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How textile mills are re-branding a 'trap' scheme for bonded labour

A month and a half ago, a group of young women from Jharkhand reached Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore to work in a private spinning mill. They were accommodated in the mill’s women’s hostel. Around a month later, when one of the women didn’t turn up for work for three days, the hostel’s warden questioned her, leading to a tussle between the two.

The warden subsequently complained about the issue to the HR manager V Muthaiah, who in turn allegedly beat up the worker with a stick. In a video of the assault that has gone viral, the woman is seen crying in pain while the warden pulls her hair.

Based on the video, both the warden and the HR manager were arrested by Coimbatore police on Sunday. An official from Industrial Safety and Health department in Coimbatore said that they could not talk to the victim to know why she refused to report to work as she and the group of women who came with her, left the hostel without informing anyone, before the issue was brought to the notice of officials.

While officials call it a rare incident, activists allege that the ill-treatment and exploitation of workers at spinning mills and garment companies in western Tamil Nadu is a common occurrence.

Dangerous allure of ‘Sumangali Scheme’

Activists also alleged that the illegal practice of ‘Sumangali Scheme’ (under which young girls are hired on contract to work for three to five years and the wage that is due is paid in a lump sum at the end of the contract for their dowry) is still prevalent in many parts of western Tamil Nadu under different names. While contract period and promises vary from one company to another, companies mostly use their current employees to identify and recruit prospective women workers under the ‘scheme’. Sumangali in Tamil means a ‘happily married woman’.

The Federal discovered an advertisement poster announcing recruitment under the scheme, which read, “The workers can study and even earn jewels while working at the company for ₹3,000 to ₹4,000 per month. The company would provide five sovereigns of jewels if they work at the company for one year. Accommodation facility and food are provided at free of cost for outsiders.”

Another advertisement said that exciting offers would be provided to workers who bring in new recruits. The advert promised ₹3,500 along with a saree and make-up set to an employee who brings in a new recruit. The value of prizes increases according to the number of recruitments an employee helps in. However, the pressure on employees to get new recruits is overwhelming.

Unable to bear the pressure, a 25-year-old woman from Erode who was working with a private garment company in Tirupur, quit her job two years back despite facing financial distress.  “About four years ago, before my marriage, my family was struggling financially. So, I joined a private company under a scheme similar to the ‘Sumangali Scheme’ after the company manager assured me to give at least ₹40,000 to ₹50,000 more along with my PF settlement if I worked for a minimum of three years. I stayed in the company hostel and worked for almost two years without visiting my parents. But, I could not continue further. So, I took leave, came home and did not return even though it meant letting the money go,” she said.

She said the company had eight hours of working time for a shift with two tea breaks of 15 minutes and a half-an-hour lunch break in between. But employees usually ended up working 12 hours a day, she said, adding that as she was a helper, she had to stand the entire shift.

She says she couldn’t take it anymore when the pressure to bring new recruits became overwhelming. “The company management would ask us to find new recruits and fix us a target every month.” If the target was achieved, the employee would be given prizes like clothes and an induction stove. “Until we achieved the target, they would keep on asking us and even reprimand us,” she added.

Toll on mental, physical health  

A 29-year-old worker from Erode, employed with a garment company in Tirupur, says while the working hours are long, the management resorts to abuse if anyone protests. The worker says she has to travel for around two hours every day for work as she has two children to look after at home. “I have been doing 1.5 shifts (12 hours) at least three to four days in a week. They will abuse us verbally in front of everyone if we refuse to work for an additional four hours. They will somehow make us do the shift either by scolding or threatening. Despite working so hard, we hardly earn ₹270 per day,” she said.

 Also read: Left struggles to retain hold in western TN sans support of trade unions

She says workers are not even allowed to take breaks to use the washroom.

“Yes, we do get two 15-minute tea breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. But we cannot use the restroom during that time as the company doesn’t have a sufficient number of toilets. We hardly have three women toilets in the entire mill for over 50 women and that too on the ground floor. As going to the ground floor and waiting in the queue for our turn to use the washroom is time-consuming, most of us don’t use it unless it is an emergency. Supervisors would scold us if we got up from our workstations during working hours. So, I have limited my water intake at the company,” she said.

Another worker from Tirupur said she recently quit her job at a garment company because of menstrual cramps. “Until a few years ago, I never had cramps at all during periods. It was only after I started working at the company, which requires standing for about 12 hours, that I developed cramps. As we were not allowed to take rest, the management would usually give us a pill, supposedly a painkiller to relieve the pain. Initially, I used to feel better a while after taking it, but as days passed, the pain became excruciating,” she said.

“Now, along with the cramps, I also have fever, body pain and nausea for at least two days and I cannot survive without taking injections during those days,” she added.

‘Exploitation a common occurrence’

All the women workers The Federal spoke to said, casteist slurs and inappropriate sexual comments from male workers are common at the workplace and escalating the issue has borne no results. “The workplace is highly uncomfortable. But we have no other option, but to ignore it and continue working. Because we are financially distressed,” one of them said.

“Exploitation of workers, especially adolescent and young women is common in textile and garment companies. Brutal attacks and sexual harassment also take place at such factories. The companies no longer use the name of ‘Sumangali Scheme’ to bait prospective recruits as locals have been showing reluctance to join it after being sensitised on the issue. Now they have started targeting migrant workers with a different name,” said C Nambi, executive director, centre for social education and development (CSED).

A couple of decades ago, men and women worked at an equal ratio in these companies but now the percentage of women, especially unmarried women, has increased to almost 90 per cent, he said.

Explaining that the women are accommodated at the company hostel itself, he said that most of these accommodations are run without proper license.

“During recruitment, most of the workers are assured of PF benefits. As many of them are adolescent girls aged below 18 years, individual bank accounts could not be created in their name. So, the companies alter the date of birth in their identity proofs and create fake documents to create an account. When they quit the companies, it becomes difficult for them to withdraw the PF money. This happens in addition to the poor wages. As per government norms, ₹433 should be given as minimum wage per day but even today not more than ₹350 per day is given to them,” said R Karuppusamy, project director, Rights Education and Development Centre (READ).

Considering that around 70 per cent of the workers are from dalit and tribal communities, caste discrimination is also high at these workplaces, he added.

Rubbishing the allegations, the official from Industrial Safety and Health said neither ‘Sumangali Ccheme’ nor camp labour exists in the state. “As there is a huge labour shortage and in the fear of losing the trained workers, almost all the companies are treating them well. No exploitation is reported in any company,” he said.

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