Karnataka is one of India’s garment-industry heartlands, with thousands of factories and hundreds of thousands of workers producing clothing for international brands including Puma, Nike, Zara, Tesco, C&A, Gap, Marks & Spencer and H&M.
Garment workers making clothes for international brands in Karnataka, a major clothing production hub in India, say their children are going hungry as factories refuse to pay the legal minimum wage in what is claimed to be the biggest wage theft to ever hit the fashion industry.
More than 400,000 garment workers in Karnataka have not been paid the state’s legal minimum wage since April 2020, according to an international labour rights organisation that monitors working conditions in factories.
The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) estimates the total amount of unpaid wages so far to be more than £41m.
Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, said: “In terms of number of workers affected and total money stolen, this is the most egregious act of wage theft we’ve ever seen. The children of garment workers are going hungry so brands can make a buck.” Nova said the “indifference and inaction” of all the brands sourcing clothing from the region about the situation facing its mostly poor, female workforce was “shameful and cruel”.
For the past two years, western brands had either refused to intervene or had not acted to ensure that workers making their clothes were paid in line with Indian law.
“Payment of minimum wage is pretty much the lowest bar on a brand’s responsibility towards its workforce. If they won’t even insist on this being paid then they are letting a human rights violation on a huge scale continue with impunity.”
One worker said she only earned about half of what she needed to cover basic living costs, such as food and rent.
“If we had got the wage increase last year, we could have at least eaten vegetables a few times a month. Throughout this year I have only fed my family rice and chutney sauce,” she said. “I tried to talk to the factory management about it,” she added, “but they said, ‘this is what we pay to work here. If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”
The annual cost of living increase to the minimum wage, the “variable dearness allowance” (VDA), was increased to 417 Indian rupees (£4.10) a month in April 2020. The WRC said that as this supplement for low-paid workers, which amounts to 16p a day, had gone unpaid for 20 months, each employee had been underpaid by R8,351 (£83).