Sweatshops disguised as schools: How young girls are exploited in TN’s cotton valley

With the hope of funding massive wedding expenses, the “Sumangali Scheme” lures minor girls into exploitative work in Tamil Nadu’s textile mills.
Sweatshops disguised as schools: How young girls are exploited in TN’s cotton valley
Sweatshops disguised as schools: How young girls are exploited in TN’s cotton valley
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When about a dozen adolescent girls got down from a bus at the Salem New Bus Stand in September 2018, it set off a blip on the district Childline’s anti-trafficking surveillance radar. Sniffing out trouble, volunteers carefully brought the girls into their safety net, and produced them before the District Child Welfare Committee. In the preliminary inquiry, the girls claimed that they were studying in Standard 10 and 12 at a textile mill in Coimbatore.

Studying at a textile mill? It aroused the curiosity and scepticism of the Child Welfare Committee’s Chairperson. He questioned the girls further, at which point they admitted that they, in fact, worked in a mill in Coimbatore and studied in the mill’s hostel during non-working hours. They were returning to their home in Salem district for a short annual holiday.

So, what made the girls project themselves as students? That’s how they are entered on record, as students rather than workers, so as not to run afoul of child labour laws. According to the laws relating to the employment of minors, engaging girls who are below 14 years of age would amount to employing child labour, and confining adolescent and women workers in mill hostels would be tantamount to bonded labour. 

To avoid scrutiny, mill owners warn young, unmarried girl workers to hide their de facto work status, and identify themselves as students. To this end, the mill management enroll the girls in open schools and allow them to study in hostel dormitories after working hours. Some mills claim to engage paid tutors to aid the girls in their studies and to help them appear for the Standard 10 or 12 public exams. These facts came to light through the Child Welfare Committee’s inquiries.

This is the latest innovation of textile mill managements in perpetuating exploitative practices of fixed-term employment of young, unmarried girls and women in Tamil Nadu. 

Women workers inside Tamil Nadu’s cotton textile valley

The mill owners call it the Sumangali Scheme, Mankalya Thittam, Thirumagal Thirumana Thittam, or 3 Years Scheme, while trade unions and NGOs call it the Camp Coolie system. This kind of fixed-term (usually of three years) employment of young girls was introduced two decades ago by textile mills, at a time when Coimbatore was beginning to lose its position as “the Manchester of South India” or “the textile valley”. 

This was a time when composite mills were disintegrating, giving rise to a decentralised sector. As the big mills closed down, some of the same owners and some new players began opening smaller units in far-flung villages where land, water, and labour were cheap. The decentralised spinning sector spread into nearby districts like Erode, Tirupur, Namakkal, Salem, Karur, and Dindugul.  The region as a whole is a powerhouse of export-quality yarn, fabrics and garments. There are now about 2,000 spinning mills in Tamil Nadu, accounting for 61.5% of mills in the country. The textile industry in the state employs about 2.26 million workers. The decentralising trend saw a delinking of traditional composite mill operations like ginning, spinning, weaving, dyeing, and garment-making into separate small units, even as companies moved up the value chain into finished goods for third-party brands, their own branded goods, and even exclusive brand retail showrooms.

Deep within the value chain, especially in the spinning sector, the fixed term employment of young, unmarried girls became institutionalised, with varying degrees of oppressive confinement of the girls within the mills being reported extensively. The Sumangali Scheme rides on the unlawful demands of the dowry system to which the parents of girls from economically weaker sections succumb. Thus, they consider fixed-term employment a necessary evil, though sending a girl away from home for years is a painful decision. 

Mill management promises them a lump sum amount at the end of the three-year period, withholding the wages till then.  Parents of the girl workers, mostly poor Dalit and Scheduled Tribe families, see this as financially beneficial in meeting the enormous marriage expenses of the girls. Agents, usually former workers, source these girls from backward villages of other districts in Tamil Nadu.

In terms of the working environment and general conditions, many mills operate as typical sweatshops. Despite pressure from trade unions and NGO activists, the mill management continues to hold captive women workforces in large numbers. However, the Sumangali Scheme has undergone some modifications from its original format, with only a part of the wages withheld until the end of the fixed term. Providing some educational opportunities to the girl workers is also part of this modification of practices in response to activist pressures. 

Not a welfare measure

“Not many mills have started to provide education to the young women workers as of now. Nevertheless, the practice should be seen more like a trap than a welfare measure,” says M Arumugam, a former CPI MLA from Valparai in Coimbatore District. Arumugam is also the State Secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and General Secretary of the Coimbatore District Textile Mill Workers Union. The spinning mills do not employ workers proportionate to their spindleage, he observes.

This means a high workload and longer work hours, leading to higher levels of exposure to cotton dust. This has serious health implications for young workers. Without addressing this and many other exploitative labour practices, providing some meagre education opportunities is only a pretext to retain workers for an extended period, says Arumugam.

