Features Saturday, March 21, 2015 - 05:30
Monalisa Das | The News Minute | November 14, 2014 | 08:40 pm IST  Vinitha was fifteen when she began working in a cotton mill in Satyamangalam in Tamil Nadu. “The working environment was not hospitable. We were often yelled at by senior management. They would keep complaining about us even if it wasn’t our fault ”, said Vinitha, who left the job at the mill around six months ago. “When I went to collect my PF, they kept telling me to come later and file some application. I don’t know what to do and I have not got my PF money”, she said.  The spinning mills industry in Tamil Nadu is one of the largest in the country. Home to around 1,600 hundred mills, 70 percent of the over four lakh strong workforce is made up of women. People who have been associated with workers in the industry point out that the industry exploits women in several ways. A joint report titled “Flawed Fabrics” published by Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) details the abuse of girls and women workers in the spinning mills of Tamil Nadu and the gross violation of labour rights and human rights in this industry. As many as 151 workers from five garment enterprises in Tamil Nadu were interviewed in between May and September 2013 for the purpose of the study.  Working Conditions The families of young girls and women are often lured by recruiters from the spinning industry, who promise their daughters ‘a well-paid job, comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and opportunities for training and schooling, as well as a lump sum payment at the end of three years.” And yet, as the report states, the reality is quite different when the girls arrive here. These women are kept in hostels where rooms and bathrooms are shared by up to 35 people. Their movement is strictly restricted and many are not allowed to leave the hostel. Some hostels do not even allow the use of mobile phones. “We were not allowed to go out. It was only after six months that I was allowed to go home for the first time, even though my home is close to the mill. There are provisions for visitors to meet workers in the hostels, but even that was discouraged by the management”, Vinitha told The News Minute. Child labour is also rampant in the industry. The report states that among those interviewed, 60 per cent were below the age of 18 when they joined the mill. The youngest workers were 15 years old at time of joining. Made to work for long hours, these women slog in the factories for 60 hours a week or more, throughout the year. The report says: ‘Overtime cannot be refused. Night shifts are equally obligatory. Supervisors are relentlessly pressing workers into a fast pace of work. Humiliating disciplinary measures are applied. Workers are only allowed short breaks. Physical conditions at the mills are unpleasant with high humidity, lack of fresh air and cotton dust flowing around. Protective equipment and health and safety training are inadequate in many cases. And to add insult to injury, workers at all five mills are not entitled to paid sick leave.’  The report also stresses on the labour rights violation in this industry. Workers mostly aren’t given any written contract. Many are paid in cash and no payslips are provided to them ‘and without any supporting documentation or explanation about hours worked or overtime rates.’ The workers interviewed also had not clear idea of unions. There is no transparency in the working of the management of these mills. ‘There is no such thing as supply chain transparency. On the contrary, there is an alarming lack of openness’, states the report. A Aloysius, Director of Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), a Tamil Nadu NGO, that works towards women empowerment among other issues, feels that “the issue in this industry is more about human labour than child labour”. Women workers, he said, are more in demand than men. “They are more obedient and tolerant. They are more likely to not rebel or form union like men do. They will also not bicker about wage or other issues.” “There is also a demand for a young and poor workforce in the spinning mills of Tamil Nadu, simply because they are more flexible to the demands of their employees”, he stated. Vinitha said that more women than men were ready to take up the jobs as they were more flexible and comply with the needs of their employers.  “These workers are kept in camps in confinement. The industry denies this, and defends its actions in the name of security for the employees. There have been instances of suicides too when workers were confined by the management”, Aloysius said. Agreeing that workers are made to work for longer hours and less pay, Mr Aloysius asserted that ‘social security measures for the workers are missing in most part the industry. There may be written contracts regarding recruitment, but those are not given to the workers and are kept with the management. Most of the recruitment process is done by middlemen, and if something goes awry, the workers don’t know whom to approach, since the middleman can walk away, he explains. Cases of abuse and discrimination These women workers are also said to face hostile environment in the hostels. “The girls hostels have male supervisors and many inmates face sexual abuse”, said Karuppusamy, who works for Read, an NGO in Erode district in Tamil Nadu that works for the rights of Dalits. Caste based discrimination is also prevalant in the industry. “While recruiting, girls are asked for their surnames or any detail that gives away their caste. Once it is established that a girl is Dalit, she is sent to rooms where other Dalit girls live. These girls are made to do extra work in comparison to their non-Dalit counterparts”, he adds. Along with lodging, food too is said to be a concern for the workers. Karuppusamy asserts, “a large section of girls in these hostels are anemic.” The workers are usually guaranteed a lump sum amount on finishing their two or three years of contract work. However, some are also cheated. “Sometimes, after they finish a significant term of their contract, say around two years, the organisation’s men will go and complain to the girl’s parents that she is having an affair. Following this the parents will come and collect the girl from the factory. Which means the organisation will not have to pay the lump sum amount to the girl since she left without finishing her contract”, said Karuppusamy. TASMA denies exploitative conditions In an email, Dr K Venkatachalam, Chief Advisor, Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association (TASMA), denied the findings of the report. Speaking about labourers being forced to work in the textile industry, he said “No one can be forced. Considering the socio economic background, they are compelled to come for work and if the textile industry fails to provide them employment, they could be exploited in a different manner and their lively hoods are put into problems. The practice of female infanticide is getting reduced only after the practice of textile industry employing them in large and providing socio economic upliftment.” He also maintained that textile mills in Tamil Nadu do not employ child labourers and that “a few incidents may be here and there and it cannot be taken as a Bench Mark.”​ To a question on living conditions, Dr K Venkatachalam said, “Regarding the maintenance of discipline, it cannot be equated to slavery. Every work needs to be disciplined and therefore, it cannot be considered as violation”. On the lack of transparency alleged in the report, he said: “Except business strategy plans, every thing is transparent”. Better rights for workers Over the years, there have been several attempts to improve the working conditions in the industry. Mr Aloysius is currently working towards gaining a few basic yet crucial rights for the workers that will ensure the working conditions in the industry improve. “The workers need to be given social security measures. They need to be given freedom of mobility when in the hostel. And most importantly, these women workers should be given training in parallel skills like tailoring or even basic computer skills. These mills they work in aren't skill intensive. Once they move out of here, they must be able to get another job”, he said Having completed her contract, Vinitha is now trying to complete her education. “I wanted to take computer classes after work hours, but they did not allow me”, asserted Vinitha. She now goes to school, one where those who could not complete their schooling for whatever reasons, are taught. “She is very regular to school, said one of her Vinitha’s teachers, Mr. Basvaraj.
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