Luxury brands quietly sourcing Indian embroiderers for their goods

At the top of a staircase covered in dirt and sequins, several dozen Indian artisans hunched over yards of fabric, using needles to embroider garments for the world’s most powerful fashion brands. They sewed without health benefits in a multiroom factory with caged windows and no emergency exit, completing subcontracted orders for designers. When night fell, some slept on the floor.

They were not working for a factory employed by fast fashion brands: companies whose business model is premised on producing trendy clothing as cheaply as possible.

Unknown to most consumers, the expensive, glittering brands of runways in Paris and Milan also indirectly employ thousands of workers in the developing world. In Mumbai, scores of ateliers and export houses act as middlemen between the brands and highly skilled artisans, while also providing services like design, sampling and garment production.

As with fast fashion retailers, many do not own all of their own production facilities, and instead contract with independent factories to make their garments or embroider them. And like fast fashion, they too have woken up to potential dangers with that system.

In 2016, a group of luxury houses introduced the Utthan pact, an ambitious and secretive compliance project aimed at ensuring factory safety in Mumbai and elevating Indian embroiderers. Among the signatories were Kering (owner of labels including Gucci and Saint Laurent); LVMH Moët Hennessy (owner of Fendi and Christian Dior); and two British fashion houses, Burberry and Mulberry.

Yet during visits to several Mumbai factories, and in more than three dozen interviews with artisans, factory managers and designers, The New York Times found that embroiderers still completed orders at unregulated facilities that did not meet Indian factory safety laws. Many workers still do not have any employment benefits or protections, while seasonal demands for thousands of hours of overtime would coincide with the latest fashion weeks in Europe.

“Given the product prices, there is a sense that the must be doing it right, and that makes them immune to public scrutiny,” said Michael Posner, a professor of ethics and finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University. “But despite the price tags for luxury brand goods, the conditions in factories across their supply chains can be just as bad as those found in factories producing for fast fashion retailers.”

When contacted for comment, that were Utthan signatories largely highlighted the broader improvements made by the implementation of the pact, rather than focusing on continuing issues and accusations. “We recognise that the situation of some workers at the subcontracting level is still very far from satisfying today, and we are genuinely determined to strengthen the program with our fellow stakeholders, to speed up progress and to further improve the situation,” a Kering spokesman said. A spokesman for LVMH Moët Hennessy said in an emailed statement: “We take the allegations raised through your questions very seriously but are unable to comment without further details and a thorough investigation.”

Since the 1980s, luxury brands have quietly outsourced much of their embroidery work to India. The country is one of the world’s largest garment exporters, with a textiles market worth $150 to $250 billion, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation.

India’s embroiderers, or karigars, are among the best in the world. Formalised during Mughal rule, the karigars have passed their art form across generations. Today they are largely Muslim men who migrated from rural India to Mumbai, where they are paid meagre sums to work up to 17 hours a day.

Western designers have brought some of their most important embroidery work to India in recent years, including Alessandro Michele’s exuberant collections for Gucci, emblazoned with tigers and butterflies; Dior’s embellished saddle bags; and red carpet looks for Lady Gaga, Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lopez, whose 2019 jungle print Versace dress was embroidered in Mumbai.

By 2019, India’s embroidery exports exceeded $230 million, a nearly 500 per cent increase from two decades ago, according to the government’s commerce ministry.

But as scrutiny of supply chains grew, luxury brands became nervous about their ties to India, and Utthan, which roughly translates to “upliftment”, was established. At least seven Indian export houses — middlemen between local embroidery factories and brands — also joined.

The project proposed sweeping changes to Mumbai’s factories by standardising wages and improving workplace safety. However, unlike with many luxury initiatives, including sustainability and ethical business practices, the brands did not publicise their involvement in Utthan. They did not mention it in their annual reports or corporate and social responsibility platforms, and some discouraged auditors from speaking about it. At least two signatories said they were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements.

An embroiderer in a Mumbai slum

An embroiderer in a Mumbai slum

Managed by Impactt, a consultancy in London, the agreement delineated targets for Indian export houses, which typically have their own factories. But when deadlines are tight and the work orders exceed what their factories can produce, the export houses subcontract. They take embroidery work to small businesses like those visited by The Times, where wages are frequently paid in cash and facilities fail to meet safety codes.

