It's been a busy, buzzy couple of weeks for UK fashion. London Fashion Week has been a big success, and the launch of Westfield Stratford has given us the unlikely sight of fashionistas flocking to one of the grimmer corners of East London. But, as the Ecologist makes clear in a recent article, there's a ghost at the party.
Sourcing clothes ethically and at a good price is a tough balance. According to Dutch corporate investors SOMO in a report published in May, that balance is teetering in a very dark direction indeed.
Bonded labour has been an unpleasant reality in the marketplace for centuries. It's tantamount to slavery. In India, the practice is known as 'sumangali'. Girls as young as 14 are signed to three-year contracts, offered free accommodation and pay, with a lump sum payment to be made at the end. It seems an attractive prospect, especially for families that are looking to build enough money for a dowry payment.
The reality isn't so rosy. For the duration of that time, the girls effectively belong to the factory. They live in dormitories with no freedom or privacy, offered no benefits and are forced to work unpaid overtime. If they quit before the contract is up, then they forfeit the final payment.
According to SOMO, retailers like Tesco, H&M and Next all use factories that have workers under sumangali contracts. Fortunately, all three have signed pledges condemning the practice and are working with NGO's to get a three year plan under way to bring the practice to an end. But progress is likely to be slow and involve delicate negotiations. Sumangali is ingrained into the Indian way of work, and the SOMO report admits that any company doing business there is likely to indirectly source from suppliers that use the practice. Simply walking away from India helps no-one, least of all the girls at the bottom of the stack who most need the money.
None of which makes for particularly uplifting reading, I know. But even if it does take years to eliminate, or at least marginalise an exploitative practice that's been going for centuries, it's worth the effort.