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Millions Still Slaves to Fashion

By 3p Contributor

By Brandee Butler, C&A Foundation  

British Prime Minister Teresa May recently called it “the greatest human rights issue of our time.” Hillary Clinton committed to the cause when accepting her nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate. Last December, the UN Security Council held its first ever debate on human trafficking. Is modern slavery finally getting the political attention it so desperately deserves?

It’s about time. Slavery has not been condemned to history books as many would like to believe; it’s legacy endures. And it is happening right now, largely hidden from sight.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates the number of people suffering in some form of slavery at 21 million. But this estimate is likely conservative. The 2016 Global Slavery Index puts the figure at closer to 46 million – nearly the size of the entire population of Spain. More than half are women and girls, and despite industry efforts, many still work within the fashion supply chain.

C&A Foundation is working with local communities and the industry to tackle the problem in southern India. In partnership with the Freedom Fund and Terre des Hommes, we’ve been working to end the practice of Sumangali, a form of bonded labor that sees adolescent girls and young women contracted to textile spinning mills, working under terrible conditions for lowly wages.

Many fall ill and leave before the end of their tenure, receiving no pay at all. Others experience mental, physical, and sexual abuse, and are prevented from seeing family and friends. The experience leaves them traumatized, yet families continue to send their daughters to the mills, so desperate is the situation at home.

Sumangali might be unique to our industry, but the driving factors for it aren’t. Our experience on the ground has taught us that you cannot tackle modern slavery without addressing the complex and interconnected root causes of the problem – poverty, weak rule of law, and systemic gender discrimination, among them.

Industry and NGOs cannot do it alone either. Real political leadership is needed, which is why public statements by politicians – and better yet, commitments to act – are so important. Putting the problem in the spotlight forces us to look at what we’re doing, what is working, and what more is needed.

The search for solutions will get a boost this Friday when the United Nations University is scheduled to hold a meeting of its new Pathways Forum, a multi-stakeholder incubator of collaborative innovations to fight slavery, human trafficking and forced labour.

The ILO has also launched the Alliance 8.7 to “drive action to end forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour in all its forms” – one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030.

Leading brands are also convening with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other government-led platforms like Germany’s Alliance for Sustainable Textiles, to leverage collective resources to tackle these issues.

An interim report by the Institute of Development Studies shows that our investment in the Freedom Fund’s hotspot approach is making a difference. There is much more to do, and one of the challenges we face is that the more you expose the issue, the deeper underground it goes to remain beyond the clutches of the law.

The Freedom Fund’s holistic approach counteracts that by pulling on multiple levers and working with critical actors – local government, mills, brands, civil society, and communities – to break the Sumangali system. But without addressing structural barriers to inequality and better opportunities on offer, there may always be people – girls and women especially – vulnerable to exploitation.

We must seize this moment to encourage all stakeholders to step up to the challenge, including investments in collaborative solutions that work.   Lives and liberty, as well as the future of the industry, are at stake.

Brandee M. Butler is Head of Gender Justice and Human Rights at C&A Foundation. She drives partnerships and processes to support breakthrough innovations on key human rights challenges in the apparel sector, with a focus on forced labour, human trafficking, and gender equality. Prior to joining C&A Foundation, Brandee managed the Levi Strauss Foundation's HIV/AIDS, asset building, and worker rights portfolios in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Image credit Pixabay 

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