This article was published by, June 2011

Captured by cotton

Behind the seams: A Dalit girl employed under the Sumangali Scheme in a textile unit

The Sumangali Scheme in Tirupur and Coimbatore districts lures young girls – often minors and Dalits -- from impoverished areas of Tamil Nadu to work in MNC garments-manufacturing units on the promise of nutritious meals, comfortable accommodation and a lumpsum payment. What they actually encounter is poor work conditions, low wages, restricted freedom of movement, and limited privacy, says a study by SOMO and ICN.

The following are excerpts from a report published today by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporation (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN).

The report features case studies of four large manufacturers: Eastman Global Clothing Exports, KPR Mill, Bannari Amman, and SSM India. These enterprises produce for Bestseller (eg Only, Jack &Jones), C&A, GAP, Diesel, Inditex (eg Zara), Marks & Spencer, Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, and many other European and US garment companies. A number of companies have undertaken steps towards the elimination of the Sumangali Scheme, but abusive labour practices remain widespread.

The full report may be downloaded at


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. The promise: a decent wage, comfortable accommodation, and, the biggest lure -- a considerable sum of money upon completion of their three-year contract. This lumpsum may be used to pay for a dowry. Although the payment of a dowry has been prohibited in India since 1961, it is still a general practice in rural India for which families often incur high debts.

The recruitment and employment scheme -- the Sumangali Scheme -- that is the subject of this report is closely linked to the payment of a dowry. The Tamil word sumangali refers to a married woman who leads a happy and contented life with her husband, with all fortunes and material benefits. The reality of working under the Sumangali 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.

Over the past two decades, international clothing brands have developed policies and practices to ensure sustainable supply chain management. Companies have adopted codes of conduct referring to international labour standards, and monitoring of non-compliance has become standard practice. 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. Some brands have abruptly stopped sourcing from these suppliers. SOMO and ICN disapprove of this form of ‘cutting and running’ and expect companies to use their leverage to bring about improvements. Other companies have elaborated corrective action plans to address the excesses of the Sumangali Scheme. It transpires that since August 2010, considerable improvements have been made at the level of a number of manufacturers.

Use of the abusive Sumangali Scheme and other labour rights violations are nevertheless still widespread in Tamil Nadu. Especially in the hundreds of small spinning mills, but also in the numerous smaller and bigger garment factories and the spinning and garmenting units of the vertically integrated enterprises that directly supply western buyers. This report details how girls and young women continue to suffer under the Sumangali Scheme. The report also documents other abusive labour conditions that may not be categorised as the Sumangali Scheme but nevertheless amount to serious labour rights violations and require immediate corrective action.

The Sumangali Scheme

The promises

‘We request you to bring us the lovely girls you know and make their lives prosperous as a lighthouse’

Factories advertise their jobs with attractive posters and pamphlets, presenting the Sumangali Scheme as ‘a unique opportunity for young women’ to earn up to Rs 40,000 in three years. The offer includes comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and leisure and educational activities.

Besides these types of posters, factories also use recruiters. Recruiters hired by the factories receive approximately Rs 500 per recruit. They visit poor villages and identify families with daughters in the age-group 14 to 21, or even younger, that are in financial need. The recruitment intensifies during the school holidays, because school dropouts are seen as an important target group.

The Sumangali Scheme was introduced 10 years ago by textile and garment manufacturers in the Coimbatore and Tirupur districts. It is now widespread throughout western and central Tamil Nadu. An estimated 120,000 workers are currently employed under the scheme.

Sumangali workers are mainly recruited from impoverished districts of Tamil Nadu. Until recently, agriculture used to be the main source of employment in many districts of Tamil Nadu, but employment opportunities have become scarce, partly due to drought.

Families are struggling to get by with a monthly income of between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 (approximately 30 to 80 euros). A majority of the interviewed women said their families had taken on debts as the family income was not enough to cover medical costs or to save money to buy a cow, or pay a dowry. Nutritious food and a decent wage are not part of this harsh reality. The promise of three nutritious meals a day is therefore very appealing. The recruiters also mention comfortable accommodation in hostels and even yoga classes. That the girls will be living in secure hostels appeals to the cultural norm that dictates that girls should be chaperoned until they are married.

The biggest attraction, however, is the large amount of money that the worker will receive after completion of the period. This lumpsum payment varies between Rs 30,000 and Rs 50,000 (500 to 800 euros). Many families see the lumpsum as a big help to arrange their daughters’ marriage, because although legally abolished it is still custom to come up with a dowry for the bridegroom’s family.

The offer of working and living at the factory, receiving three meals a day, earning some money for the family while saving money for a dowry or to settle loans thus sounds like a golden opportunity.

Dalits in the Sumangali Scheme

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.

