Daughters in the mill

[First published in Frontline magazine in October 2007]

Thousands of teenaged girls are exploited for labour in the textile mills of Tamil Nadu

sumangali scheme
Picture credit: Somo.nl

“Earn Rs.40,000. Work as an apprentice for three years,” said the bold print in Tamil on the colour pamphlet. This was “a unique opportunity for young women”, it said. There were other attractions mentioned: “We also give tasty food and comfortable accommodation in the hostel. Daily stipend Rs.50.” Lakshmi, 15, who hails from Kambam in Theni district, did not want to miss this opportunity. It would mean the end of drudgery for her family of agricultural labourers; the “modern facilities” and “kulu kulu vasadhi” (air-conditioning) were a bonus.

The agent advertising job opportunities in a Tirupur-based textile mill found one more potential recruit in Lakshmi. He showed her the pamphlet and suggested that the amount she would get after three years could take care of her marriage expenses. Lakshmi and her parents were convinced, and she set out to Tirupur. The three-year-period ended recently, but Lakshmi is yet to get the promised amount. And with every passing day she is losing hope.

In at least 17 districts in Tamil Nadu thousands of teenage girls have been lured by agents to work in private textile mills, which are estimated to number over 1,600, under what they call the “sumangali” scheme.

The scheme exploits the emotional trigger associated with a happy married life for these girls. However, at the end of the day, many of the girls have returned to their poverty-stricken lives. The practice began about 10 years ago, with agents recruiting unskilled girls from villages to work as apprentices in mills across the State. Mills took advantage of the “apprenticeship” provision of the Model Standing Orders under the Tamil Nadu Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Rules, 1947, and used it to popularise the “sumangali scheme” among poor families with teenage daughters. Mills enjoy complete autonomy in adopting the scheme in their own way once the Joint Commissioner of Labour has certified their separate standing orders. Now, in virtually every segment of cotton textile production, from spinning yarn to tailoring garments, it is “apprentices” who do all the work. Trade unions say that in many of the leading mills up to 70 per cent of the workers are apprentices recruited under this “scheme”.

In many of the leading mills up to 70 percent of the workers are apprentices recruited under the ‘Sumangali scheme’

The girls join the mills after signing a three-year bond that promises a lump-sum amount at the end of the period. While the offers vary from mill to mill, the lump-sum amount ranges from Rs.20,000 to Rs.50,000. Usually, the lump-sum is linked to the stipend; the higher the lump-sum, the lower the stipend.

The girls live in hostels on the mill premises. They are paid a daily stipend ranging from Rs.25 to Rs.80. A “nominal” amount is deducted from the stipend towards food expenses. The mills also offer “incentives”, such as a hike in the stipend, to “hardworking” girls.

The working conditions of the girls are now under the scrutiny of the State government. In June 2007, the Tamil Nadu Labour and Employment Department issued an order directing the Collectors in 17 districts, including Coimbatore, Dindigul, Erode, Karur, Sivaganga and Madurai, to investigate the conditions in which the apprentices work. They were asked to set up a monitoring committee for the purpose in each district, to be headed by the Collector and with the Deputy Commissioner of Labour, the Factories Inspector and the Revenue Divisional Officer as other members. But no time frame has been set for the committees to submit their reports.

The Tamil Nadu Joint Action Council (JAC) of Textile Trade Unions pointed out that the labour enforcement authorities had failed to contain the abuse of the apprenticeship scheme and the monitoring committees were only a perfunctory response to their demands.

Court orders inspection

A petition filed in the Madras High Court by the Dindigul District Anna Panchalai Thozhilalar Sangam and the State Anna Panchalai Thozhilalar Sangam, Chennai, stated that 406 textile mills in Coimbatore, Dindigul and Erode employed 38,461 unmarried girls in the age group of 15-22 without adhering to provisions in legislation on labour welfare. On October 3, hearing this petition, a High Court Bench comprising Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice P. Jyothimani asked the Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Authority (TNSLSA) to form committees, including a representative each of a women’s organisation and the TNSLSA, to conduct surprise inspections in textile mills in 17 districts in the State. It also appointed advocate R. Vaigai as amicus curiae.

The government set up the monitoring committees following protests by trade unions that the mills exploited the girls by extracting forced labour, denying statutory benefits and restricting their freedom by confining them to the mills. They also expressed concern about sexual harassment.

In textile hubs such as Coimbatore, one came across girls using their nimble fingers to tug at threads turning rapidly on spindles. In the export garment factories of Tirupur, girls were seated in long rows, stitching clothes on machines or just checking garments. They were also employed in garment packing, cone winding, weaving and such other operations.

