Last Saturday, The Times ran a story on the terrible plight facing some young women in India’s garments sector. It reported that girls as young as 11 were recruited to work in spinning mills and garment factories in the state of Tamil Nadu, working long hours for low wages, in conditions that were exploitative and tantamount to bonded labour.
Stories such as this play an important role, shining a light on issues that need to be examined. They allow workers to share their experiences with Western consumers, and have their voices heard. The Times investigation follows the publication of a report by the India Committee of the Netherlands, Flawed Fabrics, which examined working conditions under an Indian employment scheme known as Sumangali.
ETI and our members share a deep concern about employment practices within some parts of Tamil Nadu’s garment sector, particularly relating to the Sumangali scheme. No one should be subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe conditions or work arrangements that are tantamount to bonded labour. Many of these workers are young women from the Dalit group (which lives at the bottom of India's social hierarchy), meaning they are even more vulnerable to exploitation.
International brands and retailers sourcing from this sector must take heed, and take action to address the issues outlined in these reports. This is a complex international supply chain, where brands and retailers do not have direct relationships with mills, so a collaborative approach has the best chance of affecting real change.
Our members sourcing from Tamil Nadu, trade unions and NGOs came together two years ago over these labour rights concerns, and identified how we could work together collectively to tackle them. We’ve worked hard to engage local industry and stakeholders, in what have been sensitive and at times challenging conversations. We are now delivering a programme that aims to catalyse positive change within the industry through activities that empower young women workers, strengthen industrial relations, build community awareness and support legislative reform.
We welcome engagement with clothing brands and retailers that source from this region and are interested in joining our efforts. It is also vital that this work is rooted in local culture, with a clear leadership role for local government, industry and civil society. If all stakeholders can work together effectively, the goal of a thriving South Indian garments sector that upholds the rights of its workers is well within reach.