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LONDON – New research claims Social Accountability International (SAI) and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) failed to deal effectively with complaints about abusive labour conditions for women in the textile industry in South India. The damning report recommends that, “ETI and SAI urgently improve their procedures in terms of accessibility, legitimacy, predictability, equitability, transparency and rights-compatibility.”

Three NGOs – the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and UK-based Homeworkers Worldwide (HWW) – assessed complaint mechanisms set up by ETI and SAI and concluded that they, “fail to benefit young women and girls in the South Indian textile industry.”

Particularly, the authors looked at whether the complaints systems of the two organisations met the standards of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights.

Since 2010, SOMO, ICN and HWW have reported labour rights violations, including forced labour and child labour, in the textile and garment industry in Tamil Nadu, South India. In 2014, the complaint mechanisms of SAI and ETI were activated in response to research findings presented by SOMO, ICN and HWW. Now, these organisations conclude the outcomes of both procedures do not accord with internationally recognised human rights.

Says the report: “In the case of the SAI complaints, re-auditing was undertaken as part of the complaints handling process. This partly confirmed labour rights concerns expressed by SOMO, ICN and HWW. However, it did not help to address those concerns. SAI decided to withdraw certification of one of the factories, which meant that the complaint led to ‘punishing’ the supplier company. However, withdrawing of certification does not necessarily lead to any benefit for the workers.”

In respect of the ETI, the report says: “The ETI Code Violation Procedure claims to provide remedy for affected workers. In the cases under discussion, however, the procedure did not clearly define the responsibilities of ETI as an improvement initiative on the one hand, and the responsibilities of the involved ETI member companies on the other hand. While the aim of the procedure is to resolve violations of the ETI Base Code that cannot be resolved informally, ETI did not take a leading role in settling the complaint. This was mostly left to the complainant and the ETI member company. There is no evidence that the grievance procedure improved labour conditions in the spinning mills and factory concerned.”

Most disturbingly the report suggests there is “no proper engagement of workers.” It goes on to conclude: “… the long and drawn-out way complaints have been handled by both ETI and SAI have not resulted in tangible improvements for these girls and young women.”

The ETI has strongly refuted the findings of the report. A spokesperson for ETI said: “This inaccurate and misleading report refers to a specific incident that took place in 2014 which has since been resolved. The report not only misrepresents our complaints procedure, it contains major factual errors about our work in Tamil Nadu.

“Contrary to the allegations, we can confirm that we dealt with the complaint in question, which related to conditions in two factories – one of which was not part of our programme at the time – and the complainant (Homeworkers Worldwide) accepted the proposed solution.

“Furthermore, the report’s claim that our programme only focusses on health and safety is just plain wrong. The programme gained access to mills through a health initiative, but it has always been concerned with workers’ rights. For the last two and half years, we have employed a broader rights at work agenda.

“However, we recognise there is still much to do in the region. Tackling such deeply ingrained and widespread abuses inevitably takes time, yet independent reports have praised our approach, which has had a demonstrable impact on the lives of thousands of women workers.”

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