The JAC argued that these jobs were semi-skilled or unskilled and did not require more than six months of training. “They are engaged in production work just like ordinary workers. So, why call them apprentices and deny them the rights of workers?” JAC leaders ask. Since the Model Industrial Standing Order does not spell out what proportion of the workforce can be apprentices, the mills employ more apprentices than regular workers now.

One impact of the apprenticeship practice has been the weakening of trade unionism. (Apprentices cannot join a trade union.) P.M. Kumar, member of the JAC and State-level leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that in the last few years textile mills had retrenched a large number of permanent workers through “coerced” voluntary retirement schemes. This drained the industry of experienced workers. Later, when the demand for labour grew, the mills appointed apprentices.

In Vedasandur, a region in Dindigul district with a large number of spinning mills, violation of labour rights is common. K.R. Ganeshan, Dindigul district secretary of the CITU, pointed out that of the 160-odd cotton mills in Dindigul only 56 had any union. The practice of employing adolescents and even children as apprentices was rampant in the region, he alleged.

Mill owners functioned like feudal lords and workers were completely at their mercy

He said that “mill owners functioned like feudal lords” here and workers were completely at their mercy. The mills relied on casual labourers and apprentices for all their production work but denied them essential facilities such as Employees State Insurance (ESI) and Provident Fund (PF). Several cases of accidents were hushed up by paying paltry amounts as compensation, he alleged.

In fact, one comes across temples built by mill managements in Vedasandur, which, Ganeshan says, are “ways to buy people’s loyalty, a vestige of feudalism”. He said the temples convinced people of the mill owners’ “nobility”, thus pushing them into a state of “subjugation”.

Southern India Mills Association (SIMA) secretary-general K. Selvaraju denied the charge that apprentices were an exploited lot. Instead, he claimed that the mills were “promoting women’s welfare” through the scheme. Responding to a query on the non-payment of the promised lump-sum amount, he said it was “only an ex-gratia and must not be considered mandatory”. The promise, obviously, has no legal sanctity and this creates the possibility of the guidelines being interpreted differently.

Selvaraju said the scheme had “curtailed union interference in the textile industry to a large extent”. Besides, he felt that it helped girls from needy families. He said many mills had arranged for distance education and computer education facilities for apprentices. So, they enjoyed a “college-like atmosphere”. But he was not sure if all apprentices enjoyed these benefits.

Unable to cope

At a textile mill on Avanashi Road, Tirupur, Frontline came across parents waiting anxiously to meet their daughters. Squatting under the asbestos-roofed shed meant to be the “visitor’s room”, they spoke of the problems concerning their children. “We hardly get to see them,” said Ganesh, a farm labourer from Udumalapet. “My daughter fell ill and they gave her some pill, that’s all,” he said.

When his daughter arrived he pointed to the dark circles under her eyes and the deep cuts in her fingers. His daughter said casually that the cuts were common for girls working in the spinning department. “We get used to it,” she said. But her father would not be consoled. “What if she loses her hand in an accident?” asked another visitor waiting to see his daughter.

Many girls in this mill had left their jobs midway as they could not cope with the workload. The mill now has 300 apprentices. The girls often do 12-hour shifts and stay up late at night to compensate for the labour shortage. Standing for long hours near the droning machines caused ear pain and headache, a girl said. “But we get used to all that,” she added. Vijaya, 16, said that if she left now she would not get the lump-sum amount. She needed the money so that her two younger sisters could continue their studies. “Another six months to go and then I will be free to leave this place,” she said.

Many girls said they would not return to the mill after completing their apprenticeship. They said the mill preferred to recruit afresh after the girls finished their term. Several apprentices here did not have a copy of the ‘agreement’. As this reporter was about to leave, Vijaya said she was thinking of excuses to give to the security guard standing a few feet away. “He will definitely question me on why I was speaking to you,” she said. Her father told Frontline that Vijaya discouraged him from visiting her too often for fear that the management may deny her her pay on some pretext or other.

In fact, the Coimbatore district monitoring committee’s report, details of which are available with Frontline, says that there have been incidents where girls have been denied pay. The report mentions the cases that have been registered against 22 mills in the district on charges of forced overtime and other violations of labour rights. However, the report states that these are “stray cases” and that the scheme was “found to be operating well within the law”. It suggests that the apprenticeship period be brought down to one year to curb the mills’ temptation to replace permanent workers with apprentices.

Speaking to Frontline, Coimbatore District Collector Neeraj Mittal said that while there were mills that treated their apprentices well, there were also others that “extract their pound of flesh”. Informed sources said the Dindigul district monitoring committee’s report had also given a clean chit to the apprenticeship practice. Dindigul District Collector R. Vasuki told Frontline that she has not received “any formal complaints” against the scheme.

