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Indian factory workers supplying major brands allege routine exploitation
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Indian workers in factories supplying the supermarket chains Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury's, and the fashion brand Ralph Lauren, told the BBC they are being subjected to exploitative conditions.

Women working at a Ralph Lauren supplier said they had been forced to stay overnight to complete orders, sometimes requiring them to sleep on the factory floor.

"We're made to work continuously, often through the night, sleeping at 3am then waking up by 5am for another full day," one woman said in an interview. "Our bosses don't care. They're only bothered about production," she said.

The BBC has withheld the names of those who agreed to be interviewed, as well as the names of the factories, to protect the workers' safety.

Workers at the supermarket supplier said they had been made to endure conditions which would be unacceptable for staff employed by the same brands in the UK.

"We don't get toilet breaks, we don't get time to drink water on shift. We barely get time to eat lunch," one woman said.

She said a manager would sometimes stand behind staff in the canteen and blow a whistle to send them back to work.

Another employee said staff were forced to work overtime and prevented from going home until extra work was finished.

"They've increased our workload. We're forced to stay late to finish it - or they yell at us and threaten to fire us. We're scared as we don't want to lose our jobs."

The four brands supplied by the factories we investigated all said they were concerned about the allegations put to them by the BBC and would investigate.

The women working at these garment factories all live in poverty in a rural area of South India. The charity Action Aid, which supports more than 1,200 female garment workers across 45 villages in this specific region, told the BBC that forced overtime, verbal abuse and poor working conditions were routine at the factories in question.

Allegations such as these are not confined to the garment industry. Low wages and weak labor laws have long made India an attractive place for foreign brands looking to outsource work. Unions are rare and virtually absent in the private sector, making informal and contract workers especially vulnerable. While inspections are mandatory, rampant corruption and a sluggish system has meant that factories are rarely held to account for breaking the law.

The garment industry draws more attention because it's driven by exports and counts some of the world's biggest brands as among its clients. India is the world's second-largest manufacturer and exporter of garments after China. India's garment makers directly employ about 12.9 million people in factories and millions more outside, including their own homes, according to a 2019 report that investigated working conditions in the sector.

Several women who spoke to the BBC described a climate of fear at the factory supplying Ralph Lauren. They said managers did not give them notice to work additional hours, instead threatening them with the sack if they were unable to stay on.

"The supervisor always shouts at us," one woman said. "If we make any error in stitching, I'll be taken to the master who is very scary. The master will start swearing and shouting at us. It's a terrifying experience."

Another woman, a widow who supports her family financially, said: "They ask us to work so late I can't even feed my children at night. They shouldn't treat us like slaves, they should give us respect," she said. .

The claims appear to violate India's Factories Act, which states that no worker should exceed more than 48 hours a week (or 60 hours with overtime), nor should they be made to work for more than nine hours in one day.

The law also states that women should only work night shifts if they choose to do so.

Ralph Lauren's 2020 Global Citizenship and sustainability report says the company is "committed to conducting our global operations ethically with respect for the dignity of all people who make our products". The report also includes a pledge to ensure employees "must not be made to work excessive working hours" and says there should be no "verbal harassment, coercion, punishment or abuse".

The three brands are all members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), and have signed up to its base code which includes a pledge to ensure working hours are not excessive, overtime is voluntary and that workers are not subject to verbal abuse.

In a statement, Ralph Lauren said it was deeply concerned by the allegations put to the company by the BBC and would investigate.

"We require all of our suppliers to meet strict operating standards to ensure a safe, healthy and ethical workplace, and we conduct regular third-party audits at all factories," the company said.

The factory supplying the fashion brand denied the staff members' allegations and said it was compliant with the law.

The three supermarket brands all said they were shocked to hear the reports and were working together to ensure the issues were remedied, in particular on excessive working hours.

Sainsbury's said it was "insisting on a number of actions the supplier must take in order for us to continue to work with them", including "immediate actions and ongoing commitments joker game the supplier must make while we continue to closely monitor the site".

Tesco said: "We don't tolerate any abuse of workers' rights and fully investigated these allegations as soon as we were made aware. We were deeply troubled with what we found."

Tesco said its plan included "prohibiting excessive overtime, strengthening grievance procedures" and ensuring workers were "fully compensated at the correct rates for hours they've worked".

Marks and Spencer said it "undertook an immediate unannounced audit" in the wake of the claims, the company said it "identified overtime working practices that are not acceptable", but disputed worker accounts about access to toilet breaks and water.

The company also said it had a "robust" plan in place and would be "undertaking regular unannounced audits to ensure its implementation".
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