MUMBAI: It's been called the heart of Indian fashion.
After rescuing 13 young boys from forced labour, the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) is starting a major campaign to weed out exploitation of labour in the industry. The campaign is being officially launched at the fashion week in Mumbai.
"When we rescued the boys (in December) from the clutches of an embroiderer who had them imprisoned at a Mumbai slum, we realised how big this problem was," said FDCI executive director Vinod Kaul.
So now the apex body has called on KPMG Consulting to do a study into the spread and gravity of the problem.
"We don't want to take any chances," said Kaul, "we are a nascent industry and we cannot afford to have any bad publicity."
What Kaul is afraid of is the kind of global outrage faced by big brands like Nike about their Asian sweatshops and the flak already faced by the Indian fashion industry for promoting the prized Shahtoosh shawl, made from the hair of the endangered Himalayan goat.
"We've made sure that none of the designers make the Shahtoosh and we'll now make sure that no one uses exploitative labour," said Kaul, adding that quite often the designers themselves were not aware of the problem.
"They outsource their materials and have no clue that yards of embroidery and embellishment is being made with low wages, forced labour or child labour."
Joining hands in the FDCI campaign are designers like Ritu Kumar, Meera and Muzaffar Ali, Anju Modi and Puja Arya.
"We have a commitment to see that every worker gets ample benefits," said Meera Ali, part of the Sufi poetry loving fashion and filmmaking husband-wife duo.
She said when they first began to revive the ancient 'chikan' white-on-white embroidery of Lucknow on their clothes, embroiderers would get dismal wages of around Rs 15 per garment. "Now I pay them upto Rs 5,000 for a garment."
That's the sort of commitment Kaul wants to see.
"We want to ensure clean, well-ventilated work spaces, fire-fighting equipment and proper wages for all workers. And that no one below the age of 15 should be employed."
But that might take away some of the cost advantages that Indian designers now have over their foreign counterparts.
To Kaul and some designers, however, that's the least of their worries.
"Look at it long term, if we don't curb this now, it'll be a disaster for our reputation," said Kaul.
"And worldwide, the fashion industry takes up causes. In New York, they work against breast cancer, in India this is the cause we've adopted."
Added Puja Arya, who works with hand block painters in Jaipur: "The workers are like family and we must ensure their benefits and if it means making a little less money, so be it."