Oh yes, they did, we could come ten minutes late on mornings after ‘whole night shifts’. They wouldn’t say anything.

The printing machines, adorned with festoons from the New Year celebrations, look like a giant child’s plaything. Metal arms of long, alternating spatulas that end in trays are fitted around the central wheel at two levels. The lower circle holds the cloth, the upper is loaded with ink. A computer allows the operator to determine the quantities in which inks of various colours are to be distributed. The man in charge of the printing section is called Kennedy. He says that the “new machine”, imported from Italy like most of the machinery in the factory, can print six colours simultaneously, though they would be using fewer colours for this particular order. An operator switches on the machine. It starts rotating and brings the alternating trays into contact, imprinting the design onto the cloth with the help of rollers. The helpers take off the wet cloth and load it into a nearby drying machine. 

The steel drying machine is built on the lines of baggage screening machines in airports, only it is at once more rectangular and narrower. As the white cloth is sucked behind a curtain, a steel pipe blows steam from a boiler burning at 1,600 Celsius. Inside, pressers go to work on the cloth even as the ink is dried by the burning heat. When I pick up one of the semi-made T-shirts from the other end, the fabric is so hot that I can feel my fingers and palm burn.

The T-shirt front has a triangle within a large circle. There is no lettering, but next to it is a picture of a blonde teenage boy with a joyful, alive expression. He seems to have been caught in the midst of some activity we can’t see. A whitewashed house, built with wooden planks and surrounded by trimmed hedges stands at the end of the foreground. There are woods in the background, and the scene is bathed in twilight. Once the cloth is cut and sewn, it will be packed to sail on ships leaving Tuticorin and Chennai. It will be sold in retail shops, malls and clothing boutiques across Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. It will be bought by boys like the one in the picture, and girls who date them. And by people who may live in white-panelled houses or at least know someone who does.

A mark somewhere on the cloth will say “Made in India”. Tirupur, the southern Tamil Nadu town that made this T-shirt, as it makes millions of others every year, will go unheralded. As will the factory where it was made. And the hundreds of souls who worked on it, from the labourers picking cotton in Gujarat and Andhra to the young girls in the spinning mills in Erode, the young man from Odisha or UP that stitched the T-shirt in the factory’s tailoring shop, and the man who drives along the highway to Tuticorin as Tirupur sleeps. It is doubtful if any of them has ever seen a white-panelled house.

The Warsaw International Factory in Tirupur is not named after the Polish capital, but from the military pact that unravelled the year that the factory came into existence. Towards the end of 1989, a few months after Raja Sanmugham christened the garment factory in a fit of youthful romanticism—after the USSR led East-European military defence treaty against NATO—a revolt in Romania ended the usefulness of the Warsaw Pact on all but paper. A month earlier, the Berlin wall had come down, reuniting East and West Germany. It also led to the creation of the Eurozone, a fact of great importance for Tirupur.

The Warsaw International factory started by exporting T-shirts to Tom Tailor, a garment retailer in the north German port city of Hamburg, a mere 50 km from the East German border. In its early days, the factory had a turnover between Rs50-Rs70 lakh and employed just over 50 people.

In 1991, the USSR ceased to exist and around the same time, Tirupur in central Tamil Nadu became the centre of a textile boom fuelled by exports to European and American markets. According to company officials the factory, which now has 800 employees, produces 2 lakh pieces a month for Tom Tailor and has an annual turnover of over Rs50 crores.
In the last two decades, rising demand from foreign clients has led several companies like Warsaw to integrate all components of the production process, often within a single factory complex.

In the Warsaw factory, cotton yarn is brought in company trucks from the factory’s spinning mills near Erode, about 50 km away. Different kinds of yarn, produced according to fabric requirements, make their way to the large storage rooms where they are catalogued according to yarn density, colour and type. Depending on the kind of fabric needed, the specific yarn is dispatched to the knitting shops.

There, automated knitting machines turn out grey cloth, so called because of its burnt charcoal-like hue. After scrupulous comparison with the specifications given by the client, the cloth is sent for dyeing, the only part of the manufacturing process not done in-house. The dyed cloth is then compacted in the factory to reduce shrinkage and the finished cloth is then ready for production.

Rajalakshmi, 35, has not been doing ‘whole night shifts’ in her factory for almost a year, at least not more than once a month. She puts it down to the arrival of boys from north India. They work for less and her factory, which sub-contracts garment production from apparel exporters, can afford to let her leave by 8.30 p.m.

