Maheswari Murugan was 15 years old when she left school. "I would have liked to continue my studies and got a degree," she says. But Murugan's family, who belongs to India's lowest caste, needed money. So she had to help out and go to work.
For three years, Murugan worked in one of the many factories in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. There, she spun cotton into thread used to produce cheap clothes for Europe and the US.
"It was a difficult time," the 33-year-old told DW. Her workdays were often longer than 12 hours and there were frequent monitoring by superiors, who insulted her and threatened her if she couldn't meet her quotas. She was paid 3,000 rupees per month - that is less than 1.50 euros per day.
Today, she works at an Indian NGO and fights for an improvement in working conditions in the textile industry. "The situation has to change," she says. To this end, she travelled to Germany on invitation from the association Femnet and their "Clean Clothes Campaign." For years, the NGO has been fighting to improve conditions for workers in Asian textile factories.
India's "unhappy brides"
In the so-called "Allerweltshaus," an intercultural meeting place in Cologne, Germany, Murugan stands in front of a projector. The pictures projected on the wall show many young girls squeezed in close together in small factory rooms. They are the newest victims of India's textile industry - a sector very much interested in cheap labor; the lower the costs, the more contracts from rich countries in the West. Putting it simply, that is what pays.
The girls on the photographs are so-called "sumangali." That is a Tamil word that means "happy bride." It is based on a promise used as bait to tempt young women out of their villages and get them to work in spinning mills in exchange for a cash dowry. Without a dowry, it is often difficult for young women to find a husband, especially in traditional rural environments, where it is common for the family of the bride to pay a sum of money to the groom.
"The dowry system is officially forbidden," according to Anita Cheria, a women's rights activist for "Munade." The group supports Maheswari Murugan awareness campaign in Germany. "We have many ordinances, but this is one that is not adhered to."
According to Cheria, the "sumangali" scam is one of the most extreme forms of exploitation in her country. The young girls tricked into the system are often held hostage in the factories, where they sleep in barracks and work through the nights. They receive around 60 cents per day. And the promised 500-euro-dowry is not paid until the end of their "training," which usually lasts three years.
"But not many of the workers can withstand the pressure so long. Many of them commit suicide," Cheria explains. She adds that in India, current estimates place the number of girls caught in this system at 120,000.
Because the state tends not to intervene, some of the women have organized themselves in Tamil Nadu and formed READ (Rights, Education and Development Center). The organization searches for sumangali factories and reports them to the police. They work together with factory guards to free the girls. "This is a first step," says Maheswari Murugan, who has been active with READ since 2004.
Demands in Bangladesh and Cambodia
The Clean Clothes Campaign has been quite successful in Germany. Since a recent spate of incidents in Bangladesh's textile industry, for example, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on the outskirts of Dhaka in April 2013, the German media has been paying more attention to conditions in the country's textile industry. In the tragic Rana Plaza incident, over 1,100 people were killed - crushed by the rubble of an illegally-built building. Over 2,500 people were injured. Among the clothes found in the debris were articles for the retailers Primark, Bonmarché and Walmart. The incident caused international outrage, under the pressure of which a number of international retailers, among them Germany's Lidl and C&A, to sign a fire and safety regulations agreement.
But the pact does not address the problem of low wages. "Nowhere else in the world do workers receive such low pay as in Bangladesh," according to Gisela Burckhardt, who heads Femnet and has organized Murugan's German tour. "It is scandalous! The money they earn isn't enough to live a decent life."
For precisely this reason, workers in Bangladesh have been taking to the streets to voice their anger. On November 12, there was a rally in Dhaka, in which 40,000 people participated. Demonstrators threw rocks, security used teargas. The workers demand a minimum wage of 100 US dollars per month. So far, the minimum has been set at 38 dollars. Starting in December, it will increase to 68 dollars per month. But for many of the protesters, that is still far too little.
"If the situation remains as it is, Bangladesh's entire textile industry will collapse," Siddigur Rahman, vice president of the union Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association, told DW.
In Cambodia, there have also been protests and clashes between demonstrators and police, ending in death and injuries. Some observers believe the demonstrations will continue until wages are increased. And wages are the smallest factor when it comes to the production of textiles, according to the "Fairwear Foundation."
Wages for Asian textile workers
A further problem, according to Burckhardt, is the competition among Asian countries. "The textile industry tends to migrate to where it is cheapest. As long as the production countries have such strong competition, the workers will suffer most in the country that manages to produce cheapest."
Burckhardt refers to the concept Asia Floor Wage - a campaign from India which has calculated how much money textile workers in different countries would need to support their families. "The cost of living in Bangladesh, for example, is, of course, not the same as in Indonesia," Burckhardt explains. But the table shows that wages in all countries are still too low. "The Asia Floor Wage could help eliminate the competition between these countries because everyone would be earning fair wages."
Until these wages are accorded to the textile workers of Asia, the Clean Clothes Campaign calls upon German consumers to exercise vigilance in their buying habits. "Instead of buying cheap, people should make sure they are purchasing fair products," Burckhardt recommends. She said that with the Internet, it was easier now than ever before to purchase fair products. "Consumers have the power to change things. They just have to want to."
Maheswari Murugan believes this as well. She will be touring Germany and speaking until mid-December. She hopes to create awareness about just how poor working and living conditions are for Asian textile workers.