India’s garment industry is a $100 billion powerhouse, with $40 billion worth of textiles and garments exported annually. It is the country’s second largest sector after agriculture, employing at least 45 million workers directly, it and contributes to the economic livelihood of at least another 60 million Indians.

And as is the case of much of the global garment industry, the sector in India is a complicated one with a tangled supply chain. Small factories and shops, many of them family-run, serve as subcontractors to larger textile and garment suppliers, which in turn churn out clothing for some of the world’s most recognized brands.

The result is that bonded labor has become common across India, as suppliers seek to keep costs down in a hyper-competitive industry. And what may come across to many families as at first a benign way to secure a daughter’s future and pay for her marriage dowry has become part of a corrupt system entrapping as many as 120,000 young women and girls annually.

One large driver of bonded labor in India, especially in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is the Sumangali system, in which girls as young as 13 are hired on contract for as long as five years.

Many of them work in spinning mills, which for decades relied on full-time adult male workers along with some married women hired on a temporary contract basis. But since the late 1980s, more spinning mills have relied on these young girls and women, who are often promised a clean place to live, plenty of social activities, onsite health care and a generous lump sum after they complete their contract. According to the NGO Anti-Slavery International, girls and their families are promised as much as 60,000 rupees ($882) in a lump-sum payment at the end of the typical three-year contract.

The reality, however, is often starkly different, as outlined in Anti-Slavery’s 2012 landmark report. Working conditions are often dangerous; living quarters are often squalid; these young women and girls are often kept confined to the mills, even if they become seriously ill; and deductions for healthcare costs or mistakes made on the shop floor can reduce their final payment, already a pittance, to almost nothing.

Read the full article here, part of a series on fashion's social impact.

Image credit: Deepak Malik, UNDP India; Flickr

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of Based in California, he specializes in social media consulting and strategic communications. A journalist and writer since 2009, his work has appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Areas of interest include the <a Middle East, sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (Leon Kaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). Since 2013, he has spent much of his time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, working with Masdar, the emirate's renewable energy company. He lives in Fresno, California.