Tamil Nadu in southern India is the powerhouse of India’s garments and textiles export sector. Yet its mainly female workforce has been subject to severe labour exploitation. Including bonded labour.
Tamil Nadu apparel and textiles sector
Apparel and textiles play a key role in India’s economy and global trade, contributing  five per cent of GDP and 11 per cent of total exports. Tamil Nadu is at its centre.
From spinning mills to finished garments, Tamil Nadu exports worldwide and counts many global brands and retailers among its clients. 
20% - Tamil Nadu’s contribution to India’s total exports of ready-made garments.
58% - The percentage of India’s textile mills present in Tamil Nadu.
1.02 million - The number of workers employed in Tamil Nadu’s garment sector.
Why we and our members set up the Tamil Nadu working group
In 2012, ETI set up the Tamil Nadu Multi-Stakeholder (TNMS) working group to help introduce ethical recruitment and employment practices.
This followed increasing NGO and media reports of entrenched labour rights abuses, particularly of young women workers recruited from India’s rural hinterlands.
- Withholding wages, paying below minimum wage levels and widespread adoption of so called sumangali employment practices, a form of bonded labour. Under sumangali, young women are hired on contract for up to five years. During their contract they earn minimal wages and at the end are given a lump sum to pay for a dowry.
- Excessive working hours, poor living conditions in hostels, low levels of personal health awareness, illness caused by exposure to cotton dust and no access to grievance mechanisms.
As signatories to the ETI Base Code, ETI companies are committed to a thriving textiles and garments sector that offers positive opportunities for young women millworkers through decent work.
They are collaborating with us, local factory owners and managers who share the project’s aims, and with other stakeholders including universities, trade unions and civil society organisations to address worker exploitation and improve standards.
How we are tackling poor employment practices
With funding from companies and the Freedom Fund, we have put in place a programme to empower women workers, strengthen industrial relations, build community awareness and support legislative reform.
- Strengthening the ability of women workers and local employers to address issues together: We are delivering training on women’s health issues and workers’ in 31 workplaces reaching 16,000 women workers. Locally, this is known as the nalam project – the Tamil word for wellbeing. As part of that we are fostering open communication between workers and managers. And we have plans to expand to 100 mills by 2023 building a replicable and sustainable change programme; a programme that no longer relies on external help but is instead recognised and overseen by an appropriate local institution.
- Raising awareness within recruitment communities: Our local trade union and NGO partners are alerting potential, current and former workers to employment rights, grievance redress and legal support – 1,268 former workers with employment issues have been identified and supported. 200,000 young women and family members have been made aware of workers’ rights and working conditions. We are also working with 461 local recruitment agents that link communities with mills to ensure they are conveying correct information on wages, working hours, benefits and leave.
- Driving change in recruitment policies and practices: We are engaging with industry associations, government and other institutions to strengthen laws and policies so that they protect the rights of workers and provide proper access to remedy. We are also supporting local trade unions in their efforts to reduce the apprenticeship period for unskilled workers from three years to six months.
“TNMS has contributed to an attitudinal shift within mill managers, who have seen the benefits of treating workers better and allowing workers to be educated on their rights. We have also been pleased that the industry association, SIMA, has supported the programme, nominating mills and providing their public support.” Alok Singh, ETI India Country Manager
Workers are reporting improved confidence, better understanding of their rights and improvements in their working conditions – currently the latter is primarily around the quality of canteen food but there are also reports of better relationships with supervisors and in some cases, workers are also reporting receiving pay increments.
Additionally, in an example of workers’ increased confidence, we are beginning to see cases of workers raising grievances around working conditions, to which factory management is actively responding. These include allegations around workplace temperatures, harsh and discriminatory treatment, and also of the use of inappropriate sexual language by supervisors.
Tamil Nadu apparel and textiles working group membership
Any organisation that sources from and is active in Southern India can join, whether they are an ETI member or not.
Trade unions, NGOs and donors
El Corte Inglés
IndustriALL Global Union
Dalit Solidarity Network
Women Working Worldwide
The Freedom Fund
Nigel Venes, Apparel and Textiles programme lead