Various forms of modern slavery, including child slavery, are found in more than 90 per cent of the spinning mills in South India that produce yarn for India, Bangladeshi and Chinese garment factories that produce for brands such as C&A, Gap, Marks and Spencer, Primark and Walmart, according to a new report ‘Fabric of Slavery’ by the India Committee of Netherlands (ICN).
743 spinning mills surveyed in Tamil Nadu, India were found employing majority of the women between 14 and 18 years of age; 10 to 20 per cent is even younger than 14. Almost half of the researched mills have a so-called ‘Sumangali Scheme’ where young girls and women are enslaved by employers and withheld until they have completed their contract, the survey mentions.
The report further highlighted that the workers are not allowed to leave the hostel after working hours. In all those mills young women workers face intimidation, sexually coloured remarks and harassment. Only 39 mills pay the legal minimum wage. In half of the spinning mills a standard working week means working 60 hours or more. Only 10 mills have trade union presence and no more than 33 mils have a workers committee where workers may be able to express grievances.
Furthermore, 30 per cent of the yarn is directly used in south Indian factories producing for export, and at least 20 per cent of the yarn is exported to garment factories in China and Bangladesh. Gerard Oonk, Director, ICN, “We have raised the issue for five years now, but even to us the scale of this problem came as a shock.”
Actions by NGOs, unions and brands have not been able to tackle the issue of modern slavery in all its dimensions. Multiple factors contribute to this failing including: the poor enforcement of labour laws, the power of the industry, superficial audits by buying brands and lack of initiatives that increase joint leverage of brands. Brands and Governments from importing countries should use their collective leverage to tackle this structural form of slavery in co-operation with the central and state Governments, the industry and local trade unions and NGOs, the report suggests.