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Worst forms of child labour in garment sector, SOMO-ICN report
May '11
Big garment brands and retailers have their products made under exploitative and unhealthy conditions by girls in Tamil Nadu, South India. The girls, mostly younger than 18 and from a Dalit ('outcaste') background are employed under the Sumangali Scheme.

In its worst form, this employment scheme stands for bonded labour, as described in 'Captured by Cotton', a report published 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 companies. A number of companies have undertaken steps towards the elimination of the Sumangali Scheme, but abusive labour practices remain widespread.

Sumangali girls

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. This lump sum, varying between 400 and 800 euros, may be used to pay for a dowry. The reality stands in sharp contrast to the alluring promises: wages below the legally set minimum, 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, etc. This situation fits the definition of 'worst forms of child labour' as laid down by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for children up to 18 years old. This is a clear breach of international labour standards and Indian labour law.

The promised sum is not a bonus, but is made up of withheld wages. 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.

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 groups.

SOMO and ICN have shared drafts of the report with the companies that are named in the report. Several companies have responded with detailed feedback that has been processed in the final version of the report.

SOMO is an independent, non-profit research and network organisation working on social, ecological and economic issues related to sustainable development. Since 1973, the organisation investigates multinational corporations and the consequences of their activities for people and the environment around the world. SOMO supports social organisations by providing training, coordinating networks and generating and disseminating knowledge on multinational corporations in a context of international production, trade, financing and regulation.

Centre for Research on Multinational Corporation (SOMO)

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