Thousands of poor girls and young women in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu are being exploited by spinning mills, a recent study claims. DW takes a look at the harsh working conditions they face.
Lekha had to pay with her life to realize her dream of improving her family's standard of living. As the young girl from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu turned 16, an agent involved in supplying labor to the legions of spinning mills based in the region showed up in front of their house.
Promising a job and steady income, the middleman lured the girl's economically desperate family to allow her to work at a spinning mill. That, however, only marked the beginning of the young girl's travails.
The harsh working conditions at the spinning mill took a toll on Lekha's health and she soon fell sick. Despite her ill-health, she was forced by her supervisors to continue working and did not receive medical help - until her condition deteriorated and she finally ended up in hospital.
After her recovery, however, Lekha's father persuaded her to return to work. The young girl agreed in the hope that she would be treated better from then on. But that was not the case and only a few weeks later, she begged her father to take her home, saying that she would die otherwise.
The father accepted Lekha's plea, brought her out of the mill and admitted her in a hospital. Nevertheless, she was already too weak by then and died just a day later.
Large-scale organized exploitation
Lekha's story and a number of similar accounts were documented in a new study, titled "The modern forms of slavery in Indian spinning mills," commissioned by the Indian NGO Cividep and the German rights group FEMNET.
The report's author Anibel Ferus-Comelo says the purpose of the study is to raise awareness about the abhorrent conditions under which textiles are produced in India - those that eventually end up in the showrooms of major western chains such as H&M and C&A.
It is mostly young women from rural areas that are lured to work in one of the state's nearly 2,000 spinning mills, Ferus-comelo told DW. According to Indian government data, some 270,000 workers were employed in the state's textile industry three years ago. And other estimates put the figure as high as 400,000.
Over three-fourths of those employed in the sector, projects the NGO Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), start as an underage worker.
Victims in every respect
Furthermore, many of them not only work in the textile factories, but also live there. Poor unmarried girl workers are expected to earn the dowry for their wedding, in a practice called "Sumangali," meaning "happy bride." Their wages, however, are paid only after they have worked for three years.
"The girls who are victims of the sumangali system come from poor backgrounds and belong to the lowest castes," says sociologist Ferus-comelo. "They are held on the factory premises as prisoners. From the moment they start their jobs, they are virtually forced laborers. They are exploited economically and are defenseless victims of physical and sexual violence," she said.
This has led to a rise in the number of workers committing suicides out of desperation. At the same time, fatal accidents due to exhaustion are not uncommon. "In the past four years, there were 86 noticeable and suspicious deaths," the expert underlined, stressing that most of them were probably suicides.
Giving a voice
Compounding the problem is the inadequate protection of workers' rights, reckons Ferus-comelo. "There are no employment contracts, factory identity cards, salary certificates or any other document that demonstrates an employer-employee relationship."
As a result, the workers often find it difficult to claim their rights in a court of law, for instance, in case of withheld wages. While the prescribed monthly minimum wage amounts to an equivalent of 113 euros, the female workers are paid only about 19 euros, according to the study.
Moreover, the work done by the young women is not only physically challenging, but also dangerous. "They are also not given any protective gear, leading to injuries time and again."
But before they start working, the girls are usually unaware of the employment conditions in the industry, say experts. "They have no idea about what awaits them," noted Mary Viyakula of the NGO SAVE.
Viyakula and her colleagues travel through the villages across the region to raise awareness and prevent underage girls from being recruited by middlemen. And they also give emergency contact numbers so that the girls know whom to contact should an emergency arise. "It is particularly important because once they are in the mills, the girls are almost completely isolated from their families and they have no contact with the outside world," Viyakula said.
But even if they are lonely, living far away from their parents and siblings, the girls are never alone as each room is shared by around 10 to 15 female workers. They often sleep on thin mats, on the otherwise bare ground. "They work at least 12 hours a day, and often it goes up to 16 hours. There is no fixed resting time and the food that is served is monotonous. This, in turn, leads to the women becoming quickly weak."
The issue of social responsibility
Indian authorities barely pay attention to the working conditions prevailing in the spinning mills, complain critics. Instances of labor rights violations are rarely made public, says Ferus-comelo.
"The governments of India and of Tamil Nadu are convinced that the textile industry is the key to growth and development. They therefore pursue economic growth at any cost."
However, the sumangali system has drawn a lot of severe criticism in recent years, and experts say this has led to slight improvements. For instance, concerned about the potential impact on their reputation, foreign retail chains have increased their scrutiny of the spinning mills.
Ferus-comelo believes this is the most effective way to resolve the problem. And if the retail chains don't do it, then nothing will change for the workers, she points out. "These women need their jobs. There are limited job alternatives for them and they rely on outside help. They cannot fight for their rights alone."