Dalit women in garment factories of Tamil Nadu face the double whammy of long working hours and discrimination

Thousands of young Dalit girls, between the ages of 14 to 25 employed in the garment and textile industry in Tamil Nadu continue to work under exploitative conditions akin to bonded labour, concludes a report ‘Maid in India'.

These garment factories mostly produce for European and US brands and retailers. The discriminatory practices found ingrained in Indian society on the basis of gender and caste are playing out in the factories as well, with the international companies failing in their attempts to structurally improve labour conditions at their suppliers in TN, says the report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN).

Majority of these women workers come from poor families and are lured with promises of a decent wage and comfortable accommodation. They are recruited through a network of brokers, some of whom double up as factory bus drivers. The brokers receive Rs.500 to Rs 1,000 for each recruit. Over the last year recruitment from other States has increased with migrants from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Manipur and Meghalaya being steadily recruited. Reportedly, in Tirupur district alone the number of migrants from northern States exceeds 100,000. As these workers do not speak the local language and have no family or friends nearby, the dependency of women workers on their employers has increased.

Supervisors and managers are mostly non-Dalits, whilst the Arunthathiyars, the lowest ranking Dalits, remain in the least attractive jobs. Furthermore, Dalit girls have complained that (male) supervisors belonging to dominant castes scold them severely for minor mistakes; but were kinder towards the other girls. Male higher-caste supervisors also physically and verbally abused the workers if they fell asleep or work pace slackened. Sexual harassment was reported as well, although it was hard to establish how common this was as the willingness to talk about this was very limited.

The report cites the instance of 16-year-old Devi who was employed at SSM Fine Yarn from the age of 13. While narrating her story Devi said she used to suffer from severe pain in her legs. Later she also developed a skin allergy due to the working atmosphere. The researchers observed that though she is emotionally and physically exhausted, she does not dare stay off work as twice her daily wage would be deducted for a single day off. She is also afraid that the Rs.20,000 promised to her at the end of the three-year-period will be withheld. Her daily wage started at Rs.40, in her second year she earned Rs.50 and Rs.55 after another half year. Now, in her third year, she receives Rs.100 per shift.

The report found that migrant labourers often live in strictly supervised factory-owned hostels where they have little opportunity for contact with their families, let alone with trade unions or labour advocates. These hostels are also known as ‘Camp Coolies'.

Devi is glad she does not stay in the hostel of which she has heard unpleasant stories including the lack of hygiene and girls crying at night, unable to sleep. The report points out that locating the hostels on the factory sites work well for employers who can keep the mills spinning 24/7 and where their control of the labourers working hours is complete.

‘Maid in India' interviewed more than 180 workers and examined four large garment manufacturers that produce for overseas brands -- Eastman Exports, KPR Mill, SSM India, and Bannari Amman. It also informed 70 international brands, retailers and buying houses including C&A, Diesel, Philips Van Heusen (Tommy Hilfiger), Quicksilver, Primark, Decathlon and others that source from the investigated manufacturers about the shocking findings of its report.

The new report is a follow-up on the 2011 report ‘Captured by Cotton', that first documented the exploitative conditions in the TN garment industry. It had revealed that under the Sumangali Scheme workers were recruited with the promise that they would receive a considerable amount of money after completion of three to five years of employment. This amount could be used to pay for a dowry. This exploitative scheme is tantamount to bonded labour, because employers withhold part of the workers' wages until they have worked the contract period, stated the report.

The new report shows that some improvements in the working conditions were brought about under pressure of active buyers, but also proves that efforts undertaken so far have not been sufficient to realise the desired results. It would help matters if the voluntary character of compliance became more binding. More importantly, the human rights risk assessments must also take into account local cultural notions regarding human rights, concluded the report.

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