India: Dalit girls exploited in garment industry
The report Captured by Cotton published by Center for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) vividly outlines the plight of Dalit girls working in the textile mills of Tamil Nadu. These girls are lured in with promises of good food, accommodation and salaries, but delivered inhuman working and living conditions.
Captured by Cotton, published by: SOMO, ICN
In India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, girls and young women are recruited and employed on a large scale to work in the garment industry through a recruitment and employment scheme called the 'Sumangali Scheme'. The promise: a decent wage, comfortable accommodation, and, the biggest lure -- a considerable sum of money upon completion of their three-year contract.
The reality of working under this scheme, however, stands in sharp contrast to the attractive picture that is presented to the girls and young women during the recruitment process. Excessive work, low wages, no access to grievance mechanisms or redress, restricted freedom of movement and limited privacy are part and parcel of working and employment conditions under this scheme.
The promised end-of-contract sum is not a bonus, but part of the regular wage that is withheld by the employer. Often, women workers do not even receive the full promised lumpsum. Without exaggeration, the Sumangali Scheme in its worst form has become synonymous with unacceptable employment and labour conditions, even with bonded labour.
Over the past decade, the garment industry in Tamil Nadu has experienced major growth. Thousands of small and medium-sized factories are involved in the complex process of turning cotton into clothing. The Tamil Nadu garment industry is largely export-oriented.
Customers include major European and US clothing brands and retailers. These companies source directly from smaller textile and garment factories, as well as from larger enterprises, which hire labour through the Sumangali Scheme.
Garment brands and retailers have become aware of the exploitative nature of the Sumangali Scheme through research conducted by NGOs, media reports, as well as in some cases by their own social auditing. A number of brands and retailers have taken a clear stand against these practices. SOMO and ICN disapprove of this form of ‘cutting and running’ and expect companies to use their leverage to bring about improvements.
Use of the abusive Sumangali Scheme and other labour rights violations are nevertheless still widespread in Tamil Nadu. Almost 60% of Sumangali workers belong to the so-called ‘scheduled castes’ or ‘untouchables’, the lowest group in the Indian caste hierarchy.
Most of the other interviewed workers belonged to the ‘most backward castes’, the caste in hierarchy just above the Dalits. A recent report describes how they are lured with false promises. This report notes that caste discrimination occurs when an accident or death occurs in the factory.
The labour practices as reported above indicate violations of various Indian labour laws and internationally agreed upon labour standards, not only in terms of restricted freedom of movement and association-especially with NGOs for redressal--but also that of right to social benefits and occupational health and safety.