Tackling local forced labor risks from the producer perspective
The state of Tamil Nadu in southern India is a major hub for one of the largest employment-generating businesses in the country – the textile and clothing industry. It is also home to one of the most horrendous forced labor practices that has been exposed on the international stage.
Known as Sumangali schemes, the practice involves the recruitment of young women and girls by labor brokers into contracted work at textile mills, typically for periods of three to five years. Promises of a lump sum payment at the end of the contract period – and the appeal of using this toward the dowry required in many traditional Hindu marriages – lure poor and lower caste women, girls and their families into the scheme.
Once under the control of the broker or the factory, these young women and girls are reportedly exploited with low wages and long working hours and forced to live and work under unsafe and traumatizing conditions. They are also allegedly kept in isolation from their families and the organized labor community while being harassed and violated within the mills and dormitories.
Several brands and retailers have responded to the exposure of Sumangali schemes in various ways, in many cases severing ties with suppliers linked to the illegal practice. But the role of suppliers themselves in addressing the issue locally has not been highlighted as publicly.
One example of producer-led practices aimed at tackling this issue is Penguin Apparel’s program. Penguin Apparel is a medium-sized ready-made garment manufacturer in Tamil Nadu that primarily exports to Canada, France and the United States. Its work on Sumangali schemes highlights that forced labor risks are not solely linked to employers of migrant workers; they can also be of serious concern to employers of local workers as well.
While Sumangali schemes in Tamil Nadu have decreased in recent years, Penguin Apparel has recognized the severity of the forced labor risks associated with the practice and its disproportionate impact on particularly vulnerable groups in India.[i]
Major components of the manufacturer’s work around this issue include:
The company also educates its partners on social management systems and prioritizes strong communication channels to facilitate openness throughout the lower tiers of its supply chain.