Her left arm has innumerable scars of slits – all of them failed attempts at suicide. Subbulakshmi, puny for her stated 17 years of age, has escaped her way from a private spinning mill in Annur in Coimbatore district with the aid of a friend.
It is called the ‘Scheme' system – a euphemism for bonded labour – where minor girls are recruited by ‘field workers' from villages – of deprivation-prone districts and sent away to textile mills in Coimbatore and Tirupur for a contracted period.
Sent from her village in Tirunelveli to work in a mill at the age of 13, Subbulakshmi lived within the confines of the mill for five years. Unable to sustain the rigours of labour, Subbulakshmi had slipped her way out of a ‘shopping' trip, arranged by the company, where girls are dropped and picked up in the Company-owned vehicle at a given time. Escorted by a relative to her village Pudupalli in Nagapattinam, Subbulakshmi found her way to safety here on Thursday.
“I've lived within the premises of the Company for five years – have not seen the outside world – for Diwali and Pongal, occasional ‘excursions' to Ooty would be arranged by the Company.”
“My shift was from 7.30 am to 7.30 p.m. and OT (over time) entails an hour's break and continued work from 8.30 pm to 7.30 a.m. For the girls, 24-hour labour is interspersed by a 12-hour break the following morning.
According to her, over 650 girls from 12 to 13 years of age work in the mill. Sexual overtures and taunts from fellow male workers, primarily migrant labourers from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh was a greater grievance. “The boys would constantly taunt us, and our complaints have been met with humiliating reprimands from the supervisors. And, girls are made to dance in front of the Company officials for recreation.”
Mobile phones are not just banned within the mill, but the phones are retained under the custody of the warden. Subbulakshmi has had no claims to her monthly salary of Rs.3,500 that was directly collected by her family. Part of the pay was retained for reimbursement on completion of the “Scheme” period. But now Subbulakshmi will have to deal with disapproval of her father, an agricultural labourer, for having made her way out.
For him, her escape only means the loss of a steady income, even though tiny.