“If they (the mill managements) really want to introduce progressive welfare measures for their women workers, let them first stop confinement of the women workers inside the mill hostels. Let the young women enjoy the freedom of movement, which is a basic human right. Working in three shifts a day and staying inside the hostel (often located within the mills), they often cannot even make out whether it is daytime or night-time outside,” says Arumugam. 

Former workers also give the lie to the claims mill managements make about providing educational facilities. “There were no teachers as such in the mill in our hostel. A few better-educated girls among us were assigned the task of supervising us and helping to clear the doubts of those who opted to continue studies after work hours. The mill management merely enrolled us in an open school for completing the Standard 10 and 12 public exams, or in distance education programmes for graduate studies,” says Ramya, a 22-year-old woman from Kondappanickenpatti. Ramya was working in a mill and studying for her Standard 12 exams but was subsequently sent away after she married her male supervisor.

Provision of education is not necessarily a complete sham in all mills. The KPR Group of Mills in Coimbatore, for instance, stands out for carrying on an educational programme for its women workers on a mission mode. At the fifth annual Graduation Day conducted in KPR College in January 2018, 204 girls received degrees from the Tamil Nadu Open University. Seven of them were university rank holders. The KPR Group has five mills in the district, with a huge workforce of about 14,000 young women. Out of them, 3,600 are currently pursuing school and collegiate education, according to sources in the KPR Group. The trade unions have not received many complaints regarding workplace conflicts, cases of abuse, or lack of facilities in relation to this group either. However, even in such cases, activists question the fixed-term work and captivity of girls. 

Most of the 20 or so girl and women workers produced before the Salem District Child Welfare Committee in 2018 for various reasons were aged between 16 and 22 years. According to the Child Labour Act, employing children under 14 years, and employing minors aged between 14 and 18 years in hazardous industries, are considered as offences. However, additionally, Section 79 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act (JJA), 2015 deems it illegal to keep minors aged under 18 years in bondage, to withhold their earnings or to use their earnings for their own purposes. The law provides punishments of a fine of up to Rs 2 lakh or five years’ imprisonment for this offence. 

“Ignorant about the JJA, mills try to satisfy the Child Labour Act only, by masquerading the mills as schools and child workers as students. This seems a ploy,” says A Xavier, Chairperson of the Salem District Child Welfare Committee. He further observes that education cannot be combined with work, especially for children, for whom pursuing two strenuous schedules at the same time deprive them of time and energy for any leisure or other goods in life. Having to pursue studies after strenuous hours of work is likely to affect the mental and physical health of adolescents, he adds.

Violations galore

It’s not just child labour laws that activists and trade unionists accuse the mills of violating, however, says SM Prithiviraj, Convenor of the Tirupur People’s Forum (TPF), a Collective of 40 NGOs working in the areas of labour rights and environment. He observes that the practice of recruiting girls and young women in the textile, spinning mill, and garment industries violates a number of Indian labour and employment laws: the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Weekly Holidays Act, 1942, the Employees State Insurance Act, 1948, the Employees Provident Fund Act, 1952, the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, the Factories Act, 1948, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, the Apprenticeship Act, 1961, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the Contract Labour (Abolition and Regulation) Act, 1970 and the Child Labour (Regulation and Prohibition) Act 1986.

In a recent report titled “Building Sustainable Human Resources in the Textile Industry”, Prithiviraj argues that there is plenty of evidence of the violations of these laws, from news reports featuring cases of and statements from workers in the print and electronic media to affidavits from the victims. The affidavits, in particular, paint a picture of excessive working hours, low wages, poor working conditions, sub-standard hostel conditions, restriction of mobility of the workers, failure to pay the promised sums after the completion of the three-year employment term, verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, non-payment of bonus and gratuity, absence of employees’ state insurance and provident fund, and a number of other complaints against the management and staff members of various mills.

As repeated violations get reported at various intervals, the mills are gradually shifting away from sourcing local women workers to those from other states. Mill managements find migrant labourers less vocal about their rights and cheaper to employ than girls from Tamilnadu. Among the abuses that these migrant workers suffer, confinement within the tall walls of the mills, without freedom to even visit local markets to buy essential personal goods or holidays to visit families, form one of the major tipping points. In May this year, when a worker from Odisha tried to scale the wall of a mill in Kangeyam in Erode district and escape her confinement, she suffered electrocution and died. The police station at Kangeyam did not book a case against the mill management despite several complaints, alleges Vasanthan of Vizhudhugal, an NGO in Avinashi working with migrant workers in textile mills and garment factories.

Mill owners deny allegations

The Southern India Mills Association (SIMA), the powerful body of mill owners brushes aside any arguments regarding labour violations as baseless. According to SIMA’s Secretary General, K Selvaraju, the mills are facing severe labour shortages as few women workers from Tamil Nadu can be easily sourced to work in them. “This could be attributed to the reach of the state government’s social welfare schemes. More women have been drawn into the Self Help Group movement. Free education and education assistance provided by the state government also brings more young girls back to schools and colleges. Further, enhanced marriage assistance from the government, in the form of cash and gold, has mitigated the demand of dowry to a certain extent,” he says. 