According to a 2016 publication from Impactt that laid out Utthan’s requirements, within three years, every Indian subcontractor employed by signatories would be required to show progress in providing health and pension benefits to artisans. All factories would need fire extinguishers, a separate room for workers to sleep in and for bigger facilities at least two signposted exits. The Utthan pact also called for a maximum six-day week for artisans, a workday of no more than 11 hours — in line with the legal limit — and reduced overtime.

The state of Maharashtra has not stipulated a minimum wage for hand embroiderers. Instead, exporters typically use the government’s category for “highly skilled” workers (about $175 per month, excluding benefits). Utthan sets a salary of about $225, including benefits. In the same publication that detailed these initiatives, Impactt said it would assess factories at least once a year.

“The endemic challenges in the sector clearly required substantial, long-term engagement,” Rosey Hurst, the founder of Impactt, said in an email, adding that Utthan was intended as a collaboration between brands and exporters.

But not every brand signed — Valentino and Versace place orders with the same export houses but do not work with Utthan — and not every export house thought it was a good deal, seeing it as a public relations exercise intended to shield luxury brands from liability.

Brands’ demands spike ahead of seasonal fashion weeks. While many workers actively seek extra work to earn more money, artisans said overtime beyond the Indian government’s limits is common, as is the use of subcontractors.

The Times recently visited six subcontractors that collectively employ as many as a few hundred karigars,. Three years after Utthan was introduced, the managers said few of their artisans received health benefits or a pension, and working hours regularly exceeded India’s legal limits. Every factory The Times visited lacked at least a few safety features mandated by Utthan and India’s Factories Act.

One manager said he was encouraged to lie to Utthan auditors. He said an exporter instructed him to temporarily move his artisans to a compliant factory when Impactt representatives visited. The compliant factory was well ventilated and prohibitively expensive for the manager to rent, costing nearly $2,000 a month. The factory he managed was an attic-like space on the top floor of a residential building in a neighbourhood packed with crumbling apartments. “I was told not to tell anybody,” the manager said, as he showed <The Times> recent invoices for Gucci and Christian Dior, including one embroidery order for 15 black tulle dresses, which he said took 6,000 hours of labour to complete.

“We are being exploited everywhere,” said Abdullah Khan, an artisan with more than 20 years of experience. Last summer, Khan and about a dozen other artisans pushed for raises at the export house where they worked, an Utthan signatory that completes orders for Saint Laurent. Though Khan did not know it at the time, the factory’s artisans were being paid about 13 per cent less than what Utthan required, according to a salary slip reviewed by The Times.

Managers tried to fire the group of artisans after they approached Sachin Gole, a union leader in Mumbai with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a political party. Khan said their salaries were docked for every minute spent communicating with the union and that they were moved into another room at the factory. “The situation is very bad,” Gole said. “If artisans fight for their rights, they are terminated.”

Eventually, the local government’s labour commission helped negotiate a severance package for karigars who wanted to leave, including Khan. The factory’s wages were ultimately increased, though they remained about five per cent below Utthan’s benchmark.

Hurst of Impactt said that about half of the 2,810 artisans working for Utthan signatories were covered by employment benefits, and that Impactt was working on increasing that number. “While we have seen some considerable improvements in health and safety and are making progress in pay and hours, we fully acknowledge there is still more work to do,” she said.

Burberry said that it worked with only two Indian exporters, with guarantees that they used in-house artisans as opposed to subcontractors for the orders it placed, and that they would continue supporting the pact. Mulberry said it had left the pact in March 2018 because of reprioritisation of its business activities to leather goods.

The truth is, said Posner of New York University, “voluntary pacts between brands alone do not guarantee very much”. Pankaj Attarde, a veteran embroidery consultant in Mumbai, said it was time the world knew the plight of India’s artisans and their extraordinary contribution to fashion. “We need to bring transparency and fairness into the system if this industry is going to survive,” he said. “If compliance is about improving the lives of workers, why is Utthan secretive?”

Kritika Sony contributed reporting and research from Mumbai

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