It is estimated that in India there are around 200 million Dalits. Dalits also have their caste hierarchy. In Tamil Nadu, the three major Dalit groups are Pallar, Parayar and Arunthatiyar. Among them, Arunthatiyars are considered to be the lowest in the hierarchy, ‘Dalits among Dalits’. They are around 6 million in number and densely concentrated in western districts like Coimbatore, Tirupur and Dindigul where the textile and garment industry is mainly located.

Arunthatiyar girls are employed under the Sumangali Scheme on a large scale. Poor living conditions, low wages, desperate search for a livelihood, constant exploitation and harassment by moneylenders and upper caste landlords are part of the day-to-day life of an Arunthatiyar. They are compelled to do the most menial jobs, such as manual scavenging, removal of dead cattle, and burying dead bodies. They are almost always indebted and very often bonded labourers tied to their employers by a debt they can hardly repay.

Agents that recruit the girls play into this situation with promises of a good income and decent working conditions. 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 report says: ‘If the victim belongs to a comparatively lower caste or a low income group, it is taken as an advantage on the management side to pay her a relatively low compensation, utilising the family members’ inability to negotiate or bargain with the employer.’

The reality of the Sumangali Scheme

Blank contract

Only when the newly recruited workers enter the factory are they asked to show some form of identification. An age check is clearly not a standard component of the recruitment process. Once at the factory, workers sign an appointment letter. In most cases there is no contract. Some of the girls and young women interviewed for this report said they were made to sign a blank contract, leaving them with no proof of what was verbally promised to them.

Low wages

The wages workers receive vary from company to company. Part of the workers’ wages is deducted to save up for the lumpsum payment. The workers do not have access to these savings, which are only paid out after they have completed the three-year contract. Workers receive a daily wage, which generally starts at around Rs 60 per day during the first six months, with a gradual increase of Rs 10 every six months, up to a maximum of Rs 110 on average. Costs for food and boarding, approximately Rs 15 a day, are deducted from the daily wage. If the lumpsum is paid out at the end of the period, workers earn a total of between Rs 95,000 and Rs 115,000 (approximately 1,500-1,800 euros) in three years. If the workers are paid the minimum wage, however, they would earn Rs 185,000 (about 2,900 euro) in three years (see Table 1).

The wages are well below the legally set minimum wage. To be able to legally pay the workers under the minimum wage, which in Tamil Nadu in the textile sector is Rs 171 per day, the young women are hired as apprentices. In Tamil Nadu, the local law is such that workers can be registered as apprentices for a maximum of three years. In the rest of India, it is only one year.

There are numerous cases where workers have not received the lumpsum amount that was promised at the end of the period. Workers who decided to quit before the contract period ended often did not receive the lumpsum that they had saved so far. Many workers don’t make the three-year mark as they fall sick due to unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, poor food and general lack of hygiene. Sometimes workers are fired just before the end of the period, under the pretext of some feeble excuse.

Forced overtime

On a regular basis the women work 12 hours per day, to complete one-and-a-half shifts. This means they work 72 hours a week. During peak season they even have to work on Sundays. For extra work, workers are legally entitled to receive overtime payment, but more often than not they do not receive any compensation. If a worker refuses to work more than one shift, she is often verbally abused by the supervisors and threats are made to withhold a month’s pay.

Child labour

There are various indications that girls under the age of 14 are recruited to work in the factories. An academic estimate says that 10 to 20% of Sumangali workers are child labourers aged between 11 and 14. At Bannari Amman, for instance, the researchers found a 13-year-old girl among the workers. Monika, who started working in 2008 at Bannari Amman Spinning Mill at the age of 13, and who worked there until 2010, says more children from her village were working in the factory: “Children aged between 10 and 11 years came from my village for work. During inspection time, they were kept in a dark room.”

According to the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, workers under 18 who perform work that is likely to harm their ‘health, safety or morals’ are child labourers. As described in this report, working under the Sumangali Scheme is indeed harmful to the health, safety and morals of the workers. Considering the number of workers aged between 14 and 18, the scale of the child labour problem is alarming.

No social benefits

Sumangali workers do not enjoy the legal benefits that other workers enjoy. Many clothing companies do not remit employers’ and employees’ contributions to the Employees State Insurance (ESI) Scheme, and workers are denied the benefits of the scheme. This also happens with Provident Fund.

Restricted movements

The Sumangali workers work and live without much freedom or privacy. Women workers either live in hostels in the factory compound, with families, or in off-site hostels. The residential workers, who form the majority of Sumangali workers, are not allowed to leave the factory freely and their stay in hostels on the factory premises is mandatory. These hostels are also referred to as “coolie camps”. Mobile phones are often prohibited. Even while going out to buy personal things, they are closely monitored. They are allowed to go to the market once a fortnight but are always accompanied by guards from the mill.

