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Forced Labour in the Textile and Garment Sector in Tamil Nadu, South India: Strategies for Redress

by Dr Annie Delaney and Dr tim Connor 

This case study examines the grievances of young women, predominantly Dalit, who are recruited from remote villages to work in textile mills and garment factories in the districts of Tamil Nadu in South India. Companies sourcing in this industry from Tamil Nadu include major global brands and ETI members such as Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury, Asda/Walmart, Tesco, Mothercare, Zara, Primark, C&A and H&M.
Meeting of Sumangali workers with Annie Delaney

Meeting of Sumangali workers with Annie Delaney

Issues
Women work under bonded and forced labour conditions, have low pay and poor conditions, and suffer other various human rights violations. Existing power imbalances have the effect of making the women more vulnerable due to their poverty, gender and caste. It can also make them more isolated due to employers preventing them from accessing unions and other individuals who could assist the workers to make claims directly to their employer, or through the judicial process.
Non-judicial redress mechanisms
A number of initiatives have been taken by local and international NGOs to tackle this issue, including using media and campaign strategies to raise awareness of the issue, initiating claims through legal and non-judicial national institutions, and raising concerns in the UK ETI. These actions have been effective in influencing public opinion, improving understanding of the problems in the mills within the affected rural communities, and shifting judicial and government responses to be more responsive to the workplace and labour rights challenges faced by the female workers. The various claim-making strategies, while effective in having raised awareness of the Sumangali scheme and forced labour arrangements in the textile and garment sector, have had limited impact on improving conditions for these workers.
Regarding the complaint to the ETI, the ETI’s response to these human rights grievances took several years to design. Further, the key elements of the ETI’s intervention were primarily negotiated and agreed among ETI staff and member organisations in London, rather than agreed through close negotiation with civil society groups in India. The design of that intervention reflects the power imbalance between the ETI’s corporate and civil society members, which (while complex) tends to favour member companies. That is, the ETI’s intervention has been based more on the steps that ETI corporate members sourcing from the area are collectively willing to support, rather than on the preferred strategies of ETI civil society members in the UK and allied civil society groups in South India. As a result, the ETI’s intervention has been relatively indirect, focusing on raising awareness of labour rights issues in the villages from which the workers were recruited, among recruiting agents, and among the textile and mill workers themselves. Arguably, the ETI would have greater impact on reducing the ongoing rights violations if its member companies used their collective buying power to persuade the mill and factory owners to allow trade unions and other local advocacy organisations to have regular contact with the workers. This would allow those organisations to support those workers to pursue complaints of human rights violations. However, such a strategy is likely to be more effective if ETI member companies were willing to reward mills and factories that cooperated. For example, this could include offering higher purchase prices. The unwillingness of global companies (from the UK and other countries) to offer their suppliers genuine incentives to cooperate in human rights initiatives (as opposed to threats to cut orders), significantly limits the effectiveness of voluntary non-judicial redress mechanisms, including the ETI.

An executive summary of the report can be read below. 

Executive summary

This report is about the grievances of young women, predominantly from disadvantaged Dalit and low caste communities, who are recruited from remote and impoverished rural villages to work in textile mills and garment factories (herein the ‘garment sector’) in a number of districts of Tamil Nadu in South India. The report discusses the issues facing these young women, many of whom are employed under bonded and forced labour conditions, commonly referred to as ‘Sumangali’ schemes and ‘camp labour arrangements’. The terms Sumangali, camp labour or camp labour coolies are frequently used interchangeably.  The term ‘Sumangali’ is used to refer to a form of bonded labour where young women have a fixed-term contract and a significant portion of the legal minimum wage and/or other payments to which they are entitled are withheld until they have completed the contract. The term ‘camp labour’ refers to arrangements whereby workers live in company-controlled hostels with no freedom of movement so that they will be available to work on call, will not seek work in other factories or mills and will be deterred from joining a union. Both Sumangali and camp labour are forms of forced labour. In this report we use the term forced labour to encompass both practices.

