Tesco said it has found labour abuses in its garment supply chain in southern India after receiving evidence of widespread forced labour involving migrant women in cotton spinning-mills across Tamil Nadu.

The supermarket said that one of its supply chains is linked to a spinning mill included in a new report by NGOs Somo and Arisa that found evidence across the region of multiple labour abuses including deception, intimidation and threats towards vulnerable female workers, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime.

A Tesco spokesperson said: “We take allegations of human rights abuses in our supply chain extremely seriously … While not a direct customer of this mill, we recognise our responsibility to everyone in our supply chain and are working alongside other brands and with Somo to investigate and ensure improvements are made.”

A worker at one of the mills spoken to by the researchers said: “We do not get proper sleep. We always have to work. We often have to work two shifts and sometimes even three shifts. This makes us feel tired and drowsy. But we cannot take any rest.”

Another added: “Most of my life I am spending with the machines. There is absolutely no contact with the outside world.”

Hundreds of workers had no choice but to live in overcrowded and “unhygienic” hostels, miles from their families and with no paid leave. Workers described severe limitations on their freedom, saying that while they were not working they had to remain in dormitories and were closely monitored.

Women reported feeling unsafe and that they were subject to sexual harassment, in the factories and their accommodation. They described male managers, supervisors, hostel staff and co-workers touching them inappropriately and making sexual comments, often under cover of loud machine noise.

The spinning mills of Tamil Nadu, which feed raw materials into India’s export garment sector, have long been associated with human rights abuses. A Guardian investigation in 2018 revealed that Hugo Boss had found young female workers held captive and prevented from leaving the premises in garment factories linked to its company in Tamil Nadu.

Employees at a garment factory in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu, India.
Human rights issues in Tamil Nadu’s fabric manufacturing sector have been described as ‘systemic’. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty

The authors of the report believe the alleged abuses they found in the 29 mills surveyed are likely to be replicated across the Tamil Nadu textile sector.

The report named international brands including Next, Sainsbury’s, Gap and Ikea, which it claims were directly or indirectly linked to the mills investigated.

Next said it believed six of the 29 mills named in the report were linked to its supply chains and would be investigating. It also said it would be taking joint action with Tesco to try to stop wider abuses throughout the region.

When approached with the report’s findings, Ikea denied that it had any links with the mills in the report. A spokesperson said: “The mill Somo claims has a connection to Ikea in the report is neither a supplier nor sub-supplier.” It said therefore, Ikea had no legal right to enforce its code of conduct, nor carry out associated audits. It added: “Findings from reports of this manner play an important role and we will bring it with us in our future work.”

Gap also denied that its supply chains are linked to any of the mills highlighted in the report. It confirmed to the Guardian that it sources from the region and said: “We recognise that the urgent labour and human rights issues in Tamil Nadu’s fabric manufacturing sector are systemic, and we will continue to work with industry peers and expert organisations in addressing them.”

Sainsbury’s said that it sourced from the region but that it had no relationship with the mills named in the report, which it called “misleading”. A spokesperson said: “All of our suppliers are expected to meet our high ethical sourcing standards. They are regularly required to demonstrate this and we work closely with our suppliers to address any concerns.”

This article was amended on 27 and 28 May 2021. An earlier version said that Tesco had admitted there were “critical issues” at a spinning mill named in the report. To clarify: the supermarket said that one of its supply chains was linked to a mill included in the report; it was the report’s authors who found that there were “critical issues”. The article’s headline and subheading were also changed to better reflect the text.

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