Eradicating forced labour in the apparel supply chain

Today, there are about 35.8 million people trapped in modern day slavery in industries as diverse as mining, fishing, and brick-making. It is called by many different names and takes on many different forms, but it always involves “one person possessing or controlling another person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of their individual liberty, with the intention of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal”. (Source).

“All around the world an identical story is being played out. A stranger announces ‘I’ve got jobs. Who needs a job?’ People that think of their hungry children, or sick parents, and despite their doubts they do what anyone of us might do to protect our family – they take the risk and go with the recruiter. Ten miles, 100 miles, 1,000 miles later, they find themselves in dirty, dangerous, demeaning work. They may take it for a little while, but when they try to leave, the violence and coercion begins, and they discover they’re enslaved.”

— Professor Kevin Bales, Prof. of Contemporary Slavery, Wilberforce Inst. for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation and co-founder Free the Slaves

In six of the 10 countries with the highest number of people in modern slavery, it is a frequent occurrence in the cotton textile and garment supply chains. Whether it is child labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, or the Sumangali schemes in spinning mills in southern India, our clothes may have been touched by some form of forced or child labour.

In this section, two leading experts explore some of the issues that allow forced labour – a form of modern slavery – to persist. They also discuss the need for more collaborative, multi-stakeholder approaches to eradicate this heinous crime.

Both C&A and C&A Foundation are committed to fighting this travesty.


Joerg Boethling


Joerg Boethling


Sanjit Das (c) Legatum Limited 2015

Our work to tackle forced labour

  • Developed a strategic partnership with The Freedom Fund to design and launch a southern India hotspot to address the bonded labour more holistically

    Read more
  • Investigated, with the Responsible Sourcing Network and MADE-BY, a transparency initiative to eliminate cotton harvested with forced labour in Uzbekistan

    Read more
  • Continued our grassroots support to victims of the Sumangali scheme via the partnership with Terre des Hommes and its local partner, Care Trust

    Read more

Making the invisible visible

Brandee Butler Head of Partnerships
& Innovation,
C&A Foundation

Forced labour happens in areas where there is social and economic inequality, opaque business practices, weak laws, and an abundance of cheap labour. Charities and NGOs have tried to combat this through awareness raising in communities around the spinning mills where recruitment into forced labour was heaviest. But unfortunately, recruiters have become savvy to this and are targeting marginalised women from communities further afield.

We know that the problem is still widespread. In the apparel industry, forced labour thrives beneath the factory level where the supply chain is more complex. At the factory level, international brands and retailers are more successful in ensuring their suppliers are compliant with local laws and codes of conduct. But as more subcontractors come into play, it becomes extremely difficult for brands and retailers – whose leverage over such hidden players decreases – to enforce any standards. With this complexity, a lack of transparency and traceability in the supply chain means this crime remains unseen and unpunished.

At the same time, for those trapped in forced labour, it is very difficult to share information about good and bad employers. It means potential victims do not know which employers to avoid. In other cases, even when the victims and their families are aware of the risks, they take their chances anyway, not seeing any other alternative or economic option.

At C&A Foundation we have been talking to leading experts in forced labour to guide our strategy. One thing has become increasingly clear: we need to make forced labour visible – not only to retailers and brands, but to the communities who are affected by it. We need to work with business owners, unions, and local authorities to make sure that laws meant to protect workers are enforced. Making the problem visible creates more accountability, particularly for those with the power to enforce regulations.

Illegal profits obtained from forced labour

It is estimated that the total illegal profits obtained from the use of forced labour worldwide amount to €134.2 billion per year between 2003 and 2012 (Source 1), donor countries contributed a combined average of €111 million annually. (Source 2)

Illegal profits

Money donated to tackle forced labour


Tackling a complex problem

Nick Grono CEO, The Freedom Fund, former CEO of the Walk Free Foundation and Deputy President of International Crisis Group

There are three main factors driving forced labour: demand for cheap goods, the vulnerability of certain populations and weak law enforcement. It is when all three occur together that modern day slavery tends to occur. This makes tackling the problem complicated, but it’s important to address these factors concurrently

In the apparel industry, the demand for low-priced fashion fuels the pressure to pay low wages. This drives suppliers to move to lower-cost countries, like India. The most unscrupulous factories recruit vulnerable women and girls from marginalised communities into forced labour, paying wages that are below the national minimum wage.

Girls of lower castes in southern India are especially vulnerable to this. Often denied the same educational opportunities as boys, they are treated as second-class citizens – even by the police or those who are supposed to be protecting them. This, coupled with poverty and a lack of economic alternatives, make them easy targets for exploitation.

Finally, we find that forced labour thrives where there is a widespread failure to implement the laws that prohibit it. In this region, weak rule of law means that corruption often goes unpunished, leaving mill owners with no incentive to improve the way they treat workers.

To tackle forced labour we must focus on the underlying causes in a holistic way. At the Freedom Fund, we do this with our ‘hotspot approach’. We work with a number of stakeholders – victims, families, local authorities, suppliers and international retailers – to find the most effective solution and then scale it. This type of approach has real potential to drive change.

Mahalaksmi’s story fullimage

Joerg Boethling

Mahalaksmi’s story

Mahalakshmi is one of more than 120,000 girls who have been enticed into bonded labour at spinning mills – the so-called Sumangali scheme. During her time there, Mahalakshmi suffered a terrible accident. But with the help of a local non-governmental organisation, she was able to recover and now works to save other girls from a similar fate.

I was 14 when I dropped out of school to go and work in a spinning mill. My family were very poor and I wanted to earn money to help them. I was paid 35 rupees (EUR 0.50) per day as a contract labourer.

After two years, a man came to speak to me about the chance to earn 30,000 rupees at another mill. He promised me food, accommodation and said that I’d get all of the money at once. He said I could use it as marriage dowry at the end my three-year contract. So I went with him.

When I got to the mill I had to work on a machine that I’d never used before. I tried to tell my supervisor that I couldn’t do it but he physically forced me to use the machine. Within minutes, I lost four fingers on my right hand.

I was taken to hospital where I was treated for three weeks. It was there that I met Serene Secular Social Service Society, a local organisation that works with women and girls like me. I wasn’t sure whether or not to get help from them at first. I was worried that my employers would find out. But eventually I started to trust in them and I’m so glad that I did.

Serene Secular Social Service Society helped me get legal assistance to file a lawsuit. And they offered me life skills training to help me overcome my handicap. Today, I’m the proud owner of a bakery unit. My legal case is still pending, but I now feel confident enough to raise awareness about the Sumangali scheme. I speak to government officials, journalists, and other people about what happened to me. I hope this will save other girls from the same fate.


girls have been recruited into Sumungali (Source)

The ten countries with the highest number of people in modern slavery

Six are known to use forced labour in the garment, textile or cotton industry. (Source)

  • Garment industry

  • Cotton industry

  • Textile industry

  • Thailand 480 k
  • Bangladesh 680 k
  • Indonesia 710 k
  • DRC 760 k
  • Nigeria 830 k
  • Russia 1 million
  • Uzbekistan 1.2 million
  • Pakistan 2.1 million
  • China 3.2 million
  • India 14 million
  • Other 8.9 million