Stop the Traffik - The Sumangali Scheme

We recently caught up with the lovely Carolyn Kitto, the Coordinator of Stop the Traffik Australia. Stop the Traffik is a global movement that aims to bring an end to human trafficking worldwide. This terrible trafficking business exists in every country globally and shockingly is the fastest growing international crime. Most of the victims come from the poorest countries in the world and are trafficked for any number of reasons.

Last year, Carolyn travelled to Tamil Nadu, India to learn about the Sumangali Scheme. This scheme sees young women and girls recruited from largely poor and marginalised communities to work in the spinning, weaving and dying factories in the area. The women and their families are promised certain conditions, working hours and wages by these recruiters and in many cases these never eventuate. The conditions are terrible and the working hours illegal. The women are also promised a lump sum payment on completion of their contract that only 35% of them ever end up receiving.

A short documentary, Sumangali: The Untold Stories has recently been released and we asked Carolyn to explain the issues with trafficking in the fashion industry and share with us how we as consumers can help.

What do you think is the systemic root of the trafficking problem in fashion? The default has always been to demand change from brands. These brands don’t want trafficking in their supply chains, yet it keeps happening. Why do you think this is?

The supply chain has very little real relationship in it. Retailers may know their buyers but don’t know who their buyers source from and so on down the chain. This allows for there to be abuse. I think change needs to happen on a number of levels. We as consumers can demand change from the brands, locally based groups can demand change from law enforcement and compliance. Everyone has a part to play.

Tell us about your time in India last year and the stories you heard from the women and girls who had been trafficked through the Sumangali Scheme.

The women were amazingly strong and articulate. They wanted to tell their stories. They were stories of hope turned into abuse, which in many cases had damaged them physically and emotionally. Yet they were not seeking compensation – they wanted their stories told so the scheme would end. I promised I would do what I could to tell their story.

How did Stop the Traffik find out about the Sumangali Scheme? 

I was visiting India researching different organisations who seek to prevent human trafficking. With trafficking being such a huge and growing crime, we believe our contribution is to try and stop it from happening in the first place. I visited SAVE, an NGO in Tamil Nadu that amongst other things is raising awareness of the Sumangali Scheme with a view to ending it and the trafficking associated with it.

Have you tracked the brands using mills that are part of the Sumangali Scheme? 

We have not taken the approach of naming and shaming because there are so many labels and brands using the mills it is hard to isolate who to target. Tamil Nadu needs a strong and robust spinning and weaving industry built on real economic foundations. Targeting brands may just mean they leave the area rather than change their ways. It is better if the people they supply to ask for this change.

What is Stop the Traffik doing to help prevent people trafficking in the fashion industry?

Surprisingly many companies do not know who makes the garments they sell. Further, the vast majority of fashion retailers and brands do not publish a supplier list. The Australian Fashion Report found that only 15% of the 41 fashion companies retailing in Australia (128 brands) publish a list of suppliers. A similar report in the USA also found that only 20% of companies publish a full list of supplier names and addresses. It’s likely to be a similar percentage globally.

We believe that companies are responsible for the workers in every stage of production of the garments they sell. Knowing the supply chain and then making it public is a first step to ensuring human trafficking has not occurred in their garments. We also believe that most fashion labels and retailers do not want their clothes tainted with human trafficking abuses.

Stop the Traffik’s Make Fashion Traffik Free Campaign invites makers and retailers of garments to commit to the Make Fashion Traffik Free Protocol. In doing so they agree to release a realistic but ambitious public timeline to make available the names of all suppliers and supply factories, and to take steps to ensure they have contracts with these suppliers that seek to ensure human trafficking is eradicated.

What do you hope the documentary on the Sumangali Scheme will achieve?

I hope it will inspire people to become part of the story of the young women who have been trafficked, and that it will motivate fashion labels and retailers and their customers to ask for the changes in conditions which mean this scheme will end.

How can we as consumers help to ‘stop the traffik’?

You can write to your favourite retailer or label and ask them to join the Make Fashion Traffik Free Protocol. We have an online email tool you can use or you can order some of our Make Fashion Traffik Free cards to drop off the next time you are shopping.

Below is the trailer for Sumangali: The Untold Stories . To watch the full documentary click here.


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