Tuesday, January 10, 2012
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Girls belonging to poor families are being tricked into slavery at various cotton mills of Tamil Nadu on the pretext of welfare
In one of the factories, workers have to work on roller skates without any protective gear

Prithi (name changed) was just 14 years when she started working at a cotton mill in Tamil Nadu through the Sumangali, supposedly a welfare scheme offering great working conditions, comfortable accommodation and a lump sum amount on completion of service.

By the time she left work after three years, Prithi’s health had deteriorated to a great extent. Working for 12 hours in unhealthy conditions and eating substandard food, she used to fall ill frequently. Later, doctors operated upon her stomach to remove a cotton ball.  The lump sum of Rs 30,000 she got from the employer had to be spent on the treatment.

Unfortunately, Prithi is not the only one who has faced such hardships. Thousands of girls belonging to poor families handle hazardous work in cotton mills of Tamil Nadu at lower than minimum wages and are forced to work for long hours without payment for overtime. No access to grievance redressal mechanisms, restricted freedom of movement and poor lodging facilities are some of the other appalling conditions they have to face. The promised end-of-contract sum is not a bonus, but part of the regular wage that is withheld by the employer. Often women workers do not even receive the full promised lump sum.

Thousands of girls belonging to poor families handle hazardous work in cotton mills of Tamil Nadu at lower than minimum wages and are forced to work for long hours without payment for overtime.

These and other such revelations were made in a report ‘Captured by Cotton’ prepared by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and India Committee of the Netherlands with help of local non-profit groups and employee unions. Names of the workers interviewed have been changed due to security concerns.

Cotton mills and women

Tamil Nadu hosts 43 per cent of all bigger Indian mills and almost 80 per cent of the smaller Indian mills. In total there are 1,685 spinning units in India’s most southern state. The mills supply garment factories throughout Tamil Nadu and the whole of India. Any European or US clothing brand sourcing from India is thus linked to the Tamil Nadu spinning mills. Instead of stopping sourcing from these mills, the researchers urge international buyers to use their leverage for bringing about improvements in the current set up.

To stay competitive, pressure on production costs is high. As a result, manufacturers are in search of cheap labour. This is why a male, permanent labour force has been replaced by a female, flexible labour force in the Tamil Nadu garment industry. Although according to Indian law women should be paid equally, they are not. Female workers are also considered more docile and loyal than their male colleagues. According to trade union Hind Mazdoor Sabha, 60 to 80 per cent of workers in the textile and garment industry are temporary workers because this helps cut costs in salaries and benefits and also prevents unionisation as temporary workers are less inclined to join trade unions. Unmarried girls are mostly employed in these mills through Sumangali Scheme.

Around 60 to 80 per cent of workers in the textile and garment industry are temporary workers because this helps cut costs in salaries and benefits and also prevents unionisation as temporary workers are less inclined to join trade unions.

The Sumangali Scheme

The Tamil word Sumangali refers to a married woman who leads a happy and contented life with her husband with all fortunes and material benefits. The Sumangali Scheme is depicted as a similar bountiful experience for young girls by factory owners with posters and pamphlets claiming: “We request you to bring us the lovely girls you know and make their lives prosperous as a lighthouse.” It is portrayed as a unique opportunity for young women to earn up to Rs 40,000 rupees in three years as lump sum. Comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and leisure and educational activities are other facilities on offer.

Recruiters are also hired by the factories to visit poor villages, and identify the families with daughters in the age between 14 and 21, or even younger, that are in financial need. An estimated 1.2 lakh workers are currently employed under the scheme. Often the young Sumangali workers come from Dalit families with parents either being agricultural labourers, construction workers, sweepers or cleaners. A majority of the interviewed women working under the scheme said their families were in debt as the family income was not enough to cover medical costs or to save up money to buy a cow, or pay for a dowry.

The promise of three nutritious meals a day is therefore very appealing for these girls. The recruiters also mention comfortable accommodation in the hostels and even yoga classes. The biggest attraction, however, is the lump sum that the worker is promised after completion of the contract period. This amount, which varies between Rs 30,000 -50,000, is considered a big help for parents who want to arrange dowry for their daughters’ marriage. However, Sumangali Scheme in reality is only a mirage.

Once at the factory, workers sign an appointment letter. In most cases there is no contract. Some of the girls and young women interviewed said they were made to sign a blank contract, leaving them with no proof about what was verbally promised to them.

Once at the factory, workers sign an appointment letter. In most cases there is no contract. Some of the girls and young women interviewed said they were made to sign a blank contract, leaving them with no proof about what was verbally promised to them.

