Fabric of Slavery

Large-scale forced (child) labour in India’s spinning mills

New research by the India Committee of Netherlands (ICN) shows that various forms of modern slavery, including child slavery, are found in more than 90% of the spinning mills in South India. These spinning mills produce yarn for India, Bangladeshi and Chinese garment factories that produce for the Western market.
The report Fabric of Slavery exposes the scale on which young girls and women are enslaved by employers who withhold their wages or lock them up in company-controlled hostels. They work long hours, face sexual harassment and do not even earn the minimum wage. Gerard Oonk, director of ICN: “We have raised the issue for five years now, but even to us the scale of this problem came as a shock.”

In December 2016, India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), an independent human rights organisation, released a research report titled – Fabric of Slavery, that severely indicted the textile spinning mills in Tamil Nadu of practicing what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines as ‘Forced labour’. As per the ILO Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (29), which India has ratified, ‘forced labour’ is defined as ‘all work or service which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily’. ICN based its findings on the nine ILO indicators (out of total eleven) under the Convention that apply to spinning mill workers.

The Study

The study was conducted in Tamil Nadu, which is the largest producer of cotton yarns in India and a global ‘sourcing hub’ for readymade garment suppliers and manufacturers. The state has approximately 1600 mills that employ anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000 workers. About 30% of the yarn produced in the state is supplied to export factories across Tamil Nadu who produce garments for big US and European brands/retailers. The mills also supply to other garment exporting hubs across India besides supplying to factories in Bangladesh and China.

ICN researchers carried out six months (July-December 2015) of fieldwork in four districts of Tamil Nadu – Dindigul, Tirupur, Erode and Namakkal. The research team conducted interviews with 2,286 workers from 743 spinning mills located in these districts. These constituted almost half of the total number of spinning mills in Tamil Nadu.

The nine indicators used by ICN to examine the ‘forced labour’ conditions of workers in these mills were: Abuse of Vulnerability; Deception; Freedom of Movement; Isolation; Physical and Sexual Violence; Intimidation and Threats; Withholding of Wages; Abusive Working and Living Conditions; Excessive Overtime; Definitions


Sumangali scheme351 out of 743 mills use Sumangali scheme as conditions of employment. This scheme essentially creates conditions of forced labour ‘where young women have a fixed term contract and a significant portion of the legal minimum wage or other payments to which they are entitled [like Provident Fund] are withheld until they have completed the contract’. Mills in Dindigul district has highest prevalence of this scheme as per the findings. In July 2016, Madras High Court had ordered for abolition of the Sumangali scheme.

Camp labour392 out of 743 mills restrict freedom of movement‘Camp labour’ is labour arrangement where workers live in ‘company- controlled’ hostels with no or very limited freedom of movement. This make them ‘available’ for work on call and also restricts their options to choose another employer. There were variations in the districts with 67% of the mills in Dindigul showing camp labour condition.

Minimum wages: There is no ‘established’ minimum wages for regular workers in textile industry in the State due to protracted negotiations between trade unions and employers, therefore the ICN researchers used minimum wage given to apprentices (as directed by the Madras High Court) as a benchmark to conclude that only 39 mills out of 743 paid minimum wages to apprentices. Interestingly 37 our of 39 mills that paid minimum wage were located in Erode.

Working hours: There were three working hour categories: 48 hours or less/week; 48-60 hours/week; more than 60 hours. 37 out of 743 has 48 hr or less; 706 mills exceeded 48 hours and367 mills exceeded 60 hours/week. There were variations in districts with 93% of mills in Namakkal reporting more than 60 hours a week.

Social security: A majority of 67% of the mills make Provident Fund deductions. Only 9% of the mills offer Employee State Insurance or other medical insurance. 31% of the mills do not offer any social security at all.

Worker representation: Out of 743 mills, in 10 mills trade unions have access to the mills and membership amongst spinning mill workers. 33 mills have some sort of workers committee. Only 1 mill in Dindigul has both a trade union and a Workers Committee. 94% of the mills do not have any form of workers’ representation.

Harassment: Workers (mostly women) did not openly report about harassment, however ICN researchers found media reports that document (sexual) harassment in 64 of the mills covered under the research and verbal harassment and intimidation is rampant.

The overall finding of the ICN research showed that 91% of the mills showed different forms of forced labour. In 67 mills (9%) both camp labour and Sumangali schemes were prevalentbesides all the mills under research indicated intimidation and sexual harassment, abusive working conditions, excessive overtime and deception.


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