The inspectors who visit Indian sewing workshops rarely find anything wrong. And they do not ask penetrating questions.
The company inspections that are supposed to prevent workers in the international textile industry being exploited usually don't amount to much. Inspectors are rather easily fooled, a study by the campaign group Clean Clothes Campaign shows.
What is going on?
Working conditions in the international textile industry still leave a lot to be desired. Although virtually all Western clothing companies these days say that they only work with suppliers who treat their staff humanely, the reality is more intransigent.
This has been shown, among other things, by the visit made by De Volkskrant to an Indian clothing factory last week. This supplier of H&M and C&A, among others, pays out part of the salary of its workers only after three years. The women are almost never permitted to leave the factory site or join a trade union.
Nevertheless, KPR Mill, the Indian company in question, holds the SA8000 certificate. This is an international hallmark which is intended to guarantee that acceptable working conditions prevail in the certified company. It would seem that the SA8000 mark is not a hard and fast guarantee for this.
How can this be, is the question asked in the report 'Looking for a Quick Fix' of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an international campaign movement of trade unions and NGOs which is fighting for the rights of workers in the clothing industry. The report from 2005 is based on investigations in eight key textile producing countries, including China, India and Bangladesh. The conclusion is that most inspections are of no use whatsoever. The inspectors monitoring the circumstances in the textile factories are usually poorly trained and are not independent. They do not do their work well.
What is wrong with the inspection system?
Company visits are almost always announced in advance. The agencies carrying out the inspections say that this is necessary to ensure that the managers responsible are present and that all the necessary documents are ready. But announced inspections invite fraud. For example, workers are instructed to wear clean clothes on the day of the inspection, and to clean the factory thoroughly in advance. Emergency exits which are usually blocked off are opened for the occasion, and first-aid boxes which are usually locked up are unlocked. And, most importantly, the workers are instructed to give the 'right' answers about the working conditions. "If the floor is swept tidily, there are suddenly wastepaper baskets everywhere and we are all given thimbles to wear, this is a sign that the inspectors are coming," the CCC report quotes a textile worker from North India as saying. What can also happen is that the company has a 'showroom' factory, where everything is in order, while most of the production is subcontracted to subcontractors, where the situation is a lot worse.
Do these inspectors not pay attention?
Generally speaking, inspectors do not make much effort to look underneath the surface, the report argues. The inspections are primarily visual: are there sufficient toilets, emergency exits and fire extinguishers, and does the place look hygienic? In these areas, the company visits do lead to improvements, according to the testimonies of workers. The inspectors rarely ask about wages, forced overtime, discrimination and sexual harassment, however. More often than not, the workers are questioned in the presence of their bosses, which pretty much guarantees that they will remain silent about any abuse.
What needs to change?
That the inspections leave a great deal to be desired is, according to the researchers, due to the fact that the vast majority of inspections are carried out by commercial companies. The inspectors are paid by the factory they have to inspect, or by the factory's Western client. Both of these have an interest in a positive inspection result. In this respect, workfloor inspections in the textile industry are very similar to accountancy. Accountants are also not keen to bite the hand that feeds them, as the Financial Markets Authority observed last week.
Five years after the publication of the study report, little has changed, according to a spokesperson of the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Should we therefore buy expensive branded clothing?
No, expensive is not better by definition. A lot of expensive branded clothing is also made in Asian sweatshops.