By Bindy Taylor
The connection between clothing production and human trafficking has been one of the world’s best kept secrets. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re paying ‘not much’ for a piece of clothing, it’s likely someone has been trafficked somewhere in the production process.
The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on 24 April last year made the world stop, look and listen.
The tragic scenes splashed across our TV screens, social media sites and smartphones presented horrific images of bodies amid rubble from the eight-storey building collapse. More than 1000 young men and women were killed, with countless others injured.
The garment workers were well aware of the death trap they were entering on the day of the collapse, having witnessed large cracks in the building walls the day before. Warnings to avoid using the building were ignored by the factory supervisors and managers, who threatened staff with pay cuts and job loss if they chose not to enter. Some reluctant workers were beaten with sticks and herded into the building.
The incident at Rana Plaza exposed the ugly reality of cheap fashion to a largely unaware audience of global consumers. The underhand workings of many well-known fashion labels were exposed for all to see, and people wanted to know why these brands were shirking their responsibilities.
The lucrative Bangladesh textile industry injects 20 billion dollars (AUD) into the economy each year; similarly, the textile industry in neighbouring India contributes 62 billion (AUD) annually.
India was the destination chosen for Women of Strength, a human trafficking prevention trip operated by Stop the Traffik and Amor Ministries. These organisations, dedicated to justice and mission, developed an inaugural eight-day program that would delve deep into the murky underground of the billion dollar textile industry. In August last year, I joined a small contingent of women on a journey into India. What we experienced over the course of this trip had a powerful impact on all of us.
The program took our group into the region of Tamil Nadu, the manufacturing hub of India’s clothing and textile industry. Situated in the Central South of India, this region comprises over 2,000 textile spinning mills.
Young girls growing up in the Tamil Nadu region have few employment options and are commonly contracted by the mills for a period of one to five years. A ‘broker’ organises the contract, and receives a royalty for this in addition to an ongoing commission for the term of the contract. The broker is expert in wooing girls into factories. The girls are often shown pictures of resort-style factory scenarios that include swimming pools, gourmet meals and exciting activities.
The majority of girls are employed under contracts referred to as ‘Sumangali Schemes.’
Sumangali means ‘happily married woman’ in Tamil – its name relates to the lump sum payment (usually between $500-$1,000 AUD) made at the finalisation of the girl’s work contract. This payment acts as a kind of dowry. Although dowries are prohibited under Indian civil law, providing a dowry remains a common illegal practice.
In addition to the lump sum at the termination of the contract, girls are sometimes paid a miniscule wage throughout the period of their employment. This wage usually equates to approximately $5 (AUD) a week – once missed working hours have been tallied and expenses such as accommodation and food have been taken into account.
Upon visiting the Tamil Nadu region to hear stories from girls employed in Sumangali Schemes, I began to understand why around 80 per cent will break their contract before it ends, so forfeiting the lump sum.
The girls we visited shared stories of physical and verbal abuse. During the course of their frequent 15-to-16-hour work days (six days a week) many were verbally abused or struck by supervisors who wanted them to work harder and faster.
On an average day, the girls are not provided protective equipment. When an audit is scheduled they don a complete set of protective clothing – mask, hat and apron. However, as soon as the auditor leaves, the clothing is returned.
One girl shared a story about a friend who repeatedly asked supervisors for medical help. When she was finally taken to a hospital, it was discovered that she had two kilograms of cotton in her stomach – she had inhaled this in the workplace.
Inadequate training also led to fatalities. One girl was scalped to death after the manager failed to inform her that the spinning loom would take half an hour to wind down once it was powered off.
In addition to the harsh conditions suffered during the work day, girls are also often abused outside of their working hours. Pills are given to them, disguised as ‘vitamins.’ The drugs stop the girls from menstruating, which factory managers think will make them more productive. The food served is bland – meals often consist of plain rice, and occasionally a dahl. The girls are not allowed to exit the confines of the factory property unless it is a special holiday. Many are denied any contact with the outside world, including family contact either by phone or face-to-face.
So, why hasn’t anyone stopped this? Why are major brands continuing to fuel modern day slavery through their ignorant negligence? There are several reasons.
Most predominant is that the factories are entirely owned by Indian politicians, making it very difficult to garner political support for improved conditions.
In addition to this, exposure of malpractice occurring within spinning mills can lead to closure, which is not usually very effective. Mills and factories that are shut down simply relocate to a neighbouring country, such as Bangladesh, and the trafficking process is repeated in that location. The closure also leaves the people of the Tamil Nadu region with few employment options, resulting in extreme poverty.
The spinning of yarn is only one part of the 14-stage clothing production process. It is difficult to pinpoint unethical behaviour in each stage of the process, and this poses a challenge for consumers wishing to purchase an entirely ethical piece of clothing.
In an attempt to help consumers confronted by this problem, Baptist World Aid recently released an Ethical Fashion Guide in August, which details as closely as possible the ethical authenticity of a number of big brand retailers and clothing brands. This guide is available online at: baptistworldaid.org.au/behind-the-barcode
My experiences in taking part in the Women of Strength trip, and the stories I was privy to while in India, have altered my own behaviour and outlook in many ways.
My clothing purchasing habits have changed significantly as I strive to avoid unethical brands – or ‘human traffickers,’ a term which now feels more appropriate. These are commonly brands or stores that continuously offer low prices. If you dig a little deeper into the workings of these labels and organisations you will discover their disregard for human life, fuelled by greed and a determination to grow profits with wilful ignorance. As consumers, we can make a difference.
The girls I was fortunate enough to meet are a constant source of inspiration to me. When my life presents challenges or work feels relentless, I think of the girl in remote India working 16-hour days who reports to an abusive manager, imprisoned in a factory and kept from her family, existing on a diet of rice.
This thought spurs me onwards – energising my desire to make a difference in the lives of these girls, and making me appreciate the comfort of my own circumstances. I am fortunate; I was born in a beautiful country where I have choices open to me. And those choices include ensuring my dollars don’t support a scheme that relies on the misery of others to provide me with a bargain.
In 2014, Stop the Traffik will launch a trafficking-free cotton campaign. To find out more about Stop the Traffik or to donate, visit stopthetraffik.org to learn more about global mission trips operated by Amor Ministries, visit amor.org
Bindy Taylor is the editor-in-chief of New Times, the monthly publication of the South Australian synod where this article first appeared. Crosslight has not used identifying images of workers in the factories.