“A Rapid Assessment Study of Marriage Assistance Scheme in Textile Sector in Tamil Nadu” conducted jointly by the CITU and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in March 2007 shows that most adolescent girls working under the scheme come from families with incomes below Rs.2,000 a month. The study also notes that most of the girls are from agricultural households and need additional income to sustain their families.

The link between distress and migration of young girls was discernible from the large number of school dropouts flocking to the mills. In Nagamalai near Madurai, girls from Dalit colonies routinely migrated to textile mills in the Palani and Dharapuram areas where the stipend was as low as Rs.15 a day. These girls came from families of sanitary workers or agricultural labourers.

Alarmed by the high dropout rate among girls in government schools in Nagamalai, T.V. Parvata Vardhini of Littles Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), visited several villages in the region. She said most of the girls were taken to mills by agents who were mostly jobless young men with contacts in mills or relatives of girls employed in mills. She said that upgrading government primary schools in the area into high schools might encourage girls to continue their studies because private schools were expensive.

An industry source said school dropouts were just the right kind of “human resource” textile companies wished to “utilise”. Informed sources also said that agents carried out major recruitment drives in villages during school holidays after the tenth and twelfth standard board examinations. In some cases, the mills were known to approach the village headman to refer potential recruits, they said.

In places like Vedasandur, the girls recruited from neighbouring villages were brought to the mills in vans. Anandan, a textile mill worker at Aalampatti village in Vedasandur, said several mills including his own were now “bringing girls from outside” and keeping them inside mill hostels. Though daily-wage workers are no better, he felt that girls working under the scheme were badly exploited. For instance, when a girl falls ill, she is not given a paid holiday. They are not covered under ESI schemes; instead the mills engage a nurse to dispense quick-fix medicines. They are paid Rs.30 a day and there are no means to bargain for more. “Avan kudukarathu thaan sambalam” (what he gives is the salary), he said.

In Thottanampatti village near Vedasandur, this reporter met Marghadam, who had worked as an apprentice in a nearby mill. She showed a receipt, according to which the mill paid her Rs.1,156 as Deepavali bonus last year. But that was only on paper. Since she got married six months before the contract period ended, she was summarily dismissed. “I showed them the receipts but they did not give me the money,” she said. She had joined the mill drawn by the offer of Rs.25,000 as lump-sum. But she received no more than the daily stipend of Rs.50, which was used up in servicing her family’s debt.

For the industry, apprentices are a source of cost-cutting. Selvaraju made no bones about the cost-cutting drive throughout the textile industry. To run the business more “efficiently” mills could replace their entire workforce with apprentices, he said.

Export boom

This also explains why the industry is resisting the government’s attempts to bring textile workers under the Minimum Wages Act. In the wake of the post-liberalisation export boom in the Tirupur industrial cluster, cotton textile production received tremendous impetus in Tamil Nadu.

While Tirupur exported Rs.2,255 crore worth of cotton knitwear and garments in 1996-97, in 2006-07 the value of exports rose nearly fivefold, to Rs.11,000 crore. Overall, 25 per cent of the State’s cotton yarn production accounts for direct exports. The rest mostly undergo value addition in the Tirupur industrial cluster.

Several new mills or new units of established textile groups mushroomed in places like Dindigul, Karur, Erode and so on during this growth phase. It is along the supply chain of such export businesses that the “sumangali” scheme has become widespread. With the dismantling of the Multi Fibre Agreement under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005 the potential for export has improved and low labour cost gives the industry “a comparative advantage”.

Latest international labour cost comparisons give a better picture of the “race to the bottom”. A study report on international labour cost comparisons in primary textiles by Werner International, global consultants for textiles, apparel and fashion, shows that the average labour cost in India, at $0.69 an operator an hour, is among the lowest in the world. The only countries where labour is cheaper are Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam.

P.M. Kumar, JAC member, said the unions wanted nothing short of an abolition of the apprenticeship system. On a sarcastic note, he said mill owners who were talking of women’s welfare today had retrenched all women workers in the early 1990s as they did not want to be bothered by the welfare measures stipulated under the Factories Act. “The mills,” he noted, “are employing girls now for their own welfare.”

(The names of some persons have been changed to protect their identity.)

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

2 thoughts on “Daughters in the mill

  1. A well researched and well written article. It is indeed sad to see what a capitalist machinery can do to the masses. The capitalist machinery wants maximum profit and it needs to increase every year by 30% but at the cost of squeezing and breaking innocent people’s back! Is there any solution in sight?

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