Forced labour found in highstreet retailers' supply chains

New Report from Clean Clothes Campaign finds bonded labour remains entrenched in highstreet fashion retailers’ supply chains.

The latest report released by Clean Clothes Campaign Ireland and their partners have found a bonded labour schemes targeting poverty stricken young girls as young as 15 in South India are supplying well known highstreet retailers including Primark, Motercare, C&A and Sainsbury’s among others.  

Flawed Fabrics an new report from Clean Clothes Campaign partners; the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) highlights serious labour rights and human rights violations faced by girls and young women in the South Indian textile hub of Tamil Nadu.

The report interviewed over 150 women and girls working in 5 of the estimated 1600 the spinning mills of Tamil Nadu, and found the practice of Sumangali schemes remains entrenched in the region. The Sumangali scheme is an employment arrangement targeting young girls recruited from marginalised Dalit communities in impoverished rural areas. Brought to the mills and factories on the promise of good wages, accommodation, three meals a day and the promise of a lump sum ‘dowry’ payment at the end of an agreed term, this report show that the vulnerable young girls find themselves in a very different situation.

Living in basic and over-crowded company-run hostels the girls interviewed faced restrictions of movement, rationed external communication and in many cases armed guards at the gates of compounds. Forced to work at least 60 hours a week in hostile and unhealthy conditions where night shifts and overtime are obligatory and pay is deducted in the case of illness.

A worker at Sulochana Cotton Spinning Mills said of her living conditions: “I do not like the hostel; there is no entertainment and no outside contact and is very far from the town. It is like a semi-prison.”  

Despite these significant breaches of worker and human rights, two of the researched mills received international certification (SA8000) from Social Accountability International (SAI) for adhering to international labour standards.

Kate Nolan of Clean Clothes Campaign Ireland states “On news of continued rising profits for low cost retailers like Penneys, we have to start to consider where these margins are realized. Buying practices including pricing need to allow for decent working conditions so that girls and young women in Tamil Nadu no longer have to face appalling working conditions that are tantamount to forced labour.“

Rosie O’Reilly of Re-dress, Ireland’s Sustainable Fashion Initiative comments

“The hallmark of a sustainable enterprise is not soaring profits but companies that show the means to encourage innovation and long-term planning around resource use and social responsibility. Companies should be creating more wealth than they destroy and should be building net wealth – social, ecological and economic. In the case of fast fashion brand Penneys and others named in this report this is not the case. There recent tie to Sumangali schemes in India illustrates this clearly as do the many reports released this year that link fashion brands to increasing environmental and humanitarian destruction. “

SOMO researcher and co-author of the report Martje Theuws says: “Business efforts are failing to address labour rights violations effectively. Corporate auditing is not geared towards detecting forced labour and other major labour rights infringements. Moreover, there is a near complete lack of supply chain transparency. Local trade unions and labour groups are consistently ignored.”

In addition, ICN programme officer Marijn Peepercamp states: “Governments at the buying end of the supply chain are failing to ensure that companies live up to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The state duty to protect and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights as laid down in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are not being respected.”

This is not the first time SOMO and ICN have reported the issue of forced labour in South India, the Captured by Cotton Report 2011  also raised the issue and produced many strong intentions to tackle the issue from multi stakeholders initiatives and retailers but to date we have seen little proof that their intentions are finding any path to changing the reality for these young girls.


Read the full reports here 

Flawed Fabrics Report 2014

Captured by Cotton Report 2011