Before production can commence, pre-production samples have to be made and the clients’ quality inspectors check them. If they are not satisfied, the process has to be repeated, with tremendous loss in time and money. Otherwise, the dyed cloth is sent for printing and from there to the tailors where they are cut and sewn to make T-shirts, pants, blazers, sweatshirts pullovers, skirts and other apparel. The finished clothes are packed and dispatched by road to the ports, from where the client, usually Tom Tailor, will ship it to its warehouses in Europe. 

If the production deadline is missed even by a few days, Warsaw International will have to pay air freight to make up for the lost time.

Dhapan Kumar says he holds a BA in history, sociology and education. Kumar, who has been working for Warsaw International for a year as a checker, is from a village on the shores of Lake Chilka, near Behrampur in the Puri district of Odisha. He is one of the tens of thousands of labourers from states like Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who migrated to Tirupur in recent years. Kumar stands by a sorting table piled with Polo T-shirts of various sizes. 

He faces four production lines: each line has tailors working away at 25 sewing machines arranged back-to-back in single file. Kumar is the only checker for the whole floor. Tailors, after finishing a piece, walk over and drop it on the pile in front of him, where his nimble fingers sort them into different piles by size, ranging from small to extra-large. They are picked up by a factory assistant who hands it to the rows of ironers and packers standing behind.

In a single day, Kumar sorts between 3,000 and 5,000 pieces depending on the pace of production. His shift starts at 8.30 a.m. and finishes at 5.30 p.m., with a 45-minute lunch break and a short tea break. During the rest of the time, he is at the sorting table and the work is unceasing.

Kumar began working in garment factories in 2006 after “family burdens” forced him to leave his village. From Odisha, he first reached Delhi. He worked there in a garment factory, and later in Noida. In 2009, he came to Hyderabad, where he worked almost three years with a garment manufacturer. The complete absence of job security has turned him into a wanderer; he says he was fired from his last job because he took nine days’ extra leave to attend to a family emergency.

He laments that his education counted for nothing and envies the fisher folk who manage to earn a decent living from the brackish waters of the Chilka.

The biggest lagoon in India and the second biggest in the world, Chilka supports a thriving fishing trade. Last November he went home on leave and stayed with his wife and children for a month. November and December is peak tourist season and attracts visitors keen to watch migratory birds.

“Birds migrate to the Chilka from as far as Siberia. During this time, I work as a tourist guide. I take them on treks through the jungle as well as on the lake. I use my savings to rent a motor boat and hire drivers since I haven’t learnt boat riding.”

Niraimathi had no idea of the number of shifts she would have to work when she left Chinnaovalalapuram and travelled to the factory in Udumalaipettai. The broker had conferred with her parents, but she was not party to it, and it is not clear whether she was ever consulted or had any idea what she was getting into.

Kumar says he earns close to Rs 8,000 a month. The factory has a hostel but he does not stay there. He shares a house with four other co-workers and shells out Rs 2,000 a month for rent. He says the cost of living is so high that he manages to save only Rs 2,000 a month. He finds Tirupur not only a costly town but a very boring one.

“You don’t find different kinds of people here. In Delhi and Hyderabad, I met many intellectual people and that expands your knowledge. It’s also not like my village. In a village, if something happens or you need something there are so many people to help you. In a town or a city, you are utterly alone.”

Kumar chokes back his tears as he speaks about not seeing his family. But he says he likes his work and is grateful to the company for employing him. The job allows him to send money home and the company gives him more than a month’s leave to visit his family. He will be going again in November. He made Rs 25,000 last year showing tourists around Chilka, and he hopes he can make as much this year. Or maybe even a little bit more.

Tirupur has been a migrant town ever since the Eighties, when workers from the poverty stricken southern districts came here, abandoning traditional occupations like agriculture. The first knitwear unit in Tirupur came up in 1925. Till the early Seventies Tirupur made banians and briefs for the domestic market, and was often referred to as the banian town. According to the Tirupur Export Association (TEA), the town had 230 garment units in 1961. These units were composite mills and did not sub-contract their work. In 1979, an Italian garment importer called Verona placed export orders in Tirupur.

After two years, the Dutch fashion and clothing retail store C &A came calling. Tirupur was on its way to becoming the knitwear capital of India. Throughout the Eighties more foreign importers paid calls and the stream of migration from other districts became a flood.

With the expanding export market, the nature of production as well as labour started to change. Garment exporters started to sub-contract components of the production process to smaller job work and cluster units that began to mushroom all over the town.

