Dalit girls exploited in supply chain of high street retailers
Under the Sumangali Scheme, a decent wage and comfortable accommodation is promised, and the biggest lure is a lump sum for the worker on completion of a three or five year contract. The Tamil word ‘Sumangali’ refers to a married woman who leads a happy and contented life with her husband. The attraction of the scheme for many single women and their families is that it will help them to pay a dowry for marriage. Although dowry – the payment of a sum of money or goods to the groom’s family - was abolished in 1961, it is still a common practice today in India. Naturally, it is the poorest who are most tempted to enter the scheme, the majority being Dalits.
Thinly disguised bonded labour
The ‘Captured by Cotton’ report, compiled by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), claims that the reality of working conditions is often in sharp contrast to the attractive picture painted above. Workers are subjected to long hours – 12 hours a day, six days a week, and in peak periods much more than this – often in poor and unsafe conditions. Added to this, their wages are low, they have no access to grievance procedures, freedom of movement is restricted and their privacy is limited. The report says, ‘Without exaggeration, the Sumangali Scheme in its worst form has become synonymous with unacceptable employment and labour conditions, even with bonded labour’. This last allegation is based on the end-of-contract lump sum not being a bonus but part of the regular wage that is withheld by the employer. The report alleges that often the women do not receive the full promised amount, and, indeed, that some are dismissed for the least excuse just before the end of their contract so they are not entitled to the lump sum.
The report is based on extensive interviews with current and former workers under the scheme, along with Indian trade unionists, civil society organisations, academics and corporate sources. Six out of every ten women in the Sumangali Scheme are Dalits – untouchables – and the remainder are from the Other Backward Classes (the lowest caste, whereas Dalits fall below the caste system). Evidence was found of child labour, and one academic estimates that 10-20% of Sumangali workers are aged between 11 and 14 years-old, an age when they should be in school.
The writers of the report, along with other bodies such as the Ethical Trade Initiative, an international alliance of stakeholders, are keen to see retailers take responsibility for ensuring that their supply chain is free of such practices. They are not in favour of retailers switching suppliers, however, since they fear that the original suppliers would continue with the practice, or make conditions even worse for their employees. Instead, the report calls for major companies to work with their suppliers to improve conditions for their workers and to end the exploitative aspects of the Sumangali scheme. The report calls for collective action between government, industry, NGOs and unions, and also for greater transparency.
UK retailers respond
Many of the retailers named in the report are taking steps to address the issue. Tesco, Next, Mothercare and Primark have responded to the report. Along with Marks and Spencer, they have been involved in preparing a Statement of Intent by the Ethical Trading Initiative. The statement expresses concern about conditions in the Tamil Nadu textile and garment industry. Signatories commit themselves to collective action to end all forms of forced and bonded labour and to improve working conditions. Curiously, the companies named here are not among the signatories. In another move, the Campaign Against Sumangali Scheme (CASS), a coalition of local NGOs, have also called on the Tamil Nadu government to ban the scheme.
Dalit Freedom Network UK welcomes steps by UK high street retailers to ensure that this issue is being addressed in their supply chain. We would urge those not taking steps to do so. Sumangali has the most detrimental effect on the poorest and most vulnerable in Indian society, mainly Dalits, and reflects a wider problem in Indian society of exploitation through the slavery of bonded labour.
You can download the report here.
 ‘Captured by Cotton – Exploited Dalit girls produce garments in India for European and US markets’ – SOMO/ICN, May 2011