The cultural code that girls should be chaperoned is thus used as an excuse to prevent them from running away or having contact with local NGOs or trade unions. Instances are known of girls climbing the high gates to escape the harsh working conditions. The girls miss their families and most find restrictions on visiting their village one of the worst issues. The workers also feel very inhibited about speaking about their frustrations as they know that it could backfire.

There are even reports of former Sumangali workers having to pay a ‘penalty’ of Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 in order to be able to leave before the end of the period.

Unhealthy and unsafe working conditions

Due to the strain of overwork, headaches, stomach ache, sleeplessness and tiredness are common among the girls. Accidents too happen frequently. Workers lack training and instructions to properly work the machinery. Often, they have trouble operating machines that are placed beyond their reach. Aakriti says: “I had to stand all the time and the tasks that I needed to carry out required a lot of walking. I had to climb on a bench to tie the thread because the machine was located too high. There was no chair for us to sit on. All eight hours and overtime hours I had to stand, walk and climb.”

The mills have bad ventilation systems which cause the workspace to be full of small particles of cotton dust. Heat and humidity add to a very uncomfortable working environment. Some mills provide personal protective equipment like masks; in other mills workers make do with a simple handkerchief. Seetha: “Our section was filled with cotton dust. Masks, caps and aprons were given but I did not wear the mask. Wearing the mask is sweaty and made me feel like I was suffocating.”

Some ex-workers had to undergo surgery to remove balls of cotton fibre found in their bowels. In one of the factories investigated, workers in the spinning area had to work on roller skates all day without wearing any protective gear.

Many of the interviewed women noted that they had lost a lot of weight. Irregular menstrual periods and menstrual pain are frequently mentioned. Cases of spontaneous abortions, infertility and premature menopause have also been reported by former Sumangali workers.

Generally, there are no proper medical facilities available at these factories, at best a nurse who may offer basic medical care. Even when they feel ill and are not capable of work, girls who were interviewed explained that they would not take a rest as resting time had to be compensated after the shift. Some of the girls reported that supervisors threatened to withhold wages if they didn’t keep working.

Furthermore, food quality is very poor further compromising the workers’ health. Kiran says: “After joining the mill, my weight decreased from 42 kg to 33 kg. I became anaemic due to malnutrition and skipping meals.”

Abusive supervisors

Added to this is the constant scolding by male supervisors. According to the workers, the supervisors always found an excuse to scold them. This increases the workers’ tension and stress enormously.

No grievance mechanisms

Many workers feel helpless about this situation, because there is no one to help them. They dare not talk about the problems they experience among themselves, guards and supervisors are not to be trusted, and there is no workers’ committee or body to take up their cause. The young women are hired because the management sees them as obedient and not likely to organise and stir up trouble. Trade unions are not even allowed to enter the factories, and freedom of association and collective bargaining are non-existent.

Traditionally, trade unions have always focused on permanent male labourers, and in India union membership is even not possible for workers under 18.

Violations of local labour laws and international labour norms

The labour practices as reported above indicate violations of various Indian labour laws and internationally agreed upon labour standards. Here is a brief overview.

Bonded labour

The fact that employers are holding back part of the workers’ wages and only pay them out after the three years have been completed makes this scheme a bonded labour scheme. Forced or mandatory labour is a violation of the Indian Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, ILO Conventions 29 and 105, and OECD Guidelines, chapter IV, paragraph 1c.

No freedom of movement

The restricted freedom of movement that Sumangali workers are subjected to is a violation of the Indian Constitution’s Articles 14, 15, 21 and 23 which protect the right to life, liberty, dignity and freedom from exploitation, as well as a violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Child labour

Employing children under the age of 14 in, among others, the garment industry is a violation of India’s Child Labour (Regulation and Prohibition) Act, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention 136 on the Minimum Age to Work, and of the OECD Guidelines (chapter IV, paragraph 1b). Employing children under 18 who are working under hazardous conditions is violating ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. Neither convention has been ratified by India.

No freedom of association

Trade unions are not allowed inside the factories. Workers are not able to contact trade unions because they are not allowed to leave the factory premises. Not allowing workers to organise themselves into trade unions or workers’ committees is in breach of the Indian Factories Act, India’s Trade Union Act, ILO Conventions on the Right to Organise and the Right to Collective Bargaining, and the OECD Guidelines, chapter IV, paragraph 1a.

Maximum working hours

Work weeks of 72 hours are a breach of the ILO’s Convention on Maximum Working Hours (48+12) and the Indian Factories Act, chapter VI, section 51.

Occupational health and safety

Not providing a safe and healthy work environment is a breach of the Indian Factories Act, chapter III, section 13; ILO Convention 155 and OECD Guidelines, chapter IV, paragraph 4b.

Excerpted from Captured by Cotton: Exploited Dalit Girls Produce Garments in India for European and US Markets by Nicky Coninck, Martje Theuws and Pauline Overeem. Published by SOMO -- Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and ICN -- India Committee of the Netherlands. May 2011

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