Jack & Jones, C&A, GAP,
Diesel, Marks & Spencer, Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, well these names
rings the tune of global brands manufacturing high class cotton
Little is known fact about such high profile garment manufactures
chain is about the nature of their sourcing activity. These big
garment brands have their products made under exploitative and
unhealthy conditions by girls in the southern districts of Tamil
Nadu, India. The girls, mostly younger than 18 and from a Dalit
('outcaste') background are employed under the ‘Sumangali Scheme.’
The word “Sumangali” in Tamil means an unmarried girl becoming a
respectable woman by entering into marriage. Thus, the scheme is
also known as “marriage assistance system”.
This employment scheme stands for bonded labor, as described in
'Captured by Cotton', a report published today by the Centre for
Research on Multinational Corporation (SOMO) and the India
Committee of the Netherlands (ICN).
The report features case studies of four large manufacturers.
These enterprises produce for Bestseller (e.g. Only, Jack &
Jones), C&A, GAP, Diesel, Inditex (e.g. Zara), Marks & Spencer,
Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, and many other European and US garment
The Sumangali girls are recruited with the promise of a decent
wage, comfortable accommodation, and, the biggest attraction, a
considerable sum of money upon completion of their three-year
contract. The scheme promises Rs. 30,000 to 50, 000 at the end of
the third year of service along with the daily wages reported to
be about 50 rupees a day.
The reality stands in sharp contrast to the alluring promises as
the wages below the legally set minimum, there is excessive
overwork, non-payment of overtime work, restricted freedom of
movement, lack of privacy, no possibility to lodge complaints or
get redress, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions and many
Actually, the promised sum is not a bonus, but is made up of
withheld wages; nevertheless this lump sum comes handy to pay
dowry, the bane of arranged marriages in India, says Payal Saxena,
Advocacy and Communication. In a number of documented cases girls
have not received the lump sum they were entitled to, despite
having completed the contractual three year period, she adds.
The SOMO and ICN report says the ‘girls' freedom of action is
severely restricted with guards keeping a constant eye on them.
They are compulsory accommodated in basic dormitories, often
within the compound of the factory. This also means workers hardly
have a chance to get in touch with trade unions or advocacy
This situation fits the definition of 'worst forms of child labor'
as laid down by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for
children up to 18 years old, a clear breach of international labor
standards and Indian labor law, says Kasi Viswanathan Tamil Nadu
vice-president of AITUC.
SOMO and ICN have shared drafts of the report with the companies
that are named in the report. A number of companies have
undertaken steps towards the elimination of the Sumangali Scheme,
but abusive labor practices still remains widespread.
Parallel to the SOMO and ICN report findings, a non-governmental
organization, ‘Vaan Muhil', conducted a survey in four districts
of Tamil Nadu, following complaints on the exploitation of girls
in some of the textile units.
The survey revealed that the touts, who get a commission up to Rs.
2,000 per girl, targeted poor girls between the age group of 13
and 18 from backward, most backward and Scheduled Caste
communities with poor educational qualification.
The girls work hard continuously for 12 hours and even more and
were getting only between Rs. 10 and Rs. 50 for the additional
work, They are not suppose to complain about working conditions,
poor sanitary conditions, ill-equipped dormitory, inferior food
quality etc, the survey said.
Apart from not being allowed to avail the weekly off, the workers
would be allowed to talk to their parents over the telephone only
in the presence of a supervisor and they cannot even move around
freely. There are allegations of the girls being subjected to
physical and sexual torture.
Most of the spinning mills terminate the services of these girls
by leveling fake charges towards the fag end of their contract
period so that they need not be given the assured sum, the survey
M.A. Brittom Director of ‘Vaan Muhil' who is actively campaigning
to end the Sumangali Scheme, says that it is one of the most
horrible programme being followed by a group of textile units in
the guise of helping poor unmarried girls.
The NGO has decided to initiate multi-pronged strategy that
includes legal intervention to get adequate compensation for the
victims, systematic and sustained campaign, advocacy, counseling,
medical assistance to the victims, ensuring alternative livelihood
and so on.
The NGO has made a 15-member committee comprising of
educationists, social activists, animators of women self-help
groups, rural local body leaders, NGO representatives, trade union
leaders etc. to look into this problem
The committee is to make a representation to the government with
suggestions to abolish such exploitive scheme and if allowed to be
continued should have a monitoring committee conducting periodical
social audit over the execution of the scheme by meeting the
The Sumangali scheme is not a straightforward issue of bonded
labor. The problem is complex and should be viewed in the context
of the Indian caste system. It can be considered to be operational
only when it addresses the needs of both the victims and the
employing factories. Any solution to the problem must be legal and
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a
journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at email@example.com