This article was published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 31-5-2011

by: Devi Boerema

Indian girls captured by cotton in Tamil Nadu factories

We like to buy the latest fashions at affordable prices. But ask yourself this: would you still be smiling if the price tag listed the wages of those who manufactured your clothes? A recent report by two Dutch NGOs reveals that major multinationals are going cheap in India at the expense of respecting labour conditions.

The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) have joined forces to produce a revelational report. In ‘Captured by Cotton’, well-known brands, such as Zara, Diesel, Marks & Spencer and C&A, are said to deal with manufacturers in Tamil Nadu who exploit their young female workers.

The Sumangali scheme
‘Sumangali’ is a Tamil term used to describe happily married women. According to the report, this auspicious concept attracts young girls into a life of bonded labour. Welcome to the Sumangali scheme.

Multinational companies lure girls to work in their factories by offering them the chance to follow special training. Some factories actually have classrooms. But the gruelling work schedule – 12 hours or more every day – keeps the classrooms empty.

The prospect of being a happily married woman keeps the girls from thinking twice before signing their contract’s dotted line.

“It’s mainly poorly educated girls, from poverty-stricken areas far away from the factories, who are recruited by these companies,” says Martje Theuws of SOMO. “It’s the only way they can save up for a dowry, enhancing their chances at a better life. Only when they arrive at the factory and see the conditions for themselves do they realize what they have said yes to. But then it’s is already too late.”

Another promise
A 400 to 800-euro bonus, which is a lot of money for these girls, is another promise made to them. It is to be granted after completing a three-year contract, the employers say. But the sum is actually money held from their pay cheques. A kind of savings, but without the interest. Quitting before their contract ends means losing money which is rightfully theirs. In some cases, girls who complete their contracts are also denied the ‘bonus’.

Leaving the factory grounds, where the workers also live, is barely allowed and only under supervision. Calls to family are also supervised. These strong measures are meant to prevent the girls from forming a union and standing up against the cruel conditions.

“Controlling labour conditions is a huge problem in India,” says Ms Theuws.” I am not saying that the situation is this bad at every garment manufacturer in India. But if you are thinking about producing clothes in India, then there are certainly risks you have got to take into consideration regarding labour conditions.”

A delicate issue
Dutch junior minister for economic affairs Henk Bleker said this week that he intends to bring up the ‘Captured by Cotton’ report during his trade mission to India in June.

Gerard Oonk from ICN says: “I’m very happy to hear that Bleker recognises the findings in our report. This has been different in the past, when people suggested we got our information from newspapers and hearsay. Both Bleker and the multinationals have said our report is thorough and trustworthy.”

During a visit by the Dutch royal family to India a few years ago, the country’s former trade minister Kamal Nath dismissed a previous ICN report on fair trade in India. In a passionate speech, he said it was ‘false and defamatory’. The Dutch delegation quickly learned that, although officially illegal, child labour is a delicate issue in India. Mr Oonk hopes that attitude will soon change.

“India will have to get used to the fact that these kinds of issues are part of the public discussion on responsible entrepreneurship. People talk about it, newspapers publish stories about it and they can’t hide from it.”

In a written reaction, Mr Bleker told Radio Netherlands Worldwide that he intends to ask his Indian counterpart openly about the Sumangali system in India. Surely he’ll be keeping in mind that abolishing these illegal activities is also the Indian government’s wish.

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Landelijke India Werkgroep - 6 juni 2011