Anti-slavery charity targets India’s garment industry in $2.7m push

Swiss-headquartered foundation Freedom Fund aims to improve labour policies and increase worker protections in 240 communities in India's Tamil Nadu

A $2.7m investment from the C&A Foundation will be used to battle the scourge of bonded labour in India’s garment industry.

Signed in the first week of March, the investment deal will see the Swiss-headquartered foundation work in partnership with the Freedom Fund, to establish a three-year pilot programme in four districts of Tamil Nadu, a textile-manufacturing centre. By working with the local communities, as well as industry groups, the programme will aim to curb demand for bonded labour, improve labour policies and increase worker protections, through a combination of education, awareness raising and direct action.

“Given our affiliation with the retailer C&A and the foundation’s mission to promote human dignity and justice throughout the supply chain, we feel a moral imperative to tackle this particular issue head on,” said Brandee Butler, head of Partnerships & Innovation, C&A Foundation. “The issues we’re trying to tackle as a foundation are enormous and we can’t do it alone, so we look for partnerships and opportunities to align ourselves with other funders and experts in the field.”

The pilot will mobilise at least 240 targeted communities across the four chosen districts to prevent vulnerable individuals from entering bonded labour schemes, and provide care to rehabilitate survivors. It will also set out to educate at least 3,000 workers in sites of high exploitation through rights training.

“Everything we do is about impacting and transforming the apparel industry and India is a major sourcing country for most international retailers,” said Butler. “It’s a sizeable investment for us. This partnership model is much more collaborative and hands on than a traditional grant would be. We’re hoping people will see the benefit of joining forces.”

Grants are expected to begin in July, after a four-month set-up phase. The Freedom Fund has engaged Geneva Global, a philanthropy advisor, to manage the programme on the ground, identifying partners and monitoring performance over the pilot period.

“This demonstrates that the garment industry is taking an active role in addressing forced labour,” said Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund. “The programme is a significant commitment and goes to the heart of tackling forced labour issues in the broader industry. With these kinds of resources, and if we can bring other industry partners on board, we can make a big difference in this space.

“There is already a real focus on this issue, but by ramping up the resources and with strong coordination, I think there’s a real likelihood of significantly driving down, if not eliminating, forced labour in the apparel industry in Tamil Nadu.”

Grono believes that those suppliers in the region who deal predominantly with international retailers are already working to address the issue of forced labour, because their customers wont accept it s presence in the the supply chain.

But more needs to be done to reach out to the broader sector. “It will take a bit of time,” he said. “But you can change behavior and empower the community groups and business associations that work across the industry. You can work with local authorities to make it clear that for the industry to thrive, it needs to get its act together.”

The Freedom Fund is seeking a further $1.1m in funding to support the pilot initiative. Additional funding will be required to scale up the programme to cover other districts within Tamil Nadu.

Photo credit: ETI