Combatting Modern Slavery Through Business Leadership at the Bottom of the Supply Chain

This project analysed innovative initiatives aimed at tackling modern slavery among local businesses in the garment industry in Tamil Nadu (India).

The project addressed the question of how to achieve economic growth in the South Indian garment industry while at the same time ensuring that workers experience decent work. It concentrated on the garment industry around Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, a major export region for products destined for UK high streets. The particular focus was on bottom-up initiatives developed by local businesses and other actors that might be effective in achieving decent work and economic growth.

The research revealed that until recently the Tirupur cluster had experienced rapid and sustained growth. However, today Tirupur stands at a crossroads. The industry faces three key challenges: increased competition from lower cost countries, labour shortages, and reputational problems around labour conditions. International brands, the media and local NGOs continue to pressure the industry to improve working conditions, including the eradication of extreme forms of exploitation, such as forced and bonded labour. The research findings indicated that there was a widespread belief in the industry (including among employers, unions and workers) that pay and working conditions had improved and that the worst forms of exploitation had declined in prevalence. However, despite these improvements, the team discovered evidence of the persistence of pockets of extreme forms of exploitation – child, forced/bonded labour and versions of the Sumangali system. The researchers also found direct evidence of other forms of exploitation which remain embedded and ubiquitous in the industry, with some variant even in the most progressive businesses. Most notably, this includes restrictions on freedom of movement, health and safety violations, gender discrimination, unfair pay, absence of contracts, and verbal abuse. The research suggests that the persistence of these problems is due to a number of factors. On the one hand, attempts by brands to discover and eradicate labour violations through social auditing of the workplace have met with some success, but remain plagued by widespread evasion and cheating. On the other hand, there are deep-seated structural conditions that give rise to exploitative practices in the cluster. These conditions help to explain business demand for exploitation (e.g. the cost, time and flexibility pressures experienced by producers) and the supply of vulnerable workers (e.g. gender inequality, limited economic choices, and little understanding of relevant rights and protections among workers).

The team identified four main potential pathways to change: (i) economic upgrading; (ii) responsible migration; (iii) relocation of manufacturing; (iv) diversification. The findings suggest that each pathway has opportunities and challenges for achieving decent work and economic growth in the sector. The recommendations are, therefore, that the industry first agree a shared Vision 2030 and accompanying goals to move towards a comprehensive, shared solution. A multi-stakeholder taskforce should be formed to lead this initiative. While the industry must come together to decide which combination of objectives to pursue and how, the research suggests that particular attention should be paid to three key issues: i) freedom of movement, which represents the greatest reputational risk; ii) health and safety, where there is the widest consensus on the desirability of change; and iii) worker-driven social responsibility, which offers the most leverage for addressing decent work more broadly.

Principal Investigator: Professor Andrew Crane, University of Bath

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