It is an appalling fact that child labor is still an issue in various countries across the world. Children as young as 10 are subjected to unacceptable work conditions to produce garments for the European and U.S. markets, according to a new report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), a nonprofit based in the Netherlands. A collaboration with the India Committee of the Netherlands, “Captured by Cotton” shines the spotlight on the exploitative Sumangali scheme, a form of bonded labor in India’s garment industry, particularly in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
BEHIND THE SEAMS
The practice is particularly rampant in Tamil Nadu for good reason. The region hosts 43 percent of the country’s large-scale mills and nearly 80 percent of the smaller ones. With its promise of a decent wage, comfortable accommodation, and a lump-sum payment at the end of three years that may be used to pay one’s dowry, the Sumangali scheme has attracted a large proportion of young females from India’s lowest castes. (Nearly 60 percent of Sumangali workers belong to the Dalits, an inferior social group derogatorily known as the”untouchables.”)
Labor-rights violations include forced overtime without compensation, restricted movement, and dangerous work conditions.
The reality, however, is far less rosy. Examples of labor-rights violations include blank or nonexistent contracts, long hours (72 hours per week is the average), forced overtime without compensation, dismal wages, restricted movement, constant monitoring, verbal abuse, and precarious work conditions without protective gear.
Although their wages, which generally start at 60 rupees ($1.30) per day, are docked to save up for the lump-sum payment, many workers never make it to the three-year mark, according to SOMO. “Many fall sick due to the unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, poor food, and general lack of hygiene,” states the report. “Sometimes, workers are fired just before the end of the period, under the pretext of some feeble excuse.”
POWER OF THE COLLECTIVE
In addition to denouncing the Sumangali scheme as archaic and barbaric, SOMO and ICN are calling for brands and retailers to adhere to international labor standards and local labor laws, exercise responsible buying practices, and gain a complete understanding of workers’ rights throughout their supply chain.
Nine retailers, including H&M, ASOS, and Tesco, have signed a statement denouncing the Sumangali scheme and other labor-rights abuses.
It is perhaps the report’s final point that is the most poignant. SOMO and ICN urge all brands and retailers involved in the industry to join forces and work together, rather than separately. At press time, nine retailers, including H&M, ASOS, C&A, Tesco, and Primark, have signed a statement denouncing the Sumangali scheme and other labor-rights abuses. Now let’s see who else steps up to the plate.