Garment workers who make clothes for international brands in Karnataka, a major garment manufacturing center in India, say their children are starving as factories refuse to pay the legal minimum wage in what is considered the biggest wage theft ever to hit the fashion industry.
According to an international workers’ rights organization that monitors working conditions in factories, more than 400,000 textile workers in Karnataka have not received the state’s statutory minimum wage since April 2020.
The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) estimates the total amount of unpaid wages to date to be in excess of £ 41 million.
One worker said he earned only about half of what he needed 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 couple of times a month. All year I have fed my family only rice and chutney sauce, “he said.
“I tried to talk to the factory management about it,” he added, “but they said, ‘this is what we pay to work here. If you don’t like it, you can leave.'”
Scott Nova, Executive Director of the WRC, said: “In terms of the number of workers affected and the total amount of money stolen, this is the most egregious act of wage theft we have ever seen. The children of textile workers are starving, so brands can make money ”.
Karnataka is one of the central areas of India’s garment industry, with thousands of factories and hundreds of thousands of workers producing clothing for international brands including Puma, Nike, Zara, Tesco, C&A, Gap, Marks & Spencer and H&M.
Nova said the “indifference and inaction” of all brands purchasing clothing from the region regarding the situation facing its mostly poor female workforce was “shameful and cruel.”
He said that despite persistent demands from the WRC over the past two years, Western brands either refused to intervene or failed to take action to ensure workers packing their clothes were paid in line with Indian law.
“It’s been nearly two years since apparel suppliers refused to pay the legal minimum wage and brands have let it continue when they know they are the only ones with the power to stop this widespread wage theft,” he said.
“Paying the minimum wage is pretty much the lowest bar on a brand’s liability to its workforce. If they don’t even insist that this be paid, then they will let a large-scale violation of human rights continue with impunity. “
A “variable allowance” (VDA) for low paid workers, based on the cost of living, is 16.06 Indian rupees (16p) per day, or R417.56 per month. The WRC claimed that as this had not been paid for 20 months, each worker had been underpaid by R8,351 (£ 83).
The apparel suppliers argue that the Ministry of Labor and Employment issued a decree suspending the minimum wage increase shortly after its implementation in April 2020 and that a legal complaint regarding the obligation to pay the increase is still pending in the courts of Karnataka.
However, in September last year, the Karnataka High Court ruled that the proclamation of the Ministry of Labor was illegal and that the minimum wage, including all arrears, had to be paid to workers regardless of any other judicial proceedings.
According to the WRC, apparel suppliers constitute the only industry sector in all of Karnataka that refuses to comply with this court order.
Karnataka workers, whom the Guardian is not appointing to protect their livelihoods, said that not receiving the pay rise, in the face of the sharp rise in the cost of living, had a devastating effect on their lives and on those of their families, in particular on their children.
Another woman, who works in a factory producing clothing for UK high fashion brands, said she was forced to leave her home and was now living with a relative because she could no longer pay the rent.
“The salary increases we received each year did not cover the cost of living, but helped in things like food for the family and medicine. Working in garment factories is very painful.
“Brands they buy from my factory demand quality and that the clothes are shipped on time, but they 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 purchasing clothing from Karnataka, said they were committed to paying the legal minimum wage and expected their suppliers to comply with the order of ‘high court.
Inditex, which owns Zara, declined to comment.
H&M said, “We have made it clear to our suppliers in Karnataka that they are required to pay statutory minimum wages, including all arrears. If they don’t, they will eventually lead to serious commercial consequences ”.
Gap said in a statement: “[We] expect our suppliers to honor VDA allowances and arrears. We have established a time frame within which we expect full compliance ”.
C&A said in a statement that it had asked its suppliers to comply with the court order and was “confident” that they would. The Dutch-owned multinational said it expects 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 directly involved our suppliers in the state, making it clear our expectation that these conditions will be met with immediate effect,” said a spokesperson for M&S.
Puma said its influence over its suppliers is “limited” in Karnataka, but added: “We are working with our colleagues, who buy larger volumes in Karnataka, to make sure wages are paid properly.”
Nike said in a statement: “Nike expects all suppliers to comply with local legal requirements and the Nike code of conduct.”
A spokesperson for Tesco said, “We are working with the Ethical Trading Initiative and other brands to ensure this problem is resolved and workers are paid in full.”
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