Pradeepan Ravi, Cividep India
The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have cast shadows over the lives and livelihoods of millions of workers in India. In the leather manufacturing sector, both factory workers and homeworkers have been out of work for weeks and many have been left unpaid.
Thousands of homeworkers in Ambur, Tamil Nadu, for example have been out of work for over a month now and have not received pay for the work completed earlier. The lack of transparency in the supply chain means that these workers are not sure how to claim their wages from the sub-contractor, who blames the supplier factories. The factories in turn blame the brands for cancelling orders and not paying up for completed work.
Many brands sourcing from India’s leather industry provide no information about their suppliers, and those that do publish rarely provide details beyond their first-tier suppliers.
Poverty wages are endemic to the leather industry, so few homeworkers have either the social security or adequate savings to survive for many weeks without income. This means they cannot access medical care and are particularly ill prepared to withstand the financial and health shocks that the COVID-19 pandemic brings.
This situation calls for a deeper analysis by footwear and apparel brands, of their approaches to responsible business conduct and human rights due diligence.
Many brands sourcing from India’s leather industry provide no information about their suppliers, and those that do publish rarely provide details beyond their first-tier suppliers. The leather supply chain is complex, and it has always been challenging to trace its links. While some prominent suppliers run integrated shoe-making and tanning units, the practice of subcontracting is common and often a response to buyers’ tight lead times and constant pressure on pricing. Subcontractors who complete orders for larger suppliers operate informal, small scale units called ‘job work centres’ or employ large numbers of women as homeworkers. The informal nature of such work means that subcontractors are rarely covered either by labour inspectors or social auditors.
There is little evidence of effective human rights due diligence… International brands are reluctant to take responsibility for their supply chains, and even where issues are identified, suppliers are rarely required to make changes.
THE LIMITATIONS OF SOCIAL AUDITS
Many brands commission social audits of their supply chains in India, usually employing private consultancy firms to check for compliance on labour standards. However, there is little evidence that such audits have led to improved working conditions. Most audits focus on facilities and systems that can be inspected and counted, rather than rights issues such as freedom of association or harassment, which workers often do not report for fear of reprisal. Usually these audits are restricted to the first tier of the supply chain, and very rarely look beyond the factory walls. As a result, casual labourers and homeworkers are completely excluded.
DUE DILIGENCE – AN IMPERATIVE FOR IMPROVED WORKING CONDITIONS
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) require all businesses, including transnational corporations, to identify, prevent and where these occur remediate their adverse impacts on workers and communities. However, there is little evidence of effective human rights due diligence within the Indian leather industry. International brands are reluctant to take responsibility for their supply chains, and even where issues are identified, suppliers are rarely required to make changes.
Yet a more collaborative approach can lead to small improvements. From 2016-18, two civil society organisations – Homeworkers Worldwide and Cividep India collaborated on a project in Tamil Nadu involving two leather footwear brands. The project documented practices at the factory level and in informal homeworker supply chains, identified some violations and sought ways to address them. Although small, the project demonstrates the potential of such multi-stakeholder collaborations which aim to take due diligence seriously.
The impacts of COVID-19 highlight the harm caused by brands’ reluctance to take responsibility for working conditions within their supply chains. Brands have cancelled orders, but failed to consider the impact on suppliers and workers across factories, tanneries and in particular those working at home within their supply chains. As we move toward a loosening of lockdown and expansion of production, business as usual is no longer an option.
It is clear, the Indian leather industry needs a new business model, where brands:
- Conduct due diligence across the whole supply chain and improve transparency
- Recognise homeworkers in the supply chain and enable suppliers to be open about hiring homeworkers
- Improved purchasing practices and provide suppliers with realistic time frames
The lessons learnt by workers, suppliers and brands during this crisis can inform a better way of doing business. Due diligence, transparency and a better deal for workers should be the minimum conditions.