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Reporter Brasil eradicates modern slavery from supply chains of fashion industry

Reporter Brasil eradicates modern slavery from supply chains of fashion industry

In March 2017 I visited Sao Paulo where I spoke with Natalia Suzuki and Andre Campos of Reporter Brasil, local NGO acting against human rights violations in workplaces with their investigative journalism and research to eradicate slave labour across all sectors. In this eye opening talk we discuss global issues that probably all fashion retailers face when building their supply chain and at the same this conversation will explain to you how migration,human trafficking and discrimination are linked to conventional garment production.

What are your actions for Reporter Brazil in garment sector?

A.C.: For Reporter Brazil I research supply chains in several economic sectors. I work on projects that help exposing issues like illegal workers, poor working conditions, or even modern slavery and illegal environmental practices across Brazil. After mapping out the connections of poor working conditions to global companies operations we publish our results in many ways – reports, multimedia platforms, etc. For issues related to the garment sector we have a customer friendly form of an app called Moda Livre. It allows Brazilian consumers to find out about what national and international brands are doing to control their supply chains. How well are they informed and what are their policies to monitor and improve their supply chain management regarding human rights.

What is the specific of garment sector in Brazil?

A.C.: Brazil has a quite big garment industry. The textile and fashion industries together are worth $63bn with annual production of 9.5 million garments (2012). It is also one of the largest employers in the country. However, we don’t export a lot of clothes, as an important share of what’s made here is worn by Brazilians. While being domestic oriented, still it’s a relevant, 200 million people market that employs hundreds of thousands of workers. Unfortunately, violations that we see here are not much different from those happening in other garment industry hubs around the world. We have found workshops operating under high pressure of demand and workers bearing a huge hour workload to make the production while receiving a minimal wage. Like in many countries a minimal wage in Brazil is not a living wage.

N.S.: Most of the sweatshops are locatedin centre of Sao Paulo, as it is a cheaper neighbourhood, however some of them are now moving out from the city to avoid inspections. Sweatshops were present here already in 70s and 80s and back then they were employing mostly Brazilian women. But since the 90s, migrants from Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay have been become the majority of workforce for garment industry. At first the Korean migrants were in charge of sweatshops, until the beginning of this century when some Latin American workers advanced economically to the point where they started to own some of the sweatshops and recruit people themselves. Still the conditions remain very precarious.

How is garment sector relying on migrant workers and where do they come from?

N.S.: The process of recruitment is based on a complex, international, semi- formal and semi- legal network. Usually workers are enrolled already in their hometown, in Bolivia for example, often through family relationships. Often they are being lied to about work conditions. First offered good salaries, and later charged excessively for travel and living costs. So newly recruited workers from the day they arrive in Brazil have a huge and unexpected loan to pay back. Living costs that are mentioned here are also estimated by the employer, because majority of migrant workers live inside the sweatshop with their whole family. Another decisive factor that keeps people in this exploitative work relationship is a language barrier. Once they don’t speak Portuguese, they can hardly communicate with people outside their community, also in Bolivia the labour legislation is more permissive than in Brazil. Mentioned factors result in migrant workers being afraid to report their situation, it is even worse if they don’t have a regulated migration status. Unless they register as legal workers in Brazil they will not have the labour legislation in favour of them. Sadly, we often found the cases of employers blackmailing migrant workers who contact authorities. The cases of exploitative working conditions which we find are multifaceted and all the above mentioned conditions make migrant workers particularly vulnerable and feeling that they have nowhere to go or no one to ask for help.

A.C.: Out of their downgraded salary migrant workers have to pay for the food and housing expenses provided by the factory owner. We have seen this happening in many places and this kind of situation was also confirmed by inspections from Labour Ministry of Brasil, specialized in detecting modern slavery, that found migrant workers forced to sew garments for most recognizable and profitable brands in the world, including an infamous case of ZARA from 2011.