For workers who came to join the dyeing, bleaching, ironing, embroidery, printing and other ancillary units, this was bad news. Daily wages gave way to piece rates, wage became hostage to output.

This tied the workers’ earnings to increasing work hours and made it difficult to implement minimum wages, which are calculated according to time. Units closed down often, shifted or hired new workers willing to work under increasingly harsh conditions.

When a male worker insulted and abused a friend beyond all tolerable limits, Niraimathi found that she couldn’t take it anymore. She quit in disgust—the thought of what her family could do with the Rs 50,000 could no longer hold her back.

In the Nineties the export market hit a high. A united Europe expanded markets for international garment players and export figures from Tirupur touched several hundred crores. Forced overtimes, often without extra pay started to become industry practice in several factories. The population of Tirupur was also climbing rapidly with the increasing inflow of migrant labourers.

According to census figures, the population increased by 124 per cent in a single decade. Tirupur, which had 3,02,637 residents in 1991 recorded 6,77,987 people in the 2001 census. By comparison, Coimbatore, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu and a centre of migration to the textile industry saw a population increase of 21.75 per cent in the same period. From banian manufacturing, Tirupur started exporting all kinds of casual wear to European and American markets.

Major clothing brands and retailers who now source from Tirupur include Nike, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger GAP, Phillips, Van Huesen, Arrow, TESCO, Walmart, Target, Diesel and H&M among many others. In 2004, the multi-fibre agreement, which imposed quotas on exports of textiles from India to markets in EU, USA, Canada and Finland was lifted, leading to a staggering rise in Tirupur’s fortunes.

In 2012, Tirupur’s turnover from exports stood at Rs 12,500 crore, and production for domestic consumption at over Rs 7,000 crore. Latest data put the number of garment units at 6,250. At a conservative estimate they employ more than four lakh workers, of whom the majority are migrants.

Shivaram, the manager at Warsaw International, says overtime is a rare thing in the factory. Perhaps one or two days in a month, when it becomes difficult to meet the production target. What Shivaram says does not tally with general conditions in the garment industry, where the deadline demands of the clients are passed down the work chain.
The Indian garment export industry is competing with workshops in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, where labour is much cheaper. The stories of the several garment workers interviewed for this story varied with the different conditions in the various garment manufacturing, knitting, dyeing and other ancillary units where they worked. But the average work hours reported were 12 to 16.

Forced overtime appears to be a frequent practice, and workers are given inadequate or no pay at all for extra hours. Many units frequently cancel weekly offs without substitute holidays. Companies that give no weekly offs at all are not unknown.

Rajalakshmi, 35, has not been doing “whole night shifts” in her factory for almost a year, at least not more than once a month. She puts it down to the arrival of boys from north India. They work for less and her factory, which sub-contracts garment production from apparel exporters, can afford to let her leave by 8:30 p.m. 

“Whole night shifts” begin at nine p.m. and extend to 5 or 5.30 a.m. Nowadays, Rajalakshmi works only two-and-a half shifts. The morning shift runs from 8.30 a.m. till lunch at 2.30 p.m., and the afternoon shift goes on till 5.30. She is paid Rs 140 for this, less than the minimum wage of Rs 171 fixed for adult workers in the garment and textile industry by the Tamil Nadu government. For the overtime she puts in from 5.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m., she is paid Rs 70 more. By labour rules she should be getting Rs 114.

Rajalakshmi, a checker, moved from her village in Virudhunagar district to Tirupur more than a decade ago. Her husband is an agricultural labourer, and she has a son who studies in seventh standard. She joined her current employer five years ago. The factory she was working in earlier (a bigger one with over 300 employees) shifted after a fire gutted the cloth stored in the premises. This turned out to be a good thing, because the new factory, though smaller, was willing to pay more. Otherwise, nothing much has changed in her life since she came to Tirupur. Childbirth, sending her son to school, shifts, celebrating Pongal and Diwali, (the only times when leave is granted) have all revolved around a work routine that has remained a constant.

In 2007, the Madras High Court declared that Sumangali amounted to bonded labour. Recruiters renamed it ‘Kanmani’, ‘Thirumangalam Thiruman Thittam’, or merely the ‘scheme’. Pamphlets in Tamil promise comfortable accommodation and good food at the company’s expense, and carry graphics of happy girls at the production line.