According to Selvaraju, the mills turned to male migrant workers to make up for the labour shortage but found the morale of such workers to be too low. “The drop in production due to the shortage of labour alone is accounted at 20%, with a drop of 20 to 30% in capacity utilisation. There are mills that have closed down due to this reason alone,” says the SIMA General Secretary.

As regards reforming labour practices in the textile industry, Selvaraju says that, for the total spindleage of 24 million spindles in TN, there are about 20 lakh workers, with a total of 50 lakh workers, when the garment sector is included. SIMA members have been receptive to ethical trade initiatives of NGOs and have opened their doors for interventions towards addressing health issues of women workers, he adds.

Government turns a blind eye

Providing an opposite picture, Arumugam says that it is telling that trade unions face strong opposition to their entry into mills, a stark contrast to the history of the trade unionism movement, which began first in textile mills and dominated political currents in pre- and post-independent India, until the advent of the neo-liberal era. Complaints about violations and work-related issues, and about denial of trade union participation for workers, are indifferently stonewalled by the Labour Department and the Factories Inspectorate, he says. 

“A study report tabled by me in the state Assembly on the appalling working conditions of young women workers was responded to with strong denial by the State Labour Minister in the presence of Jayalalithaa in 2016. The Minister asserted that the Sumangali Scheme, or any other exploitative scheme in any form, has no place in Tamil Nadu. When the government itself takes an ostrich view of realities, we are helpless,” says Arumugam. “A multi-stakeholder monitoring mechanism is needed to regulate labour practices in textile mills, otherwise we will be seeing more innovative forms of exploitations in the coming days,” he adds.

Reform is a hard sell

NGOs associated with the TPF are trying to engage mill owners to make them see the business case for building a healthy work environment and improving industry health through introducing best practices for labour regulation. While the trade unions are completely opposed to the employment of young women in mills, the NGOs take a position of reforming working and living conditions, while providing girls with the opportunity to earn and learn. 

As part of their reform efforts, activists of these NGOs meet potential workers – who may still be in school or have already dropped out – to teach them about workers’ rights, to urge them to at least complete their education up to Standard 12 before taking up work, and to educate them about choosing workplaces that ensure their well-being. On the other hand, they are also attempting to persuade mill management to be open to the idea of creating internal complaints committees in workplaces, so that the workers can bring up grievances for redressal. A canteen committee is also being sought. Workers’ participation in the committees would be empowering and go a long way in minimising conflicts in workplaces, say these activists.

(School going girls and dropouts from villages in Salem District who are considered a potential pool of future textile mill workers to be lured by agents are being sensitised about workers rights and how to avoid getting trapped in abusive workplaces)

“But we are not seeing many mill owners receptive to these ideas. The reason can be traced to the deep-seated, hegemonic, communal mindsets prevalent among the owners, says K Das, Director of POLE, an NGO associated with TPF working in Salem District. He says that mill owners and workers are divided sharply on caste lines. The owners, irrespective of the size of their mills, are predominantly from intermediary castes, while workers come from Dalit or Scheduled Tribe families, with a few coming from economically weaker intermediary castes. Deeply entrenched in a feudalistic mindset, the owners are indifferent to ideas of empowering any workers, leave alone women workers, and rule out any talk with workers over their rights, Das argues. 

It is this mindset that translates into a lack of seriousness in case of issues like lack of security, verbal and sexual abuse, and denial of basic health rights to young women workers. “Unlike capitalists, who view the labour force scientifically as an economic resource, the feudalistic mill owners tend to treat workers as slaves and women as inferior beings,” says Das. He adds that this complex reality is not visible to foreign buyers of Indian textile goods, who may be concerned about the labour and environmental abuses embedded in the products they buy.

Much-needed reforms

Prithiviraj says that hostels are the places were women workers are most abused, and their rights trampled. Accordingly, TPF has demanded that the government ensures registration of mill hostels under the Hostels and Homes Act, to bring them under public regulation and oversight. Currently, only 5% of mill hostels are registered. TPF, along with the trade unions is also pushing for policy and legal changes, primarily with the demand that apprenticeship periods be shortened from three years to six months or one year. This is necessary as most of the young girls employed for fixed-term work are placed under ostensible apprenticeships to evade the provisions of the minimum wage act. Activists and unionists demand that women workers should be ensured a wage of Rs 340 for every eight-hour workday and that overtime should be optional and not compulsory. As accidents occur more during night shifts, they argue, night work should be avoided for semiskilled and unskilled workers.

The trade unions and NGOs may differ sharply on the issue of whether systems of fixed-term employment for young women should exist, and, if so, whether residential work must be banned or reformed. However, they all agree that there is an urgent need to ensure compliance to existing labour laws and other laws that govern factory working conditions, such as safety, conflict redressal, decent work, and fair compensation. If these issues are not urgently addressed, they say, mill owners will find ways to continue to beat the system, putting the health and well-being of thousands of girls and young women at risk. 

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