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MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Global retailers' efforts to clean supply chains of slave labor and improve labor conditions will have little impact unless consumers in India, Asia's third-largest economy, demand more ethically produced goods, industry experts said.
India is among the largest manufacturers of textiles and apparel in the world, supplying leading international brands. In and around the southern city of Bengaluru alone, there are some 1,200 garment factories making apparel for global brands.
But it is estimated that the domestic market accounts for more than 40 percent of the industry's revenue.
Hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises use forced labor and treat workers poorly, with abuses ranging from withheld salaries to debt bondage, human rights groups say.
"The industry has the most invisible supply chain. It is also mostly unorganized, which makes it harder to map and regulate," said Mona Gupta, a senior official at India's Apparel Export Promotion Council late on Thursday.
"Domestic consumers should raise their voice. If they insist on buying only ethical products, that will bring pressure on manufacturers," she said at a panel discussion on trafficking and modern day slavery organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Asia Society in Mumbai.
Panelists pointed to the example of Apple Inc., which tackled poor wages and working conditions at the factories of its partner Foxconn in China after criticism from consumers among others.
Estimates of the number of people trapped in forced labor vary. The International Labour Organization says 21 million people are victims of forced labor globally, while the Global Slavery Index says there are 36 million slaves in the world, half of them in India.
The conditions of garment workers in South Asia have come under sharp scrutiny following the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, in which 1,135 workers were killed, many of them employed by suppliers to Western retailers.
In India, legislation exists against bonded labor and child labor, but enforcement is weak.
"Unethical practices in the supply chain must be the responsibility of corporations, but corporations first need to accept the problem exists," said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), which says it has freed more than 85,000 children from various industries.
"Corporations must be proactive and engage with the public, as well," he said.
Global apparel brands H&M, Inditex, C&A and PVH in January committed to improving the lives of workers in Bengaluru, after a report said laborers lived in appalling conditions and were denied decent wages and freedom of movement.
However, campaigners say the seasonal nature of work in India's textile industry, the advent of fast fashion and the competitiveness of the business have helped create conditions leading to the exploitation of workers.
"There is child labor not just because of a supply-pull factor, but also a demand-push factor," Gupta said.
"The only way to resolve the issue is to sensitize everyone: businesses, workers and consumers. It can be done," she said.
Reporting by Rina Chandran, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.