International garment brands not transparent about labour exploitation by their Indian suppliers: report

100,000 young children and teenage girls are victims of 'bonded labour' in Tamil Nadu; dalit girls worse off

By M Suchitra
Published: Saturday 05 April 2014

An international organisation working for welfare of workers has drawn attention to the hazardous and exploitative working conditions of young girls working for the garment sector in Tamil Nadu.

An estimated 100,000 children and teenage girls are working in extremely oppressive conditions in the spinning mills and garment factories in Tamil Nadu, according to a report released by FNV Mondiaal (international department of Dutch trade union confederation) and the India Committee of the Netherlands. Most of the girls belong to dalit communities and live in hostels, with little freedom of movement. They are underpaid, made to work for long hours in hazardous and unhealthy conditions. They are victims of "bonded labour" or "modern slavery", says the report.

However, international companies importing garments from this southern state of India refuse to be transparent about bonded labour engaged by their suppliers.

A press released based on the report, Small Steps, Big Challenges –Update (pdf), on (tackling) exploitation of girls and young women in the garment supply chain of south India, was issued on April 4.

The report discusses the current situation in Tamil Nadu, the limited improvements after previous reports and the responses of 21 Dutch and international garment brands on the question of what they do to combat the abuses. It also discusses the activities of various joint initiatives by companies and other organisations.

Labour rights violations in Tamil Nadu

A 2013  survey done by  SAVE, an Indian non-governmental organisation,  reveals that the total workforce of the 1,574 spinning mills in Tamil Nadu consists of about  224,000 women workers. An estimated 80 per cent of them are under 18, and 14-20 per cent is under 14. They are often subject to forced overtime, underpayment and hazardous and unhealthy working conditions.

Almost 160,000 of the women worjers stay in hostels. Their freedom of movement is restricted. Often they only leave the hostel once a month for shopping and rarely visit their families. Trade unions are completely absent.

Around half of the total women workers toil under highly exploitative schemes such as Sumangali.  In Sumangali Scheme, young unmarried women work in textile mills to save money for their dowry. In reality, schemes like Sumangali are a form of bonded labour, since wages are withheld and only paid after workers complete a three to five year contract period.

Another exploitative practice is keeping the Employee Provident Fund (EPF) in employers' accounts. EPF is by law a social security fund. Employers are supposed to transfer 12 per cent of the employee's salary to this fund and add the same amount as employers’ contribution. This money has to be transferred to the concerned government office. Instead of transferring the money, there are employers in the textile and garment sector who keep the money in their own account and only transfer it when a worker finishes her 3-5 year contract. A worker who leaves before finishing the contract period loses the PF money she is legally entitled to.

No supply chain transparency
Of the 21 garment companies approached, only eight have responded.  These were HEMA (Dutch), Impala Loft (Germany), O'Neill Europe, Migros (Switzerland) PVH/Tommy Hilfiger Europe, Scotch and Soda (Dutch), Van den Broek (Dutch) and Zeeman (Dutch). Companies that were contacted but have not reacted at all are Abercombie & Fitch (USA), Carodel (Belgium), Crew Clothing (UK), IKEA NL, LPP (Poland), Kiddo Fashion (Dutch), Teidem (Dutch), Sorbo Fashion (Dutch), TDP Textiles (UK), Tumble 'N Dry (Dutch) and Walmart (USA).

Six companies acknowledge that violations of labour rights take place in Tamil Nadu, but only PVH/Tommy Hilfiger and Migros admit that bonded labour - in the form of the Sumangali Scheme ( see box ‘Labour rights violation in Tamil Nadu) existed in their production chain. HEMA states it cannot share the information, but nevertheless emphasises the importance of supply chain transparency. Apart from that, none of the contacted companies publishes their list of suppliers. Most companies only monitor their first tier supplier. However, most violations take place further down the production chain, especially in the spinning mills. According to the report, only Tommy Hilfiger and O'Neill say they are monitoring further down their supply chain.

Heavy work, taunt, for dalit girls

The report cites the study of READ, a non-overnmental organization in Tamil Nadu on the Sumangali Scheme. Almost 60 per cent girls working under this scheme or similar arrangements are dalits. Most of them belong to Arunthatiyar community, the “dalits among the dalits'. READ has noted that dalit girls face specific forms of discrimination: while recruiting workers, in the factory hostels as well as on the work floor. READ finds that the rooms in the hostels are allotted community-wise and that dalit girls are taunted if they complain about lack of basic amenities like water and light. Besides, all the heavy work like carding, waste and cone cleaning are given to them, while easier work like counting and checking is given to non-dalit girls. Dalit girls are forced to do extra work during night shifts.

FNV Mondiaal and the ICN recommendations
  • ‘Audit methodology' should be improved to detect bonded labour, discrimination and sexual harassment through offsite workers’ interviews with workers and their unions, to take additional interventions.  
  • Training for workers and management and a credible grievance mechanism are necessary.
  • Companies need to make public their suppliers, also further down the chain. This also applies to audit findings, plans for improvement and results achieved.
  • CSR initiatives of companies and other stakeholder should take the lead in facilitating further supply chain transparency in the garment sector.
  • Meaningful engagement of local civil society organizations in the monitoring of labour conditions and the action plans is crucial for.
  • Meaningful engagement of local civil society organizations in the monitoring of labour conditions and the action plans is crucial for improving the situation.

Some improvements
The study observes that as a result of previous publications and campaigns –both in India and internationally—some improvements have been put in place at most of the previously investigated major suppliers. These suppliers are Eastman Exports Global Clothing, KPR Mill and SSM India. In these companies, civil society organisations did get access to monitor the production units and to train employees and management on labour rights. In KPR Mill, wages are now transferred to the bank accounts of employees, workers have an identity card, parents are allowed to visit weekly, and the girls can occasionally visit their homes.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.