India’s garment industry is a $100 billion powerhouse, with $40 billion worth of textiles and garments exported annually. It is the country’s second largest sector after agriculture, employing at least 45 million workers directly, it and contributes to the economic livelihood of at least another 60 million Indians.
And as is the case of much of the global garment industry, the sector in India is a complicated one with a tangled supply chain. Small factories and shops, many of them family-run, serve as subcontractors to larger textile and garment suppliers, which in turn churn out clothing for some of the world’s most recognized brands.
The result is that bonded labor has become common across India, as suppliers seek to keep costs down in a hyper-competitive industry. And what may come across to many families as at first a benign way to secure a daughter’s future and pay for her marriage dowry has become part of a corrupt system entrapping as many as 120,000 young women and girls annually.
One large driver of bonded labor in India, especially in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is the Sumangali system, in which girls as young as 13 are hired on contract for as long as five years.
Many of them work in spinning mills, which for decades relied on full-time adult male workers along with some married women hired on a temporary contract basis. But since the late 1980s, more spinning mills have relied on these young girls and women, who are often promised a clean place to live, plenty of social activities, onsite health care and a generous lump sum after they complete their contract. According to the NGO Anti-Slavery International, girls and their families are promised as much as 60,000 rupees ($882) in a lump-sum payment at the end of the typical three-year contract.
The reality, however, is often starkly different, as outlined in Anti-Slavery’s 2012 landmark report. Working conditions are often dangerous; living quarters are often squalid; these young women and girls are often kept confined to the mills, even if they become seriously ill; and deductions for healthcare costs or mistakes made on the shop floor can reduce their final payment, already a pittance, to almost nothing.
The Fair Wear Foundation, which has long investigated this practice, says some aspects of the Sumangali system need to be understood in the context of India’s social system and Hindu culture. Nevertheless, the way Sumangali (which means “married woman” in Tamil) has been conducted in India in most cases is illegal, according to a report the organization released in 2010.
These labor rights abuses have been ongoing despite the fact that India has banned all forms of forced or slave labor. "India's labor laws are actually quite clear, and bonded labor has been illegal in the country for a long time," Jakub Sobik, an Anti-Slavery spokesperson, told TriplePundit. “But these violations of human rights continue because of weak implementation across the country."
The lack of any enforcement, and local authorities’ preference to look the other way, has the most devastating impact on the children of India’s marginalized communities. Especially vulnerable are those who are traditionally from India’s lower social castes, local tribal populations and migrant families across Tamil Nadu.
Another NGO dedicated to ceasing human trafficking and slavery, Switzerland-based Terre des Hommes, says its work has raised awareness somewhat, but that its organization’s efforts are often frustrated by local government officials’ reluctance to acknowledge that such problems exist.
“There is often no direct response, as most of the time there is a ‘I will look into it,’ and sometimes, even a total denial,” said Antje Ruhmann, a child rights officer for Terre des Hommes. “Occasionally, the government institutes an inquiry on their own to find out the actual situation on the ground.”
Ms. Ruhmann said some trade groups, such as the Southern India Mills’ Association, said they have tightened hiring guidelines for their members, but implementation and regular monitoring are not rigorous enough to stop these abuses.
The international garment industry says it is doing more to crack down on suppliers who profit from labor rights abuses such as the Sumangali system. But evidence of continued human suffering suggests companies can do far more.
"The garment companies say they are regularly undergoing third-party audits, but it’s not a secret anymore that audits rarely work properly,” said Mr. Sobik of Anti-Slavery. “Businesses need to do far more to ensure that their suppliers, and those suppliers' subcontractors, are following the law to ensure that bonded labor in any form is not tied to their global supply chains."
Terre des Hommes’ Ms. Ruhmann is also dubious about social audits as a mechanism to clean up India’s garment industry. Wages promised by the Sumangali system are low in part because of the rather loose interpretations of India’s apprentice system, which dates back to sweeping labor legislation passed at the time of the country gaining its independence in 1946. Nevertheless, Terre de Hommes and Anti-Slavery insist that their interpretations of what “apprenticeship” means is one excuse for suppliers to pay extremely low wages – not to mention the deplorable conditions in which these workers often find themselves.
Ms. Rumhann says both auditors and labor enforcement officers need to hold these businesses accountable. “Hostels should be registered with government departments. No apprenticeship should be allowed beyond six months. And all social audits should include local people on the ground, particularly local civil society organizations,” she said.
So, are the efforts of NGOs including Terre des Hommes and Anti-Slavery making a difference? Awareness is indeed increasing, with exposés, such as last year’s investigative reporting by Reuters, shining light on these abuses. The Guardian has also dedicated resources to revealing bonded and slave labor in India and other nations that contribute to the garment industry's global supply chain.
Rumhann points to the results of Terre des Hommes’ impact from four years of the organization’s interventions: psychological counseling for almost 6,000 girls, over 1,000 benefiting from skills training and over 1,800 young women who found better paying employment. But she also infers that there is a long road ahead before bonded labor is eradicated from the garment industry’s global supply chain.
“Due to our regular awareness building meeting with our stakeholders, a handful of companies have reduced recruiting child laborers, as in girls,” she said. “However, for the other girls who have been working in these conditions, the situation has not changed much.”
Mr. Sobik also agreed that we are far from the day when a consumer can purchase an item of clothing with total confidence that it's free of slavery from thread to store shelf. "There has been some increase in awareness, in part because of the work of media outlets such as the Guardian," he said, "but we are far from the systematic change needed to eliminate slavery, including bonded labor schemes such as Sumangali in India."
Image credit: Deepak Malik, UNDP India; Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.