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Bonded (child) labour in Indian garment industry draws global attention

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More and more steps are being taken against the large-scale child labour in the South Indian textile and garment industry. Both a number of garment brands as well as Dutch, European and American politicians are now starting to take some action against bonded (child) labour in South India which is known as the ‘Sumangali Scheme.’ Recent publications of Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) have significantly contributed to this fact.

Under the ‘Sumangali Scheme’ girls are getting a contract for three years, in which they are forced to work very long days and unhealthy working conditions against very low wages. The largest part of their salary is paid as a lump sum at the end of the contract period. The girls live in hostels and have hardly or no contact with the outside world, not even with their family members. The victims are mostly Dalit (‘outcaste’) girls who are discriminated and are extra vulnerable for exploitation.


A number of joint initiatives of a considerable number of garment brands, unions and (other) civil society organizations – including the US-based Fair Labor Association, the Dutch Fair Wear Foundation, the British Ethical Trading Initiative and the European Business Social Compliance Initiative – are now starting to tackle the issue. For example the brand C&A notified that they will stop working with spinning mills that use the Sumangali Scheme.


The Dutch Parliament recently adopted a motion requesting the government to come to an agreement with the garment sector on full supply chain transparency and eradication of child labour in the textile supply chain. Various members of the European Parliament have raised the issue with Vice-President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the EU, Catherine Ashton. They requested her to raise the issue with the Indian government, to develop a joint plan of action with companies and demand full supply chain transparency from the European garment industry. The Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 of the government of the USA mentions that forced labour may be present in the Sumangali Scheme.


Local organizations in South India are reporting limited improvements in the labour conditions of Sumangali workers. Some suppliers have shortened the contract period to one year. Other organizations have improved the wages and increased the freedom of movement for the young workers to some extend. The Minister of Labour of Tamil Nadu publicly denounced the Sumangali Scheme and publicly announced that he would form a new committee to fix a minimum wage, currently non-existent, for spinning mill workers.

In the ‘Update of Debate and Action on the Sumangali Scheme’, SOMO and ICN describe new developments and actions that have been taken since the publication of the reports ‘Captured by Cotton’ (May 2011), ‘Still captured by Cotton’ (March 2012) and ‘Maid in India’ in (April 2012). Read an update of Debate and Action on the Sumangali Scheme’ (Juli 2012) here.

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