ONE OF the most effective ways to curb forced labour in the garment industry is to target cotton spinning mills, where workers can provide valuable information about the source of material in the fashion supply chain, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, an anti-slavery charity, said on Friday (September 9).
The apparel industry has come under pressure to improve factory conditions and workers’ rights, especially since the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh over three years ago, which killed 1,136 garment workers.
Following the tragedy, numerous initiatives were launched by global brands and charities to promote openness and safeguard employees, from ensuring the safety of buildings to providing better pay and working hours.
But while most projects focused on farmers growing cotton in the fields or factory workers stitching clothes, few work with the spinning mills in the middle of the supply chain.
To address this the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), run by the California-based charity As You Sow, launched a project on September 1 focusing on mills in India and Bangladesh which together employ hundreds of thousands of workers.
“Located in the middle of the supply chain, spinning mills are uniquely positioned to identify cotton produced with forced labour and prevent it from entering corporate supply chains,” Patricia Jurewicz, RSN’s director, explained to the Foundation.
The RSN’s new initiative, the Yarn Ethically and Sustainably Sourced (YESS), will train workers at spinning mills to identify forced labour and trafficking.
It also will help mills implement policies to improve worker conditions, assess their compliance and provide certification.
Major brands such as Adidas, Hudson’s Bay Co., BJ’s Wholesale Club and Woolworths Holdings Ltd. have expressed support and less than a week after the launch of YESS, a mill in India got in touch to ask how to become certified.
“Our initiative targets the most opaque place in the supply chain, where yarn spinners blend different types of cotton together,” Jurewicz said. “They are the key to knowing if the cotton that gets spun and woven into our clothes was harvested under forced labour conditions.”
A 2014 report by the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) found that women in mills were forced to work long hours for low wages with no contracts, no paid leave and little freedom of movement.
But as consumers and investors have become more socially aware, they are demanding ethical manufacturing and weighing companies on human rights records.
The United States and Britain have also adopted laws that ban the import of goods produced by forced labour or require companies to report action taken to address slavery and trafficking.