This restriction of these workers’ freedom of movement is commonly associated with other labour rights violations including forced overtime, low pay and poor work conditions. These workers are routinely denied their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and they frequently do not receive the minimum employee entitlements stipulated under national and state laws. Child labour is also a common occurrence.                                                             

The social and economic disadvantages experienced by these women and the power imbalance in their relationships with their employers are emphasised through recruitment and employment practices based on discrimination of gender and caste. This report considers efforts by civil society actors to bring these ongoing rights violations to an end. We concentrate on three claim-making strategies: social movement campaigns; complaints to national and state judicial and non-judicial institutions; and complaints to an international non-judicial mechanism, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

Social movement campaign strategies have been successful in raising awareness of these human rights violations amongst local communities in Tamil Nadu, state institutions, global brands, multi-stakeholder initiatives and, to some extent, global consumers. Within Tamil Nadu, local non-government organisations (‘NGOs’) and trade unions have managed to keep the issue in the public mind by organising regular demonstrations and speaking tours, releasing reports documenting labour abuses, and working with journalists interested in covering stories of individual workers’ situations. International NGOs have worked closely with Indian NGOs to raise awareness of the issue among consumers of the garments exported from Tamil Nadu and  to highlight the responsibility of international brand-owning garment companies (hereafter ‘brands’) to address labour and human rights abuses in their supply chains. 

Indian NGOs and trade unions have also pursued the issue by lodging grievances with Indian judicial and non-judicial institutions, including through legal proceedings in the Madras High Court. While these various proceedings have resulted in some improvements in official policy regarding working conditions in the industry, there is little evidence of these policy improvements being effectively monitored and enforced by state institutions. Determinations by the Madras High Court on steps that need to be taken to address Sumangali and camp labour issues in the garment sector have been important in policy terms. Yet the failure by employers to comply with the legal requirements established by the High Court highlights the lack of commitment and capacity on the part of the labour inspectorate to enforce legal rules designed to protect vulnerable workers. The Tamil Nadu Government has introduced some safeguards but has failed to ensure implementation of its labour laws or to address broader human rights abuses.  

The programme that the ETI developed in response to ongoing rights violations in the sector in Tamil Nadu took several years to design and its key elements were primarily negotiated and agreed among ETI staff and member organisations in London, rather than agreed through close negotiation with civil society groups in Tamil Nadu. The design of the programme reflects the power relationship between the ETI’s corporate and civil society members, which (while complex) tends to favour member companies. That is, the ETI’s intervention has been based more on the steps that ETI corporate members sourcing from the area are collectively willing to support, than on the preferred strategies of ETI civil society members in the UK and allied civil society groups in Tamil Nadu. As a result the ETI’s intervention has been relatively indirect, focusing on raising awareness of labour rights issues in the villages from which the workers recruited, among recruiting agents, and among the textile and mill workers themselves. Arguably, the ETI would make a more useful contribution to reducing the ongoing rights violations if its member companies used their collective buying power to persuade the mill and factory owners to allow trade unions and other local advocacy organisations to have regular contact with the women working in the garment sector. This would allow those organisations to support those workers to pursue human rights grievances, by raising their cases with state authorities and with the global brands themselves. However, such a strategy would be much more likely to be effective if ETI member companies were willing to reward mills and factories that cooperated, for example by offering higher prices or ‘preferred supplier’ status. The unwillingness of global companies (from the UK and elsewhere) to offer their suppliers genuine incentives to cooperate in human rights initiatives (as opposed to threats to cut orders) significantly limits the effectiveness of voluntary non-judicial mechanisms, including the ETI.   

Overall, our research indicates that some progress has been made in addressing the human and labour rights abuses linked to Sumangali schemes in some sections of the industry, but other forced labour practices and other rights violations remain prevalent in many textile mills and garment factories. The various claim-making strategies considered have had minimal impact on global business practices. At the level of individual factories and mills, the failure to address freedom of association violations remains a significant barrier to garment sector workers being able to seek redress.

The report ends by proposing key lessons for various stakeholders, summarised below.

Lessons for non-judicial mechanisms and multi stakeholder initiatives:

A companion report in this series provides a detailed analysis of the ETI’s grievance mechanisms and provides detailed recommendations. In this report we highlight a few lessons that are particularly relevant in the context of the ETI’s Tamil Nadu Programme:

-          Ideally the ETI’s tripartite approach should be replicated in the producer countries in which it seeks to implement programme. That is, local civil society organisations should be involved in negotiating the overall design of an ETI programme, rather than only being given the opportunity to influence a programme’s development after the overall nature of the ETI’s intervention has already been determined.

