While the global garment industry is rife with tales of forced labor, human trafficking and sexual exploitation, one human-rights nonprofit says it has found a way forward.
The key is expanding grassroots initiatives, according to the Freedom Fund, a London-based organization that recently concluded a pair of five-year trials to “address the systemic causes” of bonded and forced labor, including one in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the cotton spinning industry employs hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers—mostly young women and girls from lower-caste communities—to produce goods for the domestic and international markets.
“In Tamil Nadu, local employment is centered on the garment industry,” the Freedom Fund wrote in a report. “Mills are often remote, and workers can suffer harassment, abuse and infringement of their rights. Similar to northern India, Dalit or other scheduled caste communities are at increased risk of exploitation, and the combination of financial insecurity and predatory money lending contributes to households ending up in cycles of debt bondage.”
But conducting a slate of community-level, grassroots-led interventions, while also engaging with government and business stakeholders, can attack the underlying systems that underpin the worst forms of exploitation, it added.
Freedom Fund invested $15.8 million in more than 40 Indian nonprofits on the frontlines of its “hotspot” model, which concentrates resources, including on-the-ground staff, on a specific geographic region.
“We invest in local frontline organizations in our hotspots to support them in protecting communities from exploitation, liberating and rehabilitating survivors, and ensuring the prosecution of perpetrators,” it explained. “While the Freedom Fund does not exclusively fund local non-governmental organizations, we believe community-based, grassroots organizations are the most effective agents of long-term change. By working with frontline organizations, the Freedom Fund benefits from their decades of experience and relationships with local government and affected communities.”
Interventions in Tamil Nadu spanned the gamut, it said, from training girls and young women on gender equity and wage entitlements to forming community-organized self-help groups to provide non-exploitative sources of loans. Other programs facilitated the creation of internal complaint committees to empower workers to collectively bargain with employers, ensure local government protection of labor rights and go toe to toe with management on wages and hours, harassment, and workplace safety.
Because the Freedom Fund wanted to ensure that its results were evidence-based, it commissioned Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, the Institute of Development Studies, Praxis India and the United Kingdom Home Office to validate its results.
The groups found that from 2015 to 2018, the proportion of households in bonded labor in 1,100 target villages fell from an average of 56 percent to 11 percent—the equivalent of 125,000 fewer individuals in bonded labor. Similarly, the prevalence of households with a child in bonded labor shrank from 13 percent to 1 percent. Child marriage and school dropouts, while low, decreased by more than half between 2016 and 2018.
Taken together, Freedom Fund said, these evaluations “validate the power of grassroots interventions to reduce bonded labor and enable vulnerable communities to free themselves from exploitative practice,” though, as always, there is scope for further growth.
“Ongoing, long-term support is needed for those exiting bonded labor,” Freedom Fund said. “Survivors are often underserved with support for mental health, training and livelihoods. Long-term engagement is also needed for rescued children, as many are at risk of ending up back in exploitative conditions.”