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ICN Calls on Major Brands to Address Exploitation in Indian Leather Industry

Image Credit: Piyal Adhikary/EPA

The textile and apparel industries are widely known to have considerable environmental and social impacts on both local and global levels. The leather industry is no exception — in India, approximately 2.5 million workers are exposed to poor working conditions that violate their human rights and negatively affect their health. Exposure to toxic chemicals, unfair wages, child labor, discrimination of Dalits (‘outcastes’) and the difficulty to organize in trade unions are just some of the many challenges workers face according to a new report by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN).

Do Leather Workers Matter? Violating Labour Rights and Environmental Norms in India’s Leather Production explores the existing labor conditions in the leather industry that are steeped in deep-rooted social inequalities in Indian society based on caste and gender discrimination. Three main production hubs that supply hides, leather, garments and footwear for export — Kolkata, Agra and the Vinyambadi-Ambur cluster in Tamil Nadu — were studied for the report, providing an on-the-ground glimpse at the current state affairs in the industry. The report depicts labor conditions in a cross section of production units varying from homeworkers, tanneries, workshops in the informal sector to large modern export units.

The report identifies Dalits (‘outcastes’), women and children as being the most at-risk for human rights violations. Dalits, who constitute the majority of the leather industry, are often the victims of pay discrimination due to their low status in society and their work in the leather industry. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the official minimum wage in early 2016 for leather workers was less than €2 a day — less than half of the official wage of an apprentice in the textile industry. Often this minimum wage is not even paid.

Women, specifically those involved in a highly labor-intensive part of shoe production, face insecure and unprotected work, receive poverty wages and work under unsafe conditions. Child labor is also common in the unorganized part of the sector, particularly in smaller tanneries and workshops.

India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments. The footwear sector in India specializes in medium to high priced leather footwear, particularly for men. Almost 90 percent of the country’s footwear exports goes to the European Union. Additionally, many major brands such as H&M, Primark, Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Mango, Walmart, Prada, PUMA and Marks & Spencer source their footwear, leather garments, leather goods and accessories from India. While the report does not look at the supply chains of specific brands, it does provide a general sketch of human rights violations in leather and leather goods production in India.

In Do Leather Workers Matter, the ICN offers nine recommendations to companies and CSR initiatives in the leather and footwear industry in regards to: due diligence, mapping of supply chains, transparency, long-term business relationships, collaboration to increase leverage, the mandatory written contracts and equal treatment and the importance of unions, collective bargaining, company level grievance mechanisms and space for civil society.

A draft version of the report was shared with a wide range of companies and CSR initiatives. In a joint statement, 12 member companies of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) welcomed the ICN report and agreed that ‘there needs to be a collective response to these issues.’ They have said that they will 'commit to working with international and national stakeholders to develop a strategic response to the issues in our leather supply chain.’

In total, 19 companies including the 12 ETI members such as H&M, Primark, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Next, TESCO, Sainsbury amongst others reacted to the report as well as two CSR initiatives, including the Leather Working Group and MVO Nederland. Most companies indicated that there is an urgent need to address the issues outlined in the report and some shared concrete commitments to combat adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their supply chain.


Libby MacCarthy is an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands, based in Maine and France. She is a former urban planner specializing in sustainable cities, and an urban farming and film photography enthusiast. She holds a BA in Environment, Society and… [Read more about Libby MacCarthy]


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