The Issues: Modern Slavery

Globally, it is estimated that 40.3 million people are locked into modern slavery at any one time, of whom around 16 million are in forced labour in the private sector, such as agriculture, mining and manufacturing – including the fashion industry.

What is modern slavery?

Forced labour can take many forms but is generally considered to be work for which people have not offered themselves voluntarily, or feel under threat of some form of violence or penalty if they do not comply. Modern slavery includes trafficked workers, those being held in slave-like conditions, or workers who have been encouraged (or even taken) to work on farms or in factories by an agent, only to find themselves in a form of debt bondage. 

  • 58% of people in slave labour are found in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan according to the Global Slavery Index 2016. These are also the world’s major cotton or garment-producing countries.
  • US Department of Labor research identifies 19 countries where forced labour has been found specifically in garment or jewellery supply chains. 
  • In Uzbekistan, an estimated 1 million adults and children were forced to work in the fields during the 2015 cotton harvest
  • Many of the women working in the spinning and textile mills of Tamil Nadu, southern India, are brought there under a type of bonded labour known as the “Sumangali Scheme”. 

What is the “Sumangali Scheme”?

It’s estimated that around 200,000 young women aged 14 to 23 have been effectively trafficked into the spinning, weaving and dyeing factories of Tamil Nadu, India, as part of a type of bonded labour known as the “Sumangali Scheme”. 

Promoted to parents as a marriage assistance scheme, agents have been able to lure vulnerable young women from lower castes and rural areas to work in factories with the promise of a lump sum towards wedding costs at the end of three years. However, once in the factories, the women have found themselves in a form of bonded labour: restricted in terms of freedom of movement, subjected to abusive practices, sexual harassment, excessive working hours, inadequate leave and discrimination on the basis of their caste.  

Regulation on modern slavery

With greater recognition of the continuing problems of forced labour and modern slavery, governments have started to introduce tighter new laws, such as the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act or California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act. These now require companies with a turnover above an agreed level to report on their actions to address modern slavery in their supply chains. 

Take Action

Responsible companies looking to do fashion better should ensure that there is no forced, bonded or involuntary prison labour in their supply chains. Workers should not be required to hand over their identity papers to their employers, and should be free to hand in their notice.  

Companies can ensure progress by:

  • mapping the likely risk or potential for forced labour or modern slavery in their own supply chains, and investigating measures to prevent it;
  • raising awareness with employees, partners, suppliers or customers of the risk of forced labour, and running training programmes to ensure more effective prevention, detection and remediation;
  • supporting industry-wide, or country-wide, initiatives to strengthen local legislation to create broad momentum for the eradication of modern slavery;
  • avoiding cotton produced by state-sponsored forced labour such as from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and supporting industry initiatives. 
  • Companies sourcing from, or operating in, spinning mills in Tamil Nadu need to be aware of the exploitative practices and violations associated with “Sumangali schemes” – and support programmes to end this form of forced labour.

Further information and resources: 

Ethical Trading Initiative base code guidance on Modern Slavery 

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre portal on Modern Slavery (including registry of company statements)

Ethical Trading Initiative corporate approaches to tackling modern slavery

California Transparency in Supply Chains (TISC) resource guide

Alliance 8.7 – global platform for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals target on forced labour, modern slavery and child labour 

Cotton Campaign - to end forced labour in cotton in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan 

Anti Slavery International 

Fair Wear Foundation guidance on Sumangali 

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