Slavery on the high street: Forced labour in the manufacture of garments for international brands


This report was published in June 2012 by Anti-Slavery International, a human rights organisation based in the United Kingdom. It highlights the “slavery-like practices” prevailing within the garment production industry in India that manufactures for international markets. The two primary areas that the report focuses on are the spinning mills in the Tirupur (or Tiruppur) district of Tamil Nadu, and the garment finishing industry in Delhi.

Field research for this report was conducted in 2009 and 2010. Current workers, former workers, and their families were interviewed about their experiences of working in the garment industry. The report identifies what has come to be known as the ‘Sumangali’ system of forced labour which employs women largely between the age of 13 and 18 years. It employs women under exploitative conditions and very low wages, and with the promise of a lump sum payment at the end of a three-year contract. “The girls are confined to the mills, sleeping in hostels, during their contract period and are rarely, if ever, allowed out during that time”, the report states.

Along with case studies of garment manufacturing companies that focus on international markets, the report also offers recommendations. It highlights the role of the government and suggests possible steps to abolish forced labour in the garment manufacturing industry.

The 60-page document consists of two parts. The first part ‘Manifestations of Slavery in Indian Fabric and Garment Manufacture’ contains four chapters: Introduction (Chapter 1); Child Labour and Slavery in the Garment Workshops of Delhi (Chapter 2); Sumangali – A New Name for the Enslavement of Girls and Young Women (Chapter 3); and Sumangali and the Manufacture of Garments for International Markets (Chapter 4). The second part ‘Responses’ covers three chapters: Seeking Commitment to Action (Chapter 5); The Role of Government (Chapter 6); and Conclusions (Chapter 7).


  1. This report investigates two slavery-like practices existing within the Indian garment producing sector. These include the forced labour of young women and girls in southern India, especially in thread spinning mills and the child labour in sequin workshops in Delhi.

  2. The report notes that in Sangam Vihar and Tughlakabad in Delhi, many garment workshops work in ‘finishing’ garments (embroidery or the application of sequins and beads) for international markets. Despite the availability of machinery in the market for these tasks, often young boys and men aged between 10 and 20 years are instead employed, the report notes.

  3. Research for the report uncovered the practice of debt bondage in certain garment factories in Delhi. Children working in these factories, when interviewed, revealed that factory owners often bribe local police officials and labour inspectors to ignore the labour abuses committed.

  4. One of the child labourers interviewed in Delhi stated that the workers did not have a legally binding agreement with the factory owners and had never received pay slips.

  5. Labourers are often paid on a ‘piece rate’. In one of the surveyed factories, the workers were paid Rs. 7 to finish one skirt, which took them around thirty minutes. As per the report, the minimum wage in Delhi (in 2011) for semi-skilled work was around Rs. 259 per day. At this rate, the labourers would need to work for more than 18 hours each day to meet the daily wage requirement.

  6. Spinning mills in parts of Tamil Nadu largely employ girls between the age of 13 and 18 years under the ‘Sumangali’ system, the report states. The girls employed through this system are termed as ‘trainees’ or ‘apprentices’ receiving a daily stipend of between Rs. 25 and Rs. 55 – an amount much lower than the legal minimum wages (in 2011) in Tamil Nadu.

  7. The girls employed in the ‘Sumangali’ system and their parents are promised a lump sum payment of about Rs. 25,000-Rs. 60,000 at the end of a three-year contractual period. This payment is promised on the condition that the girls complete the three-year work period without a break or absence due to “either illness or holiday”, the report states.

  8. As per the report, exploitative working conditions in spinning mills include long working hours, delay in payment or non-payment of wages, restrictions on the workers’ movement, lack of holidays. Other objectionable conditions reported are overcrowding and poor hygiene in workers’ dormitories and provision of poor-quality food.

  9. The report refers to a 2011 report by the India Committee of the Netherlands and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations to point out that almost 60 per cent of the women employed through the ‘Sumangali’ system belong to Scheduled Castes.

  10. Case studies for three major garment exporters in South India – SCM Garments, Eastman Exports and Prem Group – revealed that conditions of forced labour exist in each of these cases. Slavery-like conditions exist in the garment production industry because of the heavy demand for cheap and flexible labour, the report adds.

  11. Research conducted in December 2011 found that the ‘Sumangali’ system was being replaced by the ‘camp coolie’ system, which includes forced labour in heavily policed ‘prison-like’ environments, but without the lump sum payment that the ‘Sumangali’ system promised.

  12. The report encourages the government, the garment industry at large and non-governmental organisations to collaborate and take collective action to eradicate exploitative labour practices. It also advocates for unannounced checks at factories by government officials to evaluate working conditions and ensure that the factories do not employ child labour.

    Focus and Factoids by Kanak Rajadhyaksha.


Anti-Slavery International, London


Anti-Slavery International, London


Jun, 2012