-          International initiatives such as the ETI should make freedom of association, security of employment and living wages central goals for all in-country programmes. These rights are both important in themselves and help to address the power imbalance between workers and their employers, which makes it easier for vulnerable workers to assert their rights.

-          International initiatives such as the ETI should work to create incentives for improved supplier compliance with key programme goals (such as through preferred supplier programmes). While doing this for suppliers beyond the first tier is challenging, this is where international multi-stakeholder initiatives could really add value, by coordinating pressure from multiple companies.

Lessons for transnational business:

Some brands have indicated they face difficulties in identifying the indirect suppliers in their supply chains and cite this as a reason they cannot exert pressure for improved labour rights performance on textile suppliers as readily as they can in relation to garment suppliers with which they have a direct contractual relationship.  However, research by international and local non-government organisations in Tamil Nadu suggest that, while challenging, it is far from impossible to trace the relevant supply chain links.

If brands were to map their entire supply chains and make lists of all their suppliers publicly available then this would increase the brands’ accountability for labour conditions below the first tier of their supply chains.  There is a particular need for transnational businesses to improve the way they monitor and audit labour conditions among their suppliers beyond the first tier, in addition to the need to improve the ongoing social auditing of direct suppliers.

Transnational businesses also need to consider how they can provide suppliers with incentives to comply with programmes to address human rights grievances. Examples of possible incentives could include increased prices for those suppliers that respect workers’ human rights, including their right to freedom of movement; longer production times to reduce the occurrence of forced overtime; and preferred supplier status as a reward for suppliers that allow unions to access the workplace. It would likely be particularly effective if a significant number of global brands committed to only sourcing from those mills and factories that were cooperating in initiatives to ensure respect for workers’ rights, particularly if those initiatives were conducted in close collaboration with local trade unions and other civil society groups.

One of the major factors contributing to ongoing rights violation in the garment sector in Tamil Nadu is the repression of freedom of association. There is therefore a need to address this issue in a systemic manner. The Freedom of Association Protocol Initiative in Indonesia, considered in a companion report in this series, provides an interesting model for businesses interested in working with local trade unions and civil society groups to initiate such a process. Strategies for enhancing respect for freedom of association in Tamil Nadu would need to incorporate gender and caste inclusive strategies, in order to address the current representation gap.

Lessons for International NGOs:

The way international and local NGOs and unions have drawn  media attention to the ongoing human rights abuses in the sector has been an important driver of those improvements in working conditions that have occurred. In particular, the global campaign pressure on international brands whose goods are implicated in the forced labour schemes has helped reduce the specific instances of ‘Sumangali’ schemes. It is valuable for international NGOs to continue to play this role, although it is important that they continue to do so in close communication with local civil society groups who understand the local context.

Lessons for local NGOs and trade unions:

The question of the various roles of trade unions and labour rights NGOs in training workers in their rights can be contentious.  In our view, in order to reduce the human rights violations in the Tamil Nadu garment sector it is valuable for both trade unions and NGOs with experience in working with women workers to have access to the mills and garment factories to provide labour rights training and, in the case of the unions, to organise the workers. A number of the labour rights NGOs in Tamil Nadu have extensive experience in conducting training with women workers and these groups appear to understand and support the principle that it is the role of the trade unions to take the lead role in organising workers. Organising women workers from Dalit and low caste groups to assert their rights may require new organising models, and the trade unions may find working together with some of the established labour rights NGOs of considerable assistance in developing such models.

It is therefore positive that at least one brand has persuaded several of its suppliers to allow labour rights NGOs involved in the Tirupur People’s Forum to access production facilities to monitor labour conditions and provide workers with training in their rights.  If multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the ETI, Fair Wear Foundation, Business Social Compliance Initiative and the Fair Labor Association supported this initiative, and if it was also coordinated with local trade unions, this initiative would have more chance of reducing human rights abuses at a systemic level within the Tamil Nadu garment sector.

Lessons for government:

The Tamil Nadu Government needs to prioritise addressing the lack of garment sector compliance with relevant laws.  There is a need to examine and address the causes of corruption within the labour inspectorate, which is significantly undermining state efforts to protect labour rights. One means of minimising corruption would be to increase the role of civil society organisations in monitoring and enforcement. A failure to address the ongoing lack of compliance with minimum legal standards will have a negative influence on the reputation of the garment sector in Tamil Nadu.