AHMEDABAD: An employment system for girls in Tamil Nadu is threatening to waylay the country’s $11-billion garment export industry, with several international retailers distancing themselves from supply chains that involve the allegedly exploitative scheme.
India has often drawn flak from welfare organisations for poor vigilance against child and forced labour. In the latest sign that the West is serious about labour issues, multinational retailers, such as GAP, Walmart, C&A, H&M, Primark, Mothercare and Tesco, have instructed their Indian suppliers to stop sourcing raw material from textile mills that employ girls under ‘Sumangali’, a contractual arrangement that labour watchdogs say involves unfair practices and amounts to bonded labour.
The development could have serious ramifications for the domestic apparel industry, which earns 80% of its business from Europe and the US.
“We are aware of a number of new sources that continue to show the existence of child labour and forced labour in Indian garment production. In some cases, labour schemes such as the ‘Sumangali’ are involved,” said Marcia Eugenio, director, office of child labour, forced labour and human trafficking in the US Labour Department’s Bureau of International Labour Affairs.
Thousands of rural and tribal girls in Tamil Nadu seek employment in the state’s textiles industry under ‘Sumangali’, a Tamil word for “bride”, drawing between 36,000 and 56,000 for a three-year work contract. Mill owners make a lump sum payment to the parents at the end of the term, purportedly to help with their marriage expenses.
The scheme, introduced in the state in the mid-1990s, became a big draw for an industry that often faces labour shortage.
The lump sum payment and free accommodation feature of the scheme is luring poor families, labour watchdogs allege that it results in girls being trapped for the contract period. This allegation is backed by Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), a non-government organisation in the knitwear hub of Tirupur, 400 km from state capital Chennai.
“Girls are kept captive in hostels, not allowed to make phone calls and their salaries are withheld for three years. They are paid poorly – 40-60 a day, against the state’s minimum wage of 184,” SAVE director A Aloysius said. “They are made to work for 12 hours. In some cases, contracts have been illegally terminated and girls have left empty-handed,” he added.
But the industry body says the scheme gives dignity of labour to the otherwise illiterate and poor women.
The Southern India Mills Association (SIMA) says the term ‘Sumangali’ has been done away with, and that some 120 mills under it are offered an “apprentice scheme with hostel facility”. “It is misleading to label the scheme as bonded labour. German-firm TUV Rheinland audits our mills to certify women employment standards,” secretary general K Selvaraju said.
SV Arumugam, chairman of Confederation of Indian Textile Industry, said the system of onetime payment caters to parents’ demands that the salary be kept with employers as savings.
Armugam, who is also the director of Shiva Textiles, a mill employing 400 women under the scheme, said, “You cannot permit the employees to leave the dormitories at 1 am just because the western world perceives this as violation of human rights.” “But we have discontinued payment of lump sum and encourage parents to collect salaries every month,” he added.
Taking the cue, exporters in Tirupur have snapped links with mills that have the ‘Sumangali’ scheme. The town, which earns about 12,500 crore every year from European and US buyers, had faced allegations of child labour in 2008.
“Although we know it is not slavery, 27 of our clients including big buyers like Gap, Primark, Walmart, H&M, C&A and Tesco have asked us to discourage the ‘Sumangali’ scheme in the supply chain,” a Tirupur Exporters Association official said. “We have already asked SIMA and the Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association to abolish the scheme and encourge fair employment practices.”
Many say similar pre-marriage schemes prevail in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. “The scheme is extremely popular with the workers, but equally unpopular with trade union leaders because they do not get their pound of flesh,” a senior industry observer said.