Guardian inquiry into concerns raised by Hugo Boss reveals Tamil Nadu firm, which also supplies major UK brands, stops women leaving factory
Luxury fashion retailer Hugo Boss said it has found cases of forced labour, a form of modern slavery, in its supply chain. Young female workers have been held captive behind the walls of garment factories in southern India and prevented from leaving the premises at any time.
Hugo Boss, which raised concerns about the free movement of resident mill workers in its 2016 sustainability report, said it has been working to resolve the issue with local suppliers.
Following the report, a Guardian investigation into the confinement of thousands of young migrant workers on factory premises in Tamil Nadu found that Best Corporation, the company used by Hugo Boss, also supplies garments to high-street brands including Next and Mothercare.
Hugo Boss has been in regular contact and intensive exchange with the body-wear supplier to work on changes together and to achieve improvements in the mentioned areas, the company said in a statement.
Best Corporation is not the only company in southern India where issues relating to worker confinement exist. The policy of housing large numbers of young female migrant workers in dormitories on factory premises is widespread in the region.
Factory owners say the policy is necessary to ensure worker safety in largely rural areas. But young women are effectively imprisoned in their workplace and allowed minimal contact with the outside world for up to four years.
A recent survey of 743 spinning mills across the region, carried out by the India Committee of the Netherlands, a human rights organisation dedicated to improving the lives of marginalised people in south Asia, found more than half of the mills were illegally restricting the free movement of resident workers.
Mill owners usually defend themselves on the pretext of protecting the girls from abuse far away from home, but locking young women up for years at a time is not the answer, said Gerard Oonk, the organisations director.
The Guardian found evidence of worker confinement at premises belonging to Sulochana cotton mills, which supplies Primark, and Sri Shanmugavel mills, which feed into Primark and Debenhams supply chains.
On visits to spinning mills located in rural areas around Tirupur, Palladam and Dindigul in Tamil Nadu, the Guardian spoke to workers who confirmed that young female workers were not allowed to leave the factory of their own free will at any time, except on rare trips to local markets accompanied by factory security.
One young woman who works at a Best Corporation mill spoke to the Guardian while her factory chaperone was distracted. We are not allowed to leave the factory without wardens or whenever we want to. I work, when I am told to. I dont complain. My family needs the money for my wedding dowry, she said.
According to multiple interviews with workers in factories belonging to Sri Shanmugavel mills, young women living at the factories are either not allowed mobile phones, or have their calls monitored by factory supervisors.