Coronavirus has worsened working conditions in spinning mills ©  David Talukdar/Getty Images
Coronavirus has worsened working conditions in spinning mills © David Talukdar/Getty Images

Pandemic creates 'perfect storm' for supply chain slavery

posted by Charlie Hart and Marino Donati
28 May 2021

International retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury's, Ikea and Next could be benefiting from forced labour at spinning mills in India, according to a report.

The report, produced by NGOs Somo and Arisa, said an investigation had identified a “serious risk” of workers trapped in forced labour conditions at 29 spinning mills in Tamil Nadu that produce yarn and fabrics for the international clothing and textile industry.

The NGOs interviewed 725 workers from the mills and alleged workers at the mill had been made to work excessive overtime and had not been paid a proper wage, while women faced harassment both on the factory floor and in hostels where they are obliged to live. 

“Since the corona crisis this situation has only worsened: more forced overtime, less salary and mass dismissals,” the report said.

Meanwhile, a separate report by Dow Jones said pandemic disruptions had created a “perfect storm” for modern slavery to thrive and traffickers were switching focus from sexual exploitation to labour in supply chains.

The Somo and Arisa report said it had found “direct and indirect links” between 29 spinning mills and international retailers.

“In some cases, Somo and Arisa found links between the investigated mills and these international companies. In other cases, there are links between the mother company that encompasses the mill and the international companies,” it added.

Pauline Overeem, researcher at Somo, said: “Based on our research, we conclude that the living and working conditions in the textile industry in Tamil Nadu are deplorable. In the worst case this amounts to forced labour. Buying companies must take measures to prevent forced labour from occurring in their supply chains, and take account of the risk of forced labour in their purchasing practices.”

A Tesco spokesperson told SM: “We take allegations of human rights abuses in our supply chain extremely seriously and conduct regular and thorough checks to ensure workers are treated fairly. 

“Whilst not a direct customer of this mill, we recognise our responsibility to everyone in our supply chain and are working alongside other brands and with Somo to investigate and ensure improvements are made.”

A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s told SM the retailer “has no relationship with the mill” mentioned in the report and information about the retailer in the report is “misleading”.

“We source from a small proportion of other sites in the region and none of these feature in Somo’s report. All of our suppliers are expected to meet our high ethical sourcing standards. They are regularly required to demonstrate this and we work closely with our suppliers to address any concerns,” the spokesperson said.

An Ikea spokesperson told SM the mill claimed to have a connection to the retailer “is neither a supplier nor sub-supplier”. It said while the mill in question was connected to Jansons Industries, a parent company to one of its suppliers, it had no legal right to enforce its code of conduct or carry out associated audits.

The Dow Jones report said human traffickers had responded to lockdowns by diverting their focus away from sex work towards forms of labour exploitation that are more likely to be part of company supply chains.

Distracted by the demands of the pandemic, many business leaders could be unaware of the rising risks, Dow Jones said.

According to the research, news coverage of supply chain disruption increased by 2,000% in March last year. Meanwhile labour exploitation overtook sexual exploitation as the most reported trafficking type following the onset of the pandemic, making up 41% of all cases reported to NGOs.

The research also found that Covid-19 had taken media focus away from the slavery industry, with news coverage of modern slavery incidents falling by a quarter (25%) between January and June 2020 compared to the previous year. 

Dow Jones added that complacency about modern slavery posed legal and reputational risks for companies operating in countries like the UK and Australia, where they are required to demonstrate they have made efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.

Ingrid Verschuren, head of data strategy at Dow Jones, said: “Obviously, people should care about whether they’re participating in a global industry founded on capitalising on human misery.

“But modern slavery presents particular challenges when it comes to operating global supply chains, especially given the disruption created by Covid-19. Once headlines about the pandemic begin to recede, it will free up space for slavery to be back on the news agenda and companies need to get ahead of the curve if they want to guarantee the integrity of their supply chains, and keep their names out of those headlines.”

Next has been contacted for comment.

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