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28 Feb 2022

Jasmin Malik Chua, Sourcing Journal

India: Report accuses Kitex Garments of treating migrant workers as 'bonded labourers' after clash with police

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"Indian Supplier to Walmart, Carter’s Accused of ‘Slave Labor’", 28 February 2022

One of India’s largest manufacturers of baby and children’s wear has been accused of treating its employees as “bonded laborers” in the aftermath of a violent clash with police that ended with the arrest of more than 170 migrant workers on Christmas...

Eyewitnesses said tensions escalated after Kitex security guards squared off with a group of migrant workers for their ​​“loud celebrations of Christmas,” resulting in a call to the police. The responding officers refused to listen to the workers’ account of what had transpired, they said, setting off a skirmish that grew physical and resulted in the smashing of a police vehicle.

Fewer than two dozen workers were involved in the incident, yet the police arrested 174 people, including “innocent workers” who were asleep in the dormitories and are now expected to face a criminal trial, the report said. Kitex managers are also allegedly using this incident to “blackmail” other migrant workers.

“There is a strong suspicion of collusion between the management and the police in the registration of the criminal cases and arrests of migrant workers,” the All India Lawyers Association for Justice said, adding that Kitex appears “unconcerned” about the welfare and release of the arrested workers, most of them members of the lower castes who hail from far-flung locations such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and don’t have legal representation.

The report also described workers facing “lives of precariousness” marked by “inhuman living conditions” and “oppressive working conditions” with little to no employment, wage or social security...

“The migrant workers are housed inside the Kitex factory premises in ‘labor camps,’ where the living conditions are dismal,” the report said. “The management bars any entry to the labor camps and the workers too are not allowed to go outside unless permission is granted to them....”...

With their limited freedom of movement and lack of access to organizations such as trade unions, the workers are no better than “slaves,” it added.

Carter’s...said it does not tolerate forced labor or “injustice of any kind.”

“We conduct our own audits as well as work with leading certification agencies that have audited and certified this facility,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We have seen no evidence of the reported slave or bonded labor. That said, we will increase our audit frequency at this facility and take appropriate actions should we find any support for these allegations.”

Walmart, which stocks Kitex’s Little Star Organic label exclusively, did not reply to emails seeking comment.

While Kitex Garments did not reply to a request from Sourcing Journal for a statement, managing director Sabu M. Jacob told The Hindu in mid-February that the report was part of a “politically motivated witch hunt” against the company, which employ some 12,500 workers. Kitex’s corporate social responsibility arm, Kizhakkambalam Twenty20, made a foray into electoral politics in 2015.

“That an incident involving the company alone is being studied while overlooking so many other more grievous crimes in the state itself makes the intention of the team suspect,” Jacob said. “There is literally no state government agency left to investigate the company, and yet none of them have found any irregularity. Nor [have we] been indicted in any of the international audits to which we are subjected to as an export-oriented company.”