Barefoot Harsh Mander

Twilight children

Great escape: These children were rescued from the spinning mills in Erode. Photo: N.Bashkaran  

Children and adolescents, mostly girls, toil in factories in conditions of near-slavery. This is the hidden face of manufacturing units in the flourishing industrial hubs of Tamil Nadu.

Until the 1980s, spinning factories mainly employed adult male workers in secure conditions of employment, with lawful wages and basic social security. Over the last 30 years, these workers have been replaced substantially by children labouring in what is called the ‘camp coolie system’. This atrocious arrangement confines tens of thousands of child and teenage workers in locked custodial hostels, and compels them to toil almost without a break in conditions of semi-bondage for 10 hours or more a day. A conspiracy of silence shrouds this reality of ‘Make in India’ in the contemporary era of accelerating economic growth at all costs; built, in part, on the oppressive and illegal work by children.

Textiles employ more people than any other sector in the economy after agriculture — an estimated 35 million workers. The value chain of spinning, weaving, knitting and garment manufacture contributes significantly to India’s foreign exchange earnings. Tamil Nadu, with 65 per cent of India’s spinning mills, is the hub of cotton yarn production in the country. Many global brands source their products from the state.

To meet the demands of global markets, Indian manufacturers have replaced adult workers with teenaged, mostly female, workers drawn from agriculturally impoverished regions and disadvantaged castes. The adolescent workers are recruited by local brokers, who are paid a commission of reportedly Rs. 2,000 per child. The government estimates that around 38,000 adolescent workers are employed in Tamil Nadu’s spinning mills, but trade unions and campaigners believe the actual number is 10 to 15 times higher.

Their indebted parents are lured by an initial advance, typically around Rs. 5,000, that helps mitigate their chronic burdens of debt in times of failing agriculture. The girls are transported to hostels on the factory site, where they are paid around Rs. 1,000 a month. The promise is that at the end of three years, the girls would be given a lump-sum of Rs. 35,000 to Rs. 60,000 as dowry, along with vessels and saris. The scheme is often called Sumangali (Tamil for a happily married woman). Their impoverished and debt-burdened parents are lured by the initial advance, and the assurance that their daughter would be fed and safely lodged, besides earning a dowry at the end of her contract. Blank contracts are signed and retained by the factory owners.

Much of this occurs in the twilight regions of the law; it was impossible for me to get permission to enter these factories enclosed in tall walls and barbed wired fencing. But young campaigners against modern-day forms of slavery took me to meet some of these girls in the remote villages of Ootacamund and Dindigul districts, who were home for their six-month vacation, while some had graduated from the scheme. The accounts were harrowing and troubling.

The machines in their mills never halted, except on one or two festival days a year. Workers, mostly resident teenaged girls, work three shifts. For the first, they wake up at dawn, and continue until 1.30 p.m., with a short tiffin-break. Then the process of cleaning and accounting takes another one or two hours. They then go to their rooms and watch TV or rest, but in the evening fill in for another half-hour for girls from another shift so no production time is lost. This is followed by a night shift. They are barred from leaving the factory premises. A small number who stay in their homes are transported to the factories every day and dropped back.

They report frequent scolding and beatings. Stories are also told, in hushed voices, of sexual exploitation. There is no safety training, and accidents are not uncommon. The cotton chokes their lungs, and overwork — together with their confinement, often in unsanitary and poorly ventilated hostels — results in a host of ailments. Girls report frequent headaches, stomach pain, sleeplessness and tiredness, plus menstrual problems, infertility and respiratory ailments. Depression also sets in, and suicides occur from time to time, but are usually hushed up.

It is ironical that after Independence we fought a long battle to free children from work and bring them into classrooms and playgrounds. But today, India’s poorest children are being forced back into factories that employed only adults a generation earlier.

The views expressed here are personal.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 4:25:23 AM |

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