We observe a strong competition between small workshops who want to become a partner of a large retailer in the supply chain. This leads to very low prices. Workshop owners cut the workers benefits to achieve compatible prices.

How do you outsource your production to a factory that doesn’t legally exist?

N.S.:In theory you can’t. In practice this is happening. Many cases that we found and local labour inspectors were proceeding them, both the sweatshop and the workers operated in black. The most common problem is that a brand is outsourcing to a legally operating factory in Sao Paulo, providing good conditions, but often this factory is subcontracting some of the production to someone else. This includes workshops operating in black or home production. This means that producers are risking their accountability, but consider it to be worthy, to keep up with the market demands.

A.C.: Pricing politics is one of the problems. We observe a strong competition between small workshops who want to become a partner of a large retailer in the supply chain. This leads to very low prices. Workshop owners cut the workers benefits to achieve compatible prices.

N.S.: The salary depends on the number of pieces that one can produce. That makes people work up to 15-17 hours a day.

A.C.: In Reporter Brazil we believe that brands need to have standards for their suppliers. And in some cases they should cut off the business relation with those who don’t assure decent work. When it happens it is important to have policies and training programmes assuring that workers will not be the ones paying price for it. The retailer could find new workplaces in the supply chains for them. Many cases of poor working conditions are usually linked to short term working relations, meaning no longer than a year. These are always people who go from one job to another and lack social security.

N.S.: Because the retailer doesn’t hire the garment workers directly and the sweatshop could even possibly employ them in black. Often the sweatshops themselves exist in black and are not able to hire people according to the legislation. When the State authorities audited such places, it is used to find the lack of documentation, unpayed tax, not respecting workers’ rights, workers living in sweatshops and all these anomalies adding on to one another.

Even people really well prepared to inspect the workplace who notice illegal practices such as modern slavery still fail to address them.

What are the next steps when such cases are found?

A.C.: After the Zara case our team researched what new procedures company has adopted. What did they do to improve their control over the supply chain after such abuse has been found and proved in court. Sadly, although some improvementswere made, we found that they lose control over their supply chain when the outsorced factories subcontracted orders to smaller, non- audited workshops. This is often the case when the order is placed without realistically considering the efficiency and production possibilities of the given factory. Our main idea is to bring it back to work in a regular and correct manner as soon as possible. We think this should be done by making the employer liable for the abuses found which, force the company to pay the debts, social benefits, over hours and lacking salaries back to workers. Sometimes the work continues under new conditions and in other cases the workshop is obliged to be shut down. Workers become unemployed and receive unemployment benefit. We expect an agent representing the brand in Brazil to choose responsibly a place that has financial and legal conditions to employ people with legal wage and full benefits.

In your opinion: are certifications reliable?

A.C.: I can’t say they are useless, as they are able to create standards and allow companies to improve in a way. But definitely certifications aren’t a magic solution. It is a limited tool by its own nature and therefore doesn’t solve all the problems. What our organization has reported happening here in Brazil, and I know that this is the case in other parts of the world too, is that even people really well prepared to inspect the workplace who notice illegal practices such as modern slavery still fail to address them. Otherwise you would need to have an inspector there 24/7 to find out about all the problems. But this is not feasible under the economic structure that we have. We cannot rely on certifications to solve all the issues like for example unpaid overtimes. That’s why it is important to discuss how companies organize their production requests and amounts: do they assure that factories have the right amount of workers and don’t have to rely on extensive over hours? How do they make sure that the workshop is not outsourcing? And also if they decide to pay more for more reliable workplaces.

How you put pressure on the brands?

A.C.: Part of our work is engaging in multistakeholder initiatives, like: National Pact of Eradication of Slave Labour. We monitor companies response: if and how do they actually adopt new policies or do they just discuss them.

I think cases we find in Sao Paulo need to be discussed globally. Like the fashion retailers who are present globally. Our work cannot be discussed only in local terms.