In both the factories, Rajalakshmi says she was expected to work Sundays. She worked three shifts most of these years, from 8.30 a.m to 11 p.m. “Whole night shifts” were frequent and when asked to average it out she says every third or fourth night shift turned into a “whole night shift”. She was not paid extra but got Rs 25 to buy dinner. When the work ends at 5 or 5.30 a.m., she was expected to go home and sleep for a couple of hours before reporting for the morning shift. Which, she says she rarely did, because she had to prepare food for the day. I ask her if the company allowed workers to report late after a “whole night shift”.

“Oh yes, they did, we could come ten minutes late on mornings after ‘whole night shifts’. They wouldn’t say anything.” Tirupur’s rising fortunes are linked to the fortunes of Western manufacturers. The global recession of 2008-9 saw a reversal of those fortunes.

A sudden drop in demand from EU and American markets was followed by a series of domestic crises that has led to a decline in exports since 2009. One was an order by the Madras High Court in 2011 that shut down over 700 dyeing and bleaching units because they were polluting the Noyyal River. A concomitant rise in the price of yarn led to an increase in production costs, which the companies could not off-load on to their foreign clients.

With wages stagnating, migrants from Tamil Nadu started moving back to their villages. “We estimate that between 1 and 1.5 lakh labourers left Tirupur since 2010. A large part were families who had settled in Tirupur for several years. They were particularly affected because of rent costs. To fill this gap, companies are importing labour from Odisha, UP, Bihar, parts of Andhra Pradesh and even the north-east states,” says Aloysius, founder and director of Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), an NGO based in Tirupur that works with textile and garment labourers.

While the spinning industry has so far been buffered from the drop in garment export demand, the conditions of garment workers in Tirupur as well as other centres in Tamil Nadu has deteriorated. Now weeks of high-pressure work is followed by days or weeks when factories and job work units stand idle. The result is increasing financial pressure on the worker, often leading her to switch jobs, and increasing the fragmentation of labour.

Theni lies 180 km to the south of Tirupur, towards the border with Kerala. The district is surrounded by the Western Ghats, and is the most convenient route for the stream of tourists who motor from Madurai to the hill station of Munnar or Thekkady wildlife sanctuary in Kerala. The region trades in cardamom, grapes and chilly, besides raw cotton and tea. But along National Highway-45 which connects the nearby town of Dindugul with Theni, there are few glimpses of cultivation beside large stretches of coconut or palm trees. However, as I pass Theni and travel towards the village of Chinnaovalapuram, and the wide roads become narrow ribbons bordered by corn fields, paddy and banana plantations, the occasional grape trellis looms into view, its unladen silver meshes glinting forlornly in the noon sun.

According to the report of the Anti-Slavery International, as of June/July 2011, 11 international brands were buying from Indian garment suppliers who used forced labour practices. The brands named are: Asda-Walmart, a British subsidiary of the American retail giant Wal-Mart, GAP, Marks and Spencers, C&A, Bestseller, H&M, Inditex, Mothercare, Tesco, Primark and Next.

Chinnaovalapuram, is dotted by small, cluttered kuccha dwellings without water connections or toilets, and has people desperately straining to make ends meet. Many of its 1,500 residents migrate to prosperous towns like Dindigul, Coimbatore or Tirupur, or to the towns and cities of Kerala, seeking jobs in factories, in construction or the transport sector. Those who stay home work as agricultural labourers.

Since the Nineties at least, there has been a steady flow from Theni of unmarried adolescent girls to the spinning mills that supply yarn to Tirupur and Coimbatore. The girls, often as young as 12 or 13, spend years at factories in Erode, Madurai, Sathyamangalam, Dindigul and Coimbatore, confined to hostels within the factory walls and subject to working conditions that approximate bonded labour.

According to R Manikandan, chief functionary of the NGO Vinoba Rural Development Sevelaya in Theni, at least 10 girls from Chinnaovalapuram are working in textile mills. He reckons that a similar number from each of over 370 villages in the district are working as migrant labourers in textile factories. According to a report by the Fair Labour Association, each village with about 200 houses has 25 girls between 14 and 18; approximately 15 would be working in factories near the towns.

The word “Sumangali” now has a nefarious meaning across villages in the textile belt. The Tamil word “Sumangali” denotes an unmarried woman entering into matrimony and obtaining the social respect of a married woman. But it has been exploited by textile companies to trap tens of thousands of adolescent girls in a form of bonded labour.

Eighteen-year-old Niraimathi has to be coaxed to speak to me as I meet her in front of the only shop in the locality. Her neighbours tell me that it