Low wages, excessive work

Due to excessive overwork, headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness and tiredness are common among the girls.The wages vary from company to company. Part of the workers’ wages is deducted to save up for the lump sum payment. The workers do not have access to these savings, which are only paid out after they have completed the three-year contract. They receive a daily wage, which generally starts at around Rs 60 per day during the first six months, with a gradual increase of Rs 10 every six months, up to a maximum of Rs 110 on average.

Costs for food and boarding, approximately Rs 15 a day, are deducted from the daily wages. A simple calculation shows that with such a low daily wage, a worker will earn Rs 1.15 lakh at the end of the three-year period. On the other hand, if she is paid the stipulated minimum wage of Rs 171 per day, she would earn Rs 1.85 lakh.

There are numerous cases where workers have not received the lump sum amount saved so far because they decided to quit before the contract period ended. Sometimes, they are fired just before the end of the period, under the pretext of some feeble excuse. Deepti worked at a cotton mill for two and a half years but didn’t receive any lump sum payment. On a regular basis the women work 12 hours per day, to complete one and a half shifts which means they work 72 hours per week. During peak season they even have to work on Sundays. For overwork, workers are legally entitled to receive overtime payment, but more often than not they do not receive any compensation.

There are numerous cases where workers have not received the lump sum amount saved so far because they decided to quit before the contract period ended. Sometimes, they are fired just before the end of the period, under the pretext of some feeble excuse.

Due to the strains of excessive overwork, headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness and tiredness are common among the girls. Accidents happen frequently. There are restrooms but workers don’t go there because the rest hours need to be compensated. The mills have bad ventilation systems, which causes the work space to be full of small particles of cotton dust. Heat and humidity add to a very uncomfortable working environment.

Some mills provide personal protective equipment like masks, in other mills the workers make do with a simple handkerchief. “Our section was filled with cotton dust. Masks, caps and aprons were given but I did not wear the mask. Wearing the mask is sweaty and made me feel suffocated,” says Seetha. Many workers have to undergo surgeries to get cotton balls removed from their stomachs. In one of the factories investigated, some workers in the spinning area have to work on roller skates, all day, without wearing any protective gear. Workers also often complain about poor quality of accommodation and food.

Many workers have to undergo surgeries to get cotton balls removed from their stomachs. In one of the factories investigated, some workers in the spinning area have to work on roller skates, all day, without wearing any protective gear. 

No freedom to complain and protest

The Sumangali workers work and live without much freedom or privacy. Most of them live in hostels on the factory compound and are not allowed to leave the premises except once a fortnight when they go to the market accompanied by guards from the mill. Mobile phones are often prohibited. The cultural code that girls should be chaperoned is thus used as an excuse to prevent them from running away or having contact with local NGOs or trade unions.

The girls miss their families and most find the restriction to visit their village is one of the worst issues. “Once a month I was permitted to call my parents but could not speak freely, because the warden was able to overhear me,” says Aakriti, a former employee. Many workers feel helpless about this situation, because there is no workers’ committee or any other body that takes up their interests. Trade unions are not even allowed to enter the factories. 

Efforts are on

Various international and local non-profit groups are involved in highlighting the issue. The Tirupur People Forum (TPF) and the Campaign Against Sumangali Scheme (CASS) are running awareness campaigns in poor villages besides seeking legal and social remedies for former workers. These groups are also trying to engage local authorities, Tirupur Exporters’ Association and the state government on this issue.

At international level, the report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and India Committee of the Netherlands created a stir and a group of brands signed a statement in support of efforts to eliminate labour rights abuses. Some companies have teamed up with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) to develop a collaborative auditing process for apparel mills and sundries. Some of the companies that reacted on the draft version of this report elaborate on their individual approach to address the concerns. While Oxylane decided to work with its supplier to develop a corrective action plan, Tommy Hilfiger wrote ‘to have expanded the scope of their investigation to include the raw material suppliers of their vendors’.

Izod reported to have conducted an on-site investigation into the allegations and Primark wrote about a financial inclusion programme for its factory workers in India without access to bank accounts. Workers are provided with a bank account to which wages are directly deposited. Tesco is also supporting and advocating this banking system.

Employment practices at Eastman’s spinning mills, one of the four mills investigated in the report, have improved. Workers are no longer recruited under the Sumangali Scheme and no new workers under the age of 18 are admitted in Eastman’s hostels. The company is now increasingly recruiting locally instead of employing workers from more remote districts.

The lump sum payment scheme is not offered now and workers receive a monthly salary, ranging from Rs 110 to 170 per day for garment workers and from Rs 170 to Rs. 240 per day for spinning mill workers, depending on skill’s level and seniority.

Access the original report 

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