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India’s Dalit women and the real cost of fast fashion

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Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

The High Street frenzy that follows when the Duchess of Cambridge is snapped wearing a new dress can lead to  24-hour shifts for women working in some of India’s garment factories.

That’s one of the  findings of a new report Maid in India that reveals the impact that unexpected orders and the frequency at which high street stores change their collections is having on some of India’s most disadvantaged women.

The 69-page report labels the majority of clothing brands and retailers as ‘laggards’ over their failure to take steps to ensure decent working conditions after it calculated that 99,000 women – and girls aged between 14 and 18 – are working in exploitative conditions close to bonded labour in Tamil Nadu in South India.

Lured by the promise of a lump sum for a dowry at the end of their employment, the women are often tied to the factories for three to five years under what is known as the Sumangali Scheme (in Tamil ‘Sumangali’ refers to a happy and contented married woman who has good fortune and wealth).

Almost 60 per cent of the girls working under the scheme belong to the ‘Scheduled Castes’ or ‘untouchables’ the report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) says.

For the factory owners the scheme offers guaranteed labour and as many of the women live in hostels on the factory site or close, they provide a ready workforce.

Conditions are worst in spinning mills where the machines run 24-hours a day. A woman can expect to be woken up at any time during the night if there is an order that has to be completed quickly.

Overtime of up to four hours is usual and in exceptional cases – an urgent order – women can work up to 16 and sometime 24 hours in one stretch.

There are no unions or grievance procedures, few women have contracts and the pressure to comply with the demands is great because they risk losing their job or the final payment, which they see as an opportunity for a better life.

Presented as a bonus, the sum, which amounts to around 400 to 850 euros, is in fact just withheld wages – and many women never receive it.

Some simply can’t complete the time period due to sickness, others have been sacked shortly before their time is up, or the money has been withheld for bogus reasons while women are forced to work longer than initially agreed.

Published a year after an earlier report into working conditions in the region’s manufacturing industry, Captured by Cotton, this latest report notes some improvements at the four manufacturers surveyed.

One manufacturer has stopped using the Sumangali Scheme altogether, another has phased it out at some of factories. Women have been allowed more freedom of movement, in that they are allowed to leave the hostel site unaccompanied and use telephones.

But this is small beer when compared to the suicides, the frequent accidents resulting from a lack of training and sleep and the reports of abuse from supervisors who are recruited from higher castes.

The report points out how difficult it is to find out which fashion retailers use the South Indian clothing manufacturers – they don’t readily provide information about their customers and only a few pioneering garment companies reveal information about their suppliers.

After carrying out their own research, the report’s authors concluded that giant retailers such as Tesco, department stores such as Marks & Spencer, fashion brands like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Diesel and (fast) fashion retailers including Inditex and Primark accounted for some of the European and American clientele.

Fashion retailers now pride themselves on changing their collections as many as eight times a year instead of two to three previously. Bulk orders have been replaced by smaller, more frequent orders so that the clothes reach the stores within the shortest possible time frame.

But they have been less responsive when it comes to keeping to agreements to monitor working conditions at the factories that are required to meet this new pattern of demand, concludes the report.

Unionisation of the factories is recommended in order that the workers can begin to voice their needs.

The report concludes that:

“The majority of the brands and retailers can safely be classified as ‘laggards’.

“The same is true for the manufacturers. The overall picture shows lack of progress in improving recruitment and labour conditions.”

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