The warp and weft of exploitation

Women lured by the Sumangali Scheme to work in textile mills are overworked, underpaid and even sexually abused

Updated - December 05, 2017 05:00 pm IST

Published - January 08, 2017 12:46 am IST

18-year-old Kala* has been working in a textile mill in Dindigul for the past three years. She leaves home around 6.30 a.m. every day, travels 45 minutes to the mill, starts working at 8 a.m., and is at it for the next eight hours. Many days, she ends up working another shift or at least a few hours of the next shift. Though the mill provides breakfast and lunch, the quality of the food is so bad that she prefers to skip meals.

Despite working long hours, Kala takes home a measly monthly wage of ₹3,000 /₹3,500, after deductions. She is but one among a battery of women who are overworked, underpaid, and often abused in the spinning/textile mills of the State. Over 2,000 such mills in Tamil Nadu provide employment to nearly three lakh workers and almost half of them are women. The employment of women has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two decades. Ambitious schemes to draw them into the mills were hatched, all of them hinging more on promise than the actual payout.

The more prominent among the carrots the mill owners dangled was the ‘Sumangali Scheme’. It promised a lumpsum payout which would enable the young woman to get married (hence, the term Sumangali). It had the following components: if workers were to be with a unit for three years or so, they would be paid in bulk (from Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000) when they left. In addition, they would get about ₹1,000 for their monthly expenses while employed, and food and accommodation would be provided by the mill. Multiple variations of this scheme exist, but the basic lure is the lumpsum payout. Another constant, if you go by the women workers, is exploitation.

Sujata Mody, president, Garment and Fashion Workers Union, says one reason for the emergence and popularity of the Sumangali Scheme was the weakening of unions in the textile industry in the 1990s.

P. Latha*, who also works at a mill in Dindigul district, recollects an incident she witnessed a year and a half ago, when she was working in another mill, a sight she will never forget. She says she saw a girl throw herself off the roof of the mess hall after one of the supervisors allegedly pulled her skirt down in front of the others. “About 30 of us saw this, but we were scared. Since the police did not file a case due to the management’s pressure, we did not think there was anything we could do.”

The recently-released Fabric of Slavery report of the India Committee of Netherlands (ICN) gives expression to the exploitationthrough facts and percentages. The report, based on a study in 743 spinning mills in Dindigul, Tirupur, Namakkal and Erode districts, says: “Young women workers face intimidation, sexually coloured remarks and harassment, which they can hardly escape.” The study was conducted between July and December 2015. Eight researchers and 40 volunteers interviewed 2,286 workers from these mills and held focus group discussions.

Many of these mills, the report points out, do not comply with Indian labour laws and international standards on forced labour, working hours, wages and social security. Only 39 of the researched mills paid the legal minimum wages. 91 per cent of the mills covered in the study have some form of forced labour, with camp labour or a Sumangali Scheme. More than half the mills studied do not allow workers to leave the hostel after working hours.

In 351 mills, the Sumangali Scheme is still in vogue, and in 392 mills, freedom of movement is restricted. Further, a standard working week exceeds 48 hours in 706 mills and in 367 of these, a standard working week exceeds 60 hours. In group discussions, the researchers found that verbal harassment and intimidation happens at all the mills.

More than 100 km away, in Namakkal district, Priya* (23) from Paramathi Velur, has been employed with a mid-sized textile mill near Namakkal town for the past two years. Prior to this, she was with a mill in Erode that offered accommodation on campus. However, she quit her job soon as she was asked to do overtime regularly, was verbally abused by her seniors at work, and was paid very little. At the current place, she feels she is getting a better deal.

Official word

The last official word from the government related to the employment of young women in textile mills was in August 2015 when opposition parties raised the issue in the Assembly and Textiles Minister O.S. Manian denied that there was any exploitation of workers.

Official sources acknowledge there are issues at spinning mills that need to be addressed, including employment of adolescent girls (aged between 15 and 18), overtime work and non-payment of minimum wages. Under the Factories Act, children above 15 years can be employed with certain conditions. But, according to ILO norms, only those aged above 18 can be employed and this needs to be addressed. Similarly, working hours stretch up to 10 hours in many units. Casual workers should be paid wages on a par with apprentice workers, say sources.

However, the Sumangali Scheme is not among the problems that officials count in the mills. They claim the scheme as such does not exist now, though there are schemes with other names, especially at mills in rural areas and small-scale mills. Many units are providing hostels outside the mill premises.

Government sources seeking anonymity express their unhappiness over the fact that mill managements do not allow even Revenue Divisional Officers (RDOs) and Labour Department officials to visit their campuses, saying only officials of the Industries Department have the powers to enter the factory premises. “If the mill management is transparent, why should they resist visits by even District Collectors? Why can’t they install CCTV cameras in the campus so that allegations of sexual assault and other issues can be monitored?” one officer asks.

Mill owners have exploited the legal loopholes to avoid prosecution. For instance, many cases couldn’t be tried under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, as it applies only to cases in which an advance amount is received by workers. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service (Tamil Nadu) Rules, 1983, can’t be applied in many cases, as owners claim it can be applied only in cases where a middle-man was employed to recruit workers. Likewise, certain provisions of the Apprentices Act, 1961, and Minimum Wages Act, 1948, are circumvented by not recording workers as apprentices and by not maintaining a roster of workers.

Root causes

A glaring lack of political will to tackle the menace is another major reason for the prevalence of the system, says S. Selva Gomathi, Deputy Director of SOCO Trust, a Madurai-based NGO. In many cases, the mill owners get the support of senior Ministers and MLAs from the area, she charges. “But the root causes, including poverty and social security, should be addressed. Most of these girls go to the mills despite knowing the truth about them because their fathers are alcoholics, mothers are unwell and they have to shoulder the family burden,” she says.

According to S. James Victor of Serene Secular Social Services, an NGO working for women in textile mills, monsoon failure has crippled agriculture in most areas, and those otherwise employed on the fields have begun to look elsewhere for jobs. Families with three or four children send the girls to work after they complete Class VIII or X.

Though most of the women are not part of trade unions, M. Arumugam of AITUC says the body has started issuing notices to mills saying all workers should be made permanent, and accommodation should not be provided on the campus for young women.

Despite these issues, some workers seem to be happy at some of the mills. Devi from Tirupur completed Class X a year ago and has been working at a mill in Namakkal for the last eight months. “I lost my father. My mother works at a textile unit in Tirupur. My sister and I need to work to support our family. We do not want to work at a textile unit in Tirupur as we need a safe place to stay even when our mother comes late. My uncle lives nearby and suggested this mill and both of us joined here,” she says.

According to a Compliance and Status report filed by the State government in November last with the Madras High Court, the government will continue to review the work of field officials to ensure effective enforcement, and strive to ensure better work environs for women in spinning mills/textile industry through the continuance of district-level monitoring committees as per the orders of the court.

The owners of textile mills point out that the employment system has changed a lot in the last few years. In addition to women workers, many mills now employ day labourers, who travel to the mill every day and also migrant workers. The number of migrant workers (from States such as West Bengal and Odisha) is on the rise. In clusters such as Salem, most mills do not have the hostel system.

“The industrial associations also urge the member mills not to employ women in the adolescent age group. With buyers insisting on social norms and to sustain business, the employment system will change further in the coming years,” says the spokesperson of one of the associations.

Further, the Central government has instructed all units to pay wages, even to migrant workers, through bank accounts, and this has left the mills with no option but to employ only those who are aged above 18 as only then can individual accounts be opened for each worker (and not a joint account with a family member). Some medium-scale mills have even installed complaint boxes at hostels and seem interested in redressing grievances.

At the hostels, the facilities provided to workers include opportunities to continue higher studies, vocational training and healthcare. Some of the large-scale mills that have integrated facilities and supply to international brands have ensured several amenities for women workers and these are expected to motivate other mills to do the same, the sources say.

If only the other mills are inspired.

( Names of workers have been changed to protect identity ).

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