Tesco admits to labour abuse in India garment supply chain
Tesco has admitted to finding labour abuse in its India garment supply chain after evidence was released of forced labour of migrant women in cotton spinning mills located across Tamil Nadu.
In an investigation carried out by the non-governmental organisations Somo and Arisa, evidence was found of multiple labour abuse cases and “critical issues”. These involved verbal intimidation over wages and benefits to deception, threats towards female workers, an abusive working environment and living conditions, and excessive overtime.
One worker who spoke to the researchers said: “We do not get proper sleep. We always have to work. We often have to work two shifts and sometimes even three shifts. This makes us feel tired and drowsy. But we cannot take any rest.” Another worker added that they were spending “most of their life with the [cotton-spinning] machines” and had “absolutely no contact with the outside world”.
The women said they felt “unsafe” and that they were often the subject of sexual harassment both in the factories they work at and in their living accommodation. A large number of workers were forced to live in “overcrowded and unhygienic hostels”, which were long distances away from their families and had no paid leave. They also reported that their freedom was severely limited, as they were made to stay in their accommodation when not working and were monitored very closely.
A spokesperson for Tesco said: “We take allegations of human rights abuses in our supply chain extremely seriously. While 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”.
The cotton mills of Tamil Nadu
The cotton-spinning mills in Tamil Nadu produce raw materials, namely cotton, for India’s export garment sector, and have been associated with human rights abuse in the past. In 2018, the Guardian conducted an investigation into Hugo Boss and found that the company had held female workers captive, also stopping them from leaving their accommodation and factories which had connections to its organisation in Tamil Nadu.
In addition, the 2018 investigation found that companies like Sainsbury’s were also either directly or indirectly linked to the Tamil Nadu cotton mills investigated. However, Sainsbury’s defended its actions, saying that it had “no relationship with the mills mentioned in the report”, describing the investigation as “misleading”. A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “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”.
Gartner: Women in supply chain at five-year high
Women now represent a greater percentage of the supply chain workforce than at any other point in at least the past five years, according to a recent Gartner survey.
The Women in Supply Chain Survey 2021, conducted by Gartner and Awesome, surveyed 223 supply chain organisations with more than $100m in annual revenue from February through to the end of March 2021.
- Women represent 2% more of supply chain workforce than in 2020
- Women now account for 42% of the workforce
- Number of women in exec-level positions declined by 2%
- Just 15% of top leadership are women (17% in 2020)
- 84% of organisations say COVID-19 did not impact efforts to advance women
It found that women now represent two per cent more of the supply chain workforce than in 2020, accounting for 42%, compared with 39% last year. Dana Stiffler, Vice President Analyst with the Gartner Supply Chain practice, says the impact of COVID-19 on supply chain was significant, though different to other sectors.
"Contrary to other industries, supply chain’s mission-criticality during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many sectors did not reduce their workforce, but rather continued to hire and even faced talent shortages, especially in the product supply chains," she said. "This resulted in many women not only standing their ground in supply chain organisations but increasing their representation in organisations. We also recorded a record number of specific commitments and supply chain-led actions and saw existing programs starting to pay off."
Supply chain still lacks women in executive leadership
But the elephant in the boardroom remains. Though the figures present a positive step towards greater diversity and gender equality at all levels, the number of women in executive level positions declined by two per cent in the past year. Women represent just 15% of the upper echelons of supply chain leadership. Gartner did however record a rise in women at all other levels of leadership.
The vast majority (84%) of organisations surveyed said the outbreak had no discernible impact on their ability to retain and advance women. But more than half (54%) admitted that retaining mid-career women was becoming increasingly difficult. A lack of career opportunities was cited as the biggest challenge to this, while other blamed a lack of development opportunities.
Despite these challenges, companies of all sizes are becoming broadly better at gender diversity. Around a third more said they had a targeted initiative focused on attracting women and advancing their careers.
Stiffler said a push towards measurable and formal initiatives is at least pointing in the right direction: “It's encouraging to see that the larger share of this jump was for more formal targets and specific goals on management scorecards. For these respondents, there is greater accountability for results — and we see the correlation with stronger representation and inclusion showing up in pipelines.”