Death of teenage Tamil Nadu mill worker raises fear of bonded labour

  • Thomson Reuters Foundation, Chennai
  • Updated: Mar 17, 2016 21:45 IST
The 17-year-old’s experience of working in the mills of Tamil Nadu is sadly not an uncommon one. (Representative Photo)

An investigation into the death of a teenage girl working in a spinning mill in Tamil Nadu has raised fresh concerns over the working conditions of textile workers, especially those trapped in bonded labour.

The 17-year-old girl, whose parents are farm workers, was found unconscious in her room in the Ganapathy Spinning Mills compound in Vellakoil in Tirupur district, on March 10 after failing to show up for a regular overtime shift.

The cause of her death remains unknown, pending results of a post mortem investigation. However, police said they had arrested a co-worker on charges of abetment to suicide.

Civil society groups are calling for a full investigation into the case, saying cases of suicides related to sexual abuse and labour exploitation in India’s booming textile industry go largely unreported.

A report into the girl’s death by the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, a women-led trade union set up to represent women in the textile industry, said there were “wound marks on her body and rope impression around her neck”.

Repeated attempts to reach the management at the mill were unsuccessful.

The teenager had worked in the textile industry - the second largest employer in India after agriculture - for nearly two years. She was paid 210 rupees (three dollars) per day, which her mother collected each month.

Much of India’s $42 billion-a-year textile and clothing export industry is located in western Tamil Nadu and to boost productivity and increase margins, parts of this lucrative supply chain are built on bonded labour.

Mills mainly hire young girls, offering 30,000 to 60,000 rupees ($450 to $900) to their families for three years’ work under so-called “Sumangali” schemes with the money paid at the end of the fixed term, in a form of bonded labour.

Verbal and sexual abuse

A study 2014 into Tamil Nadu’s textile industry by the Freedom Fund, a philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending modern slavery, and C and A Foundation found workers were also often subjected to low wages, excessive and sometimes forced overtime requirements, lack of freedom of movement as well as verbal and sexual abuse.

The study said it was difficult to gauge the exact scale of the problem, but a conservative estimate suggests there may be at least 100,000 girls and young women being exploited in this way.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation in February launched a new initiative with C&A Foundation aimed at raising awareness of trafficking and forced labour across South Asia.

This week’s women’s union report said the teenage mill worker had found it difficult to cope with the work pressure.

“Every day she did four hours of overtime, after completing an eight hour shift. After one year she wanted to leave, but her parents convinced her to complete the contract period,” the report said.

“She was sexually harassed by a male worker and had complained to her brother and the mill management.” No one at the mill could be reached to comment.

MA Britto, convener of the Campaign Against the “Camp Coolie” (Sumangali) System said such reports were common.

“Mill managements try to hush these up. Often wages due to the girl are withheld and released only if the family drops the case. Or they make up stories of the girl having an affair and families are shamed into silence,” he said.

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