This article was published by Im4Change, June(?) 2011

Slavery or Sumangali? Exploitation of Dalit Girls Exposed

Women’s stepping out of their homes to work is often seen as a symbol of empowerment. But what if girls and young women are first lured to work in factories on the false promise of decent wage, comfortable accommodation and payment of a lump sum amount at the end of 3 years contract, and then made to toil for pittance and their labour rights are violated?

A report titled Captured by Cotton: Exploited Dalit girls produce garments in India for European and US markets (May, 2011), captures the pathetic condition of dalit girls and women, some even younger than 14 years, who are employed in the garment and textile industry of Tamil Nadu under the government-promoted Sumangali Scheme (see the link below). It provides case studies of 4 vertically integrated garment producers namely: SSM India, Eastman Exports Global Clothing, Bannari Amman Group and KPR Mill.

The report has been jointly prepared by the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). Campaign Against Sumangali Scheme (CASS) carried out the field research between May and December 2010. Girls and young women who worked at Bannari Amman Group, Eastman Exports, KPR Mill and SSM India were interviewed by CASS. It has been stated that during the course of interview many girls were afraid to share their experiences due to the fear of being harmed by their former employers.

According to the report, the much criticized Sumangali Scheme was introduced ten years back by textile and garment manufacturers in the Coimbatore and Tirupur districts and has now spread throughout Western and Central Tamil Nadu. It has been estimated that 120,000 workers have been currently employed under the scheme. Sumangali workers mostly come from dalit families (for e.g. Arunthatiyar sub-caste) whose parents work as agricultural labourers, construction workers, sweepers and cleaners etc. Nearly 60% of the Sumangali workers belong to the so-called ‘Scheduled Castes’ or ‘untouchables’ groups. Drought, poor living conditions, low wages, constant exploitation and harassment by moneylenders and upper caste landlords compel Arunthathiyar girls and women to get recruited in the Sumangali Scheme. Most women get attracted to the scheme's promise that a lump sum payment between Rs. 30,000 and Rs. 50,000 would be paid at the end of the contract period, which would help them to pay the dowry during their marriages. In many cases, workers did not receive the lump sum amount that was promised at the end of the contract period.

Globalization has led to feminization of workforce in the garment industry in which labour form a major part of production costs. Female labour is preferred over male since it is cheaper and female workers are seen as more docile and loyal than their male counterparts. 60-80 percent of the workers in the textile and garment industry are hired on a temporary basis in order to cut costs in salaries and benefits and to avoid unionization as temporary workers are less inclined to join trade unions.

The report informs that the export oriented garment industry of Tamil Nadu, which comprises small and medium factories are sub-contracted work in the supply chain by US and European based customers. Although clothing brands and customers have developed codes of conduct pertaining to international labour standards and monitoring of non-compliances, evidence from the field suggests that many of the vertically integrated enterprises (suppliers) have not yet eliminated the Sumangali scheme from their employment status. It has been found that all companies sourcing from India indirectly source from spinning units that uses this exploitative scheme.

Media reports (see the links below) indicate that child labourers and young women are often recruited in various textile and garment manufacturing units in Tirupur. In June, 2008, after an expose by BBC Panorama, Primark axed and cancelled all orders from three companies, based in Tirupur, which used child labour to manufacture clothes sold on UK's high streets. Tirupur People Forum (TPF), an umbrella organization of NGOs covering 17 districts in the south and west of Tamil Nadu, has been engaged in defending the rights of Sumangali victims since 2005. It has been found that young women are engaged as apprentices by industrial enterprises for three years and after completion of term, they are thrown out of service. There was a legal move by the Tamil Nadu government to force employers to have only a fixed percentage of apprentices in its workforce.

Key findings of the report

  • Girls and young women are forced to sign blank contracts once they enter the factory under Sumangali Scheme. Workers do not receive their full daily wage as a part of it is deducted to save for the lumpsum payment to which the workers have no access.

  • Workers receive a daily wage, which generally starts at around 60 Rupees (€0.88) per day during the first six months, with a gradual increase of ten rupees every six months, up to a maximum of Rs. 110 on average. Costs for food and boarding, approximately 15 Rupees a day, are deducted from the daily wages. If the lump sum is paid out at the end of the period workers earn in total between 95,000 and 115,000 Rupees (approximately 1,500-1,800Euro) in three years. If the workers are paid the minimum wage however, they would earn Rs. 185,000 (about 2,900 Euro) in three year time.

  • There are numerous cases where workers have not received the lump sum 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 lump sum that they had saved so far. Many workers don’t make the three-year mark as they fall sick due to the 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.

  • On a regular basis the women work 12 hours per day, to complete one and a half shifts. This means that they work 72 hours per week. During peak season they even have to work on Sundays. For overwork, workers are legally entitled to receive overtime payment, but more often than not workers do not receive any compensation. When 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 the Provident Fund.

  • The Sumangali workers work and live without much freedom or privacy. Women workers either live in hostels on the factory compound, or with families or off-site hostels. The residential workers, who form the majority of the Sumangali workers, are not allowed to leave the factory freely and their stay in the hostels in the factory premises is mandatory. Instances are known where girls climbed over the high gate to escape from the harsh working conditions.

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

  • Due to the strains of excessive overwork, headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness and tiredness are common among the girls. Accidents happen frequently. Workers lack training and instructions to properly work the machinery. The mills have bad ventilation systems, which causes the work space to be full of small particles of cotton dust. Heat and humidity add to a very uncomfortable working environment.

  • Many of the interviewed women noted that they lost a lot of weight. Irregular menstrual periods and heavy menstrual pains are also 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.

  • Workers find their supervisors as abusive and there is no proper grievance redressal mechanism. Trade unions are not even allowed to enter the factories, and freedom of association and collective bargaining are non-existent.

  • Cotton-based garment production is booming in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu hosts 43% of all bigger Indian mills and almost 80% of the smaller Indian mills. In total there are 1,685 spinning units in India’s most southern state. The majority of these spinning units are located in the districts of Coimbatore, Dindigul, Erode and Karur.

  • The influx of female workers started in the 1970s when textile and garment manufacturers from different parts of India started relocating to Tamil Nadu in search of a more pliant workforce. Since 1985, coinciding with a massive growth in garment exports from Tamil Nadu women have been absorbed into the industry in large numbers.

"Captured by Cotton: Exploited Dalit girls produce garments in India for European and US markets", May 2011, SOMO - Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations & ICN - India Committee of the Netherlands,

"Dalit girls working under slave like conditions in India’s garment industry", 19 May, 2011, International Dalit Solidarity Network,

"Dalit girls exploited in supply chain of high street retailers", Dalit Freedom Network,

"Child labour prevalent in Tirupur ‘textile production chain'" by R Vimal Kumar, The Hindu, 5 June, 2010,

"Wound On A Spindle" by Pushpa Iyengar, Outlook, 23 June, 2008,

"No child labour in Tirupur textile factories: Govt" by Saurabh Gupta, SME Times, 25 June, 2008,

"After the Gold Rush",

"British stick for child labour" by Amit Roy, The Telegraph, 18 June, 2011,

"'Adolescent Dreams Shattered in the Lure of Marriage': Sumangali System: A New Form of Bondage in Tamil Nadu", Labour File,

"Sumangali scheme: relief ordered", The Hindu, 7 October, 2009,

"Sumangali scheme and bonded labour in India", Fair Wear Foundation, September 2010,

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