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Slaving for their dowry

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How the global garment industry is using regressive customs in Tamil Nadu, enabling it to exploit young women workers…

No respite:Killing working schedules...Photo: K. PICHUMANI
No respite:Killing working schedules...Photo: K. PICHUMANI

Girls. Dowry. The two go together. No matter what you do to separate them, they somehow get conjoined, like twins that have remained connected in one body. We are told this is one of the main reasons parents don't want girls. So avoid girls.

But girls cannot, and should not, be avoided. So the government makes laws, NGOs campaign for the ‘girl child', there are special schemes and incentives for families to ensure that their daughters survive and prosper. It would be politically incorrect to do the contrary, to encourage killing girls, or to encourage dowry. At least, that is what you would conclude.

Yet, even today, dowry is being used as a bait to tempt poor families to surrender their daughters in the belief that they will return with a dowry. Extraordinary as this might sound, this is precisely what has been happening in the readymade garment industry in Tamil Nadu for over a decade.

Global chain

The readymade garment industry is global. Millions of people, the large majority women, work at different ends of the chain – from spinning the yarn, to weaving the cloth, to cutting the cloth, to sewing the garment, to finishing the garment. After this, the global end of the business kicks in as the garments are priced and sold to well-known brands across the world and supplied to retail outlets. But the price a consumer pays at one end of the chain has no relation to the amount the woman at the other end is paid.

In India, one of the major countries supplying readymade garments to the global market, some of the women at the end of the chain are girls as young as 14. And the bait held out to lure these girls, many of them from desperately poor families, is the promise of a lump sum at the end of three years that could go towards their dowries. Thus a global industry is directly reinforcing and exploiting regressive customs to get its workforce.

What is worse is that this workforce, lured in this manner, is virtually bonded. A disturbing report on the Sumangali Scheme, introduced 10 years ago by garment manufacturers in Tamil Nadu, brings this out. ‘Captured by Cotton' is a 38-page report by two Dutch organisations — SOMO (Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations) and ICN (India Committee of the Netherlands). They looked at four “vertically integrated” companies in Tamil Nadu that are part of an integrated chain that eventually supplies well-known brands retailing in the West. The reason for the investigation is because many of these brands subscribe to the idea of “sustainable chain management” that would require abiding by international labour standards. The Sumangali Scheme clearly does not conform and is, according to this report, “synonymous with unacceptable employment and labour conditions, even with bonded labour.”

What is this scheme? Recruiters are sent to the most impoverished villages in Tamil Nadu to approach families with daughters between the ages of 14 and 21. The families are told that their daughters will be well looked after for three years, will live in a hostel where they will get three meals a day and time for leisure activities. At the end of the three years, in addition to their wages, they will be given a lump sum ranging from Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 50,000. There are 120,000 girls working under this scheme in Tamil Nadu.

The proposition is extremely tempting for these poor families, of whom more than half are dalits. If indeed what is promised is delivered, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with the scheme. But the problems lies in the fine print, something poor families are unable to decipher when they sign on.

Thus, according to the report, girls working under the scheme have reported that they are made to work 12-hour-shifts, with only a five minute tea break and half hour lunch break; that when there is an urgent delivery to be made, they can be asked to work double shifts and they do not have the option to refuse; that they are not allowed to keep cell phones and can only make one phone call a month from a landline close to the supervisor's office, and that they have no place to go if they have a problem.

Inhuman conditions

At work, the girls have to stand for hours. Said one of the girls: “Workers had to get permission from the supervisor for everything, even for going to the toilet. We had a male supervisor. The supervisor was constantly scolding; he used a lot of abusive words. I didn't like his behaviour. He even hit on our heads.”

Some of these girls are either physically sick, or so tired, that they give up half way. This means the lump sum they were promised is forfeit. It is only paid if they work the entire three years.

In any case, what seems like a generous bonus is actually less than what they would have earned had they been paid the official minimum wage rate. In Tamil Nadu, the minimum wage is Rs. 171 per day. But employers have found a way around this by designating these girls as apprentices and thus paying them lower wages. Beginning with just Rs. 60 a day, the girls get paid Rs. 110 a day at the end of the three years. While the apprenticeship scheme is limited to one year in other states, in Tamil Nadu it is legal for three years.

The report contains several heart-rending accounts by girls who worked in different factories. One girl recounted how she did get the promised lump sum at the end of the three years. But by then she was so ill that she had to undergo an operation to remove the cotton balls accumulated in her stomach as a result of breathing in cotton fibres through the day every day. “During my stay at the factory, my parents arranged a marriage partner for me. I was engaged for a while but the marriage was cancelled because I couldn't pay the dowry because all the money was spent on medical expenses. I will never be able to marry because I don't have any money and I still feel sick”, she told the investigators.

Even the provision of three years work is manipulated to squeeze out the maximum number of days from the girls. The three years are broken up into 36 services, each consisting of 26 working days a month. If a girl misses even one day in a month, she has to do an additional 26 days to make up. Thus the number of days needed before you can get your money keeps increasing.

Reports like this get precious little play in our media. Yet, behind the smiling exterior of a fast-growing economy lie the tears and tragedies of women like these young garments workers.

Fortunately, this report has resulted in dialogue between the groups representing the interests of the workers and the employers. So we might well see a happier ending to this story. But this is only one story, brought to light because someone cared to look closer. There are so many more that remain hidden.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

behind the smiling exterior of a fast-growing economy lie the tears and tragedies of women like these WORKERS.

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