors are paying a basic wage, and enforce standard dignity in working conditions. It’s not that hard. Even if the United States is likely to become more like India in the next four years than the other way around.

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