Friday 6 December 2013

Sumangali: The shame of fast fashion

In an un-nerving and eye-opening expose for Mother Jones, journalist Dana Liebelson explored the world of the sumangali girl in India. She didn't like what she found, and neither should you.

Sumangali, the Tamil name for "happily married woman," has another meaning in the clothing factories of southern India. Girls in the Tamil region need a dowry before they can marry. In order to earn that, many of them turn to the clothing factories that offer good wages for a three-year contract that involves living and working at isolated factory complexes. It's only when they're behind the gates that the samungali girls discover the truth: the wages are a quarter of what was promised, and the work involves twelve-hour shifts working machines without safety guards that can grab hair or scar you if your attention slips even for a moment. On-the-job accidents and even deaths are not unusual.

Although the companies for which these factories provide services insist that their supply chain complies with ethical standards, the truth is less rosy. The scale of a multi-national production schedule means that it's impossible to check whether factories are following the rules. Girls can be moved out of the way of an impromptu inspection very quickly, and the intimidatory nature of management means that many girls are afraid to speak up even when they have the chance to do so. Liebelson herself was threatened by the staff at one factory, and followed back to her hotel.

Factories like the ones Liebelson visited supply big brands like Walmart and H&M, all of whom declare that sumangali does not exist in their chain. In order to make that the truth, there needs to be a root-and-branch reorganisation of the way that chain is organised and policed. Practices like sumangali, and the endemic corruption at the national level that allows it to happen, are something to which any company that declares itself to be ethical should be putting all its efforts into eradicating from its manufacturing process. Anything less is a shameful lie.

I urge everyone to read Dana Liebelson's article over at Mother Jones. Like her, it may just get you looking differently at the cheap clothes in your wardrobe.

I Tried to See Where My T-Shirt Was Made, and the Factory Sent Thugs After Me.

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