Gethin Chamberlain, in Chennai, for The Mail on Sunday, 19 January 2013
IT is marketed as the very best of British, a handbag that has become the season’s must-have accessory after capturing the heart of Pippa Middleton.
But what Modalu London’s thousands of admirers may not realise is that their favourite brand has hired a firm in India to make the bags, using workers on the lowest rung of the social ladder who are paid as little as 17p an hour for their efforts.
Modalu has gone to great lengths to associate its flagship bag with the sister of the Duchess of Cambridge, naming it after her, describing her on its website as “our biggest fan” and giving her four free bags to ensure she is seen as often as possible in public displaying its wares.
The Hampshire company sells the Pippa bag in the UK for £195 and boasts: “We believe that quality and style don’t have to cost the earth.”
In reality, however, someone has to pay the price – in this instance, the workers at Modalu’s tannery in the Indian port of Madras.
Anyone looking at the Modalu London name and assuming that their exquisitely hand-tooled bag is the work of British craftsmen and women can think again, because this is a bag very much made in India.
Yesterday, I visited the factory that makes Pippa’s much-loved bags. The plant lies down a narrow lane in a rundown industrial area. Nearby is a nullah – a foul-smelling open drain choked with rubbish.
Many of the staff are Dalit workers – those at the bottom of the social scale. Once known as Untouchables, they are paid at rates that fall far below an acceptable standard of living – even for India.
Modalu is owned by the TLG Brands company, which has been keen to cash in on the association with Pippa. It has registering the names ‘Pippa’ and ‘Pippa by Modalu’ as trademarks. According to chief executive Mike Hiscock, Pippa?s patronage has boosted sales from £10,000 a month to £500,000.
Modalu has outsourced production to two facilities in Madras in Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state and the centre of its leather industry. They are owned by Intan Exim Private Ltd, run by Tridip Dugar. His leather is produced by his Creative Tannery Ltd and the bags are put together at the Tanstyle factory.
Modalu, like a number of UK-based handbag firms, has experienced a boom because of a craze for the traditional ‘English craftsman’ look. But surprisingly few are made in Britain because of labour costs.
Only 30 per cent of Mulberry bags, whose hugely popular Bayswater sells at £795, are made in the UK. The rest come from Spain and Turkey. Smythson’s £597 tote bags are produced in the UK, Spain and Italy, while the £99 Marks & Spencer tote is made in India and Bangladesh.
Although Modalu’s is not a sweatshop – the factory is clean, with ceiling fans to cool staff – there is no escaping the fact that some of these people are the most poorly paid in India. Higher castes generally refuse to work with the hides of cattle, which are considered by many Hindus to be sacred animals.
In India, the minimum legal wage differs between states but the figure for a leather worker in Tamil Nadu is low compared with those in the same industry in other states. It is 121.9 rupees for an eight-hour day, equal to £1.39, or about 17p an hour. A worker on these wages – £431.58 a year – would take five-and-a-half months to earn enough to buy a Pippa bag.
Yesterday at the factory, rows of finished Pippa bags were piled up near the entrance – each worker makes an average of three a day. Although I was not allowed to interview individual workers in the factory, Mr Dugar said that none had any idea who Pippa Middleton was.
While women glued reinforcements into the panels and prepared them for stitching, some workers sat at sewing machines and others stood in lines, assembling the final product.
On a table were several Pippa grab bags in violet, labelled for sale at £225. This is a special dyed leather and so more expensive, but there were plenty of others in different colours – cherry, toffee and baby blue.
Demand for the Pippa range began to boom after she was spotted with a Modalu bag after the Royal Wedding. “It became a craze and it was a really good reaction,” Mr Dugar said. “They immediately requested to make personalised bags for Pippa.” Mr Dugar said his highest paid workers could earn 30,000 to 35,000 rupees a month (£350-£405), while skilled cutters could earn 20,000 rupees a month (£231). But he admitted that workers start on the minimum wage of 17p an hour;. The typical wage is estimated at 24p.
Modalu has outsourced production to two facilities in Chennai in Tamil Nadu in India. Although the factory is clean, the workers are the most poorly paid in India
The leather for the bags is produced at Creative Tannery Ltd. Surprisingly few Modalu bags are made in the UK because of high labour costs
He said wages rose year on year and depending on improvements in a worker’s efforts, but he also admitted there had not been any rise in wages as a result of the increase in demand for Modalu bags.
A study last year by the respected Asian Floor Wage Alliance calculated that the minimum living wage – the amount needed to live a basic but decent existence in India – was 12,096 rupees a month, or £138, far higher than the £35.96 which Mr Dugar’s lowest paid workers earn.
Mr Hiscock said: “The difficulty in finding a factory which had the capacity to meet our demand limited our options. We hope to have some manufacturing in the UK by the end of 2013. I don’t know the exact labour costs, but we do carry out independent factory audits.”