‘Worst fashion wage theft’: workers go hungry as Indian suppliers to major UK brands refuse to pay minimum wage | Garment workers

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Textile workers who make clothes for international brands in Karnataka, a major garment production center in India, say their children go hungry as factories refuse to pay the legal minimum wage in what would be the most big salary theft never recorded in the fashion industry.

More than 400,000 textile workers in Karnataka have not received the state’s legal minimum wage since April 2020, according to an international labor rights organization that monitors working conditions in factories.

The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) estimates the total amount of unpaid wages to be over £ 41million to date.

One worker said she only earns about half of what she needs to cover basic living costs, such as food and rent.

“If we had gotten the pay raise last year, we could at least have eaten vegetables a few times a month. Throughout this year, I have only fed my family rice and chutney sauce, ”she said.

“I tried to talk to the factory management about it,” she added, “but they said, ‘This is what we pay to work here. If you don’t like it, you can go.

Scott Nova, Executive Director of the WRC, said: “In terms of the number of workers affected and the total money stolen, this is the most egregious act of wage theft we have ever seen. The children of garment workers are hungry so that brands can make money. “

Karnataka is one of the hearts of the garment industry in India, with thousands of factories and hundreds of thousands of workers producing garments for international brands such as Puma, Nike, Zara, Tesco, C&A, Gap, Marks & Spencer, and H&M.

A garment worker in Bangalore, Karnataka, sorts parts before sewing them. The minimum monthly wage for the clothing industry is 417 rupees (£ 4.16) per month. Photograph: AFP / Getty

Nova said the “indifference and inaction” of all the brands sourcing clothing in the region about the situation facing its predominantly poor female workforce was “shameful and cruel” .

He said that despite persistent demands from the WRC over the past two years, Western brands have refused to step in or act to ensure that the workers who make their clothes are paid according to Indian law.

“Clothing suppliers have been refusing to pay the legal minimum wage for nearly two years and brands are letting this continue when they know they are the only ones with the power to stop this widespread wage theft,” did he declare.

“Paying minimum wage is about the lowest bar on a brand’s responsibility to its workforce. If they don’t even insist that it be paid for, then they are allowing a large-scale human rights violation to continue with impunity.

A “Variable Cost Allowance” (VDA) for low-wage workers, based on the cost of living, is 16.06 Indian rupees (16 pence) per day, or 417.56 rand per month. The WRC said that because it had not been paid for 20 months, each worker was underpaid by 8,351 rand (£ 83).

Clothing suppliers argue that the Ministry of Labor and Employment issued a proclamation suspending the increase in the minimum wage shortly after its implementation in April 2020 and that a legal complaint relating to the obligation to pay the increase was still pending in the courts of Karnataka.

However, in September last year, the Karnataka high court ruled that the labor ministry’s proclamation was illegal and that the minimum wage, including all arrears, should be paid to workers regardless of any further legal proceedings.

Garment suppliers are the only industrial sector in Karnataka to refuse to comply with this court ruling, according to the WRC.

Workers in Karnataka, whom the Guardian does not appoint to protect their livelihoods, said that not receiving their pay raise, in the face of the brutal rise in the cost of living, had had a devastating effect on their lives. their own lives and that of their families, especially their children. .

Another woman, who works in a clothing factory for British brands, said she was forced to leave her home and now lives with a relative because she could no longer pay the rent.

“The salary increases we received each year did not cover our living expenses, but helped with things like food for the family and medicine. Working in garment factories is very difficult.

“Brands that buy from my factory demand quality and clothes shipped on time, but don’t care what happens to me,” she said.

Puma, Nike, Gap, Tesco, C&A, Marks & Spencer and H&M, which are among the brands that source clothing from Karnataka, all said they are committed to paying the legal minimum wage and expect their suppliers that they comply with the order of the High Court.

Inditex, owner of Zara, declined to comment.

H&M said, “We have made it clear to our Karnataka suppliers that they must pay workers the legal minimum wage, including all arrears. If they don’t, it will ultimately lead to serious business consequences. “

Gap said in a statement: “[We] expect our suppliers to comply with the VDA allocation and arrears. We have established a timeline that we expect to be in full compliance. “

C&A said in a statement it had demanded its suppliers to comply with the court order and was “confident” that they would. The Dutch multinational said it was awaiting written confirmation from its suppliers.

Marks & Spencer said it was working with the Ethical Trading Initiative to “demand” that its suppliers pay the legal minimum wage.

“We have engaged our suppliers directly in the state, clearly indicating our expectation that these conditions will be met with immediate effect,” said a spokesperson for M&S.

Puma said its influence over its suppliers was “limited” in Karnataka, but added, “We are working with our peers, who source larger volumes from Karnataka, to ensure that wages are paid properly.

Nike said in a statement, “Nike expects all suppliers to comply with local legal requirements and Nike’s code of conduct. “

A Tesco spokesperson said: “We are working with the Ethical Trading Initiative and other brands to ensure this issue is resolved and workers are paid in full.”

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