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BATH – Apparel brand initiatives to improve the welfare of supply chain workers continue to be undermined by sharp business practices according to new research which focused on Tamil Nadu in India. Researchers from three UK Universities (Bath, Sheffield and Royal Holloway, University of London) carried out interviews with more 135 business leaders, workers, NGOs, unions and government agencies and uncovered considerable evidence that while top-down initiatives from brands have led to some improvements in working conditions, they have failed to eradicate labour exploitation. “There is a widespread belief in the industry that pay and working conditions have improved and that the worst forms of exploitation have declined,” says the report. “However, exploitation persists in a variety of forms.”

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Short production windows, cost pressures and constant fluctuations in orders by brands and retail chains like Nike, H&M, Adidas, Primark and Walmart are making it very difficult for local suppliers to comply with the standards on decent working practice that the companies say they expect, according to the researchers.

The South Indian garment industry clustered around Tirupur accounts for 45-50 per cent – around US$3.6 billion in 2017 – of knitwear exports from India. The researchers claim suppliers in the region have improved their working conditions over the past decade. However, heightened competition from lower-cost countries like Bangladesh and Ethiopia has meant that brands can force prices down, leaving little scope for further ethical improvements.

“When we interviewed manufacturers who supply knitwear to major global brands they explained that brands are growing louder in their demands for an end to bad labour practices but they are unwilling to alter their commercial practices to support improvements,” said Andrew Crane, professor of business and society at the University of Bath’s School of Management, one of the five authors of the study.

“Brands do try to improve working conditions in their supply chains but their own sourcing practices often prevent meaningful change from happening. The demand for fast fashion at cheap prices means that brands ramp up penalties and put pressure on suppliers to deliver at low cost in short production windows. This makes it harder for suppliers to comply with the labour standards that brands expect.”

“Brands need to ensure that local businesses are supported in their efforts to pursue decent work, and are not, as is all too often the case, squeezed by buyer demands that push them towards more exploitative practices,” added Professor Crane.

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