India is the world largest cotton yarn producer after China

India is the world largest cotton yarn producer after China

Various forms of modern slavery, including child slavery, have been found in around 90% of spinning mills in South India producing yarn that makes its way into garment factories in India, Bangladesh and China supplying western brands and retailers, a new report claims.

The 'Fabric of Slavery' research by the India Committee of Netherlands (ICN), found the majority of women working in the 743 spinning mills investigated in Tamil Nadu were aged between 14 and 18 years. Around 10-20% of the women were younger than 14.

The report points out that almost half of the researched mills operate what is called a 'Sumangali scheme' where a significant part of worker's wages is withheld until they have completed their contract. It also found the women workers, who in over half of the mills are typically working 60 hour weeks, face intimidation, excessive overtime and sexual harassment.

Only ten mills have a trade union presence and around 33 have a workers' committee, researchers say.

"Advocacy and action on Sumangali schemes by NGOs, unions and brands has contributed to reducing the incidence of such schemes, but has not tackled the issue of modern slavery in all its dimensions," report authors explain. "Multiple factors contribute to this failing including the poor enforcement of labour laws, the power of the industry, superficial audits by buying brands and lack of initiatives that increase joint leverage of brands."

The report notes that while some mills have tackled labour concerns in cooperation with local organisations, in order to sustain and upscale those successful initiatives, brands and governments from importing countries need to "use their collective leverage to tackle this structural form of slavery" in co-operation with the central and state governments, the industry and local trade unions and NGOs.

India is overtaking China as the world largest cotton yarn producer, and is responsible for just over one-fifth of cotton yarn production worldwide. Around 35-40% of this yarn is produced in Tamil Nadu, which is home to around 1,600 mills. As well as producing yarn for the domestic market, Bangladeshi and Chinese garment factories import the yarn for garments for the western market for brands such as H&M, Marks & Spencer, Primark and Walmart.

The report makes a number of recommendations:

To the spinning industry:

  • Put an end to practices where wages or benefits are withheld or advance payments are offered.
  • Implement the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 and set up genuine and functioning internal complaints committees (ICC), as well as a grievance redressal committee.
  • Work with trade unions and NGOs on worker training, ongoing monitoring and grievance redressal.

To international brands/buyers:

  • Map the supply chain beyond the first tier and increase supply chain transparency by publishing production locations of mills, their labour rights status (backed up by information), audits etc.
  • Improve current monitoring practices by involving workers' rights organisations and trade unions.
  • Support mills in improving labour conditions, and reward mills that do take serious steps as preferred suppliers, increasing procurement prices and guarantee a minimum volume of orders.

To the Tamil Nadu State government and district governments:

  • Implement and/or monitor all central and state laws and regulations that relate to spinning mill workers.
  • Clearly communicate that the exemption to the Factories Act that allows a 12 hours overtime a week is applicable only in exceptional circumstances.
  • Each district government should establish a local complaints committee were women workers employed at establishments without an ICC can voice their grievances concerning sexual harassment.

Click here to access the full report.