In the garment export town of Tirupur, bonded and forced labour exists on an extensive scale; girl children younger than 14 continue to work and women workers still face physical and sexual abuse, says a sneak preview of a report to be released next month by international NGOs on exploited Dalit girls in the garment industry.
After publishing a report in May 2011 ‘Captured by cotton – exploited Dalit girls produce garments in India for European and US markets', the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) have conducted fresh field research, including interviews with nearly 200 women workers.
According to the preview released by SOMO and ICN, there have been some improvements in employment conditions at the four manufacturers. Wages have increased and so has the final amount the women workers receive at the end of contract under the ‘Sumangali' scheme, seen as an exploitative scheme tantamount to bonded labour. Majority of the workers for the scheme come from marginalised communities including lower caste and Dalit groups.
New research has shown some improvement in the food served in the canteens and in the workers' living quarters which now have fewer people per dorm. There has also been some improvement regarding the freedom of movement.
However, the preview says issues of concern remain. First, bonded and forced labour had not been abolished but was still reported on an extensive scale. Second, child labour had not been abolished despite the law and buyers' code of conduct. At the four investigated manufacturing units, girls younger than 16 were found working. And researchers found two cases of girls younger than 14 in the workforce.
Also, there have been no significant improvements in working hours. Cases of long working days of up to 24 hours have been reported. Women workers still face physical and sexual abuse and occupational, health and safety hazard continue to occur. None of the units researched had any effective and independent grievance mechanisms.
“All the women workers are forced to work,” says Sachithanandan, a researcher who has done a similar study on the life and work of about 200 women from Arunthathiyar community in Sumangali scheme in Tirupur. “They are verbally abused (82 per cent) and physically abused (19 per cent). None of them have any rest during working hours,” he says. The surveyed women were mostly former employees under the scheme as the companies restrict entry to outsiders. In fact, 98 per cent cited poverty as the main reason.
“The law requires 16 registers to be maintained. Most of the mills do not maintain register,” says A. Devaneyan, director, Thozhamai, an NGO. He was part of the team that inspected 14 mills in Tirupur during the previous government. “There is no complaint cell for women workers. They are treated like bonded labourers. Some mills have improved working and living conditions but the women, including girl children, live and work in pitiable conditions.”
Enforcement of labour laws and asking garment brands and retailers to commit to proper due diligence to manage their entire supply chain were recommended. This should include mapping suppliers beyond first or second tier levels, identifying risks, and detecting human rights violations along the supply chain.
According to an official of the Inspectorate of Factories, cases of textile units adopting the Sumangali scheme have reduced drastically and it is no more a rampant problem. “Some garment units do have hostel facilities for the workers but they do not have the Sumangali scheme,” the official said.
A. Sakthivel, president of Tirupur Exporters' Association, denied any case of forced labour in the garment exporting units in Tirupur. "The buyers' norms are strict and exporting units comply with these," he said.
A. Aloysius, founder of Social Awareness and Voluntary Education, a non-Governmental organisation in Tirupur, said there may be non-compliance problems in some textile mills located around Tirupur. The garment units did not have forced labour or the Sumangali scheme.
A Southern India Mills' Association official said the textile industry in Tamil Nadu employed nearly 50 lakh people. Almost all the units followed the norms, and if there was non-compliance in a few units, “we have always said that action should be taken against these units.”
(With inputs from M. Soundariya Preetha)