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Bonded labour afflicts many in Tamil Nadu garment district

May 2014

Most companies importing garments from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu refuse to disclose whether or how they tackle bonded labour abuses at their supplying factories.

Many of the abuses are said to be committed under the sumangali scheme, in which young women work to save money for their dowry and are easily exploited.

The clothing companies’ silence is highlighted in a report on the industry’s treatment of girls and young women compiled by FNV Mondiaal, part of the Dutch trade union confederation, and the India Committee of the Netherlands, a Dutch NGO that helps deprived groups on the sub-continent.

Altogether 100,000 children and teenage girls, mostly from the dalit lower caste, are thought to be victims of bonded labour in Tamil Nadu. The report says they live in hostels, have little freedom of movement, are underpaid and work long hours in unhealthy conditions.

Indian newspapers revealed that two girls escaped from the PV Spinning Mill in the Erode district last October and complained of being compelled to work 12-hour days on a sub-standard diet.

Local organisations confirmed that forced overtime, poor food and harsh treatment were common at the mill.
District officials and NGOs then rescued 47 young labourers, mostly women and girls.

The report says the women working under the sumangali scheme can lose much of their pay if they fail to complete contracts of three to five years. In addition, companies retain contributions intended for a compulsory social security fund until contract completion instead of depositing them with a public agency.

Specific discrimination, says READ, an NGO dedicated to empowering women and marginalised groups, is directed at dalit girls, who make up almost 60% of those working under the sumangali scheme in the mills. Many of the girls are in the arunthatiyar sub-caste, called the “dalits among the dalits”.

The dalit girls, says READ, are taunted if they protest about lack of lighting and water, or other problems, and are given the heavy tasks, while non-dalits perform easier work.

Companies that did not react to the survey include Ikea and Walmart, those responding include PVH/Tommy Hilfiger Europe, and none published a list of suppliers.

The researchers said most monitored only first-tier suppliers. They reported: “Most violations take place further down the production chain, especially in the spinning mills. Only Tommy Hilfiger and O’Neill say they are monitoring further down.”

However, campaigners have had some success, notably at Eastman Exports Global Clothing, KPR Mill and SSM India, where NGOs have been able to observe conditions and train employees and management in labour rights. Now KPR pays wages into employees’ banks, workers have identity cards, parents may visit weekly, and girls occasionally visit home.

Other groups are working to eradicate sumangali, including the Ethical Trading Initiative’s Nadu Multi-Stakeholder Group (TNMS), though local NGOs claim they have too little involvement.

The Business Social Compliance Initiative, to which 1,200 customer companies belong, encourages members importing from Tamil Nadu to join the TNMS.

The report recommends external auditing to detect bonded labour and other abuses, offsite interviews, training for workers and management, grievance procedures and transparency about suppliers.

It urges retailers and other stakeholders to take the lead on supply chain transparency with the help of local civil society bodies.  

Global | Human rights


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