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This article is published by Ethical Corporation, 3-9-2007

by:
Rajesh Chhabara

Asia-Pacific:

Indian garment factories – Campaigners, courts, controversy



As two labour campaign groups prepare to be sued for libel, big brands continue to buy from the jeans supplier taking the activists to court.

For two prominent Dutch labour rights campaign groups, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), the past year has been a struggle to say the least.

Both groups have been banned, since July 2006, from agitating, both in India and overseas, after they allegedly defamed an Indian supplier of jeans to international brands including G-Star, Gap, Mexx, Ann Taylor, RaRe and Guess.

Bangalore-based Fibers and Fabrics International (and its subsidiary Jean Knit) say they are the victims of “cyber crime, acts of [a] racist and xenophobic nature and criminal defamation” from the two non-governmental organisations.

As Ethical Corporation went to press, CCC, ICN and their European internet service providers were preparing to stand trial for libel, with a first hearing of the case scheduled for 31 August.

In May 2006, working with local unions and labour activists, CCC launched a public campaign against Fibers and Fabrics International and Jean Knit while alleging serious violations of labour rights in two factories based on its investigations and worker interviews. CCC’s findings were confirmed by a fact-finding mission made up of seven human rights and women’s rights organisations in August 2006.

Irked by the reports, the suppliers first sued the local unions and NGOs and successfully obtained court orders restraining them from circulating any information about working conditions in the factories. Then, the suppliers sent a legal notice to CCC, ICN and their internet service providers, Antenna and Xs4all, asking them to remove reports on factory working conditions from their websites. When CCC and ICN did not oblige, the suppliers sued them as well.

Mohammed Ghiase, director of Fibers and Fabrics, says: “We are fighting for justice. Local NGOs were spreading incorrect information about the factory even after we provided all the facts to them. Taking them to court was the only remedy.”

Business as usual
For several months, CCC has been asking Fibers and Fabrics and Jean Knit to engage in a dialogue – rather than legal action – with local unions and NGOs to improve working conditions and labour relations. CCC has also been urging retail brands to put pressure on the suppliers to participate in the dialogue.

But Ghiase says: “We have invited the Clean Clothes Campaign for a direct talk several times and even now they are welcome to our factory for a dialogue and to see for themselves that information supplied by local NGOs and unions is not true.”

All brands have written to the suppliers asking them to investigate, but have continued to source from the factories. Only Tommy Hilfiger has threatened to withdraw business unless all issues raised by the CCC are resolved.

In the court petition, the factory owners have used this to their advantage by saying that their customers, which are reputed international brands, have repeatedly audited the factories and found no violations or truth in CCC’s allegations.

An investigation by the local labour commissioner in December 2006 concluded that “the complaint raised by CCC and others is malicious and not based on facts and reality”. This has also helped Fibers and Fabrics and Jean Knit’s case. A local analyst says: “Brands’ behaviour in this case is intriguing. Against conventional practice, they have continued to source from the supplier. This may have emboldened the supplier to go after labour activists more aggressively.”

CCC accuses G-Star – the largest customer – of doing nothing to put pressure on the suppliers. Critics say others have also merely paid lip service.

Esther de Haan of CCC says: “Suing all human rights organisations that report about working conditions in the garment industry in Bangalore will not solve anything.”

Interestingly, apart from being compliance-approved by several brands, six factories run by the same suppliers have managed to get SA8000 certification. Recently, the certifications were suspended after CCC complained to Social Accountability International, the SA8000 standards body.

Little reported by the national and international media so far, this legal battle has the potential to seriously limit the role that unions, labour rights campaigners and civil society organisations can play in exposing abusive working conditions in the notorious clothing supply chains of India.

Local observers fear that the ongoing case may set an example for other factory owners, who might launch copy-cat suits against those who try to take up workers’ causes.

Stitches in time

  • November 2005 – the Clean Clothes Campaign and the India Committee of the Netherlands interview Bangalore factory workers, revealing alleged violations of labour rights.
  • March 2006 – more interviews uncover further allegations of abuse, forced overwork and non-payment of overtime.
  • May 2006 – the two NGOs launch a campaign against supplier Fibers and Fabrics International.
  • July 2006 – a court bans both NGOs from campaigning in India and overseas.
  • August 2006 – human rights organisations back up the NGOs’ claims of factory abuse.
  • December 2006 – Bangalore labour commission finds the NGOs’ claims “malicious”.
  • August 2007 – the NGOs prepare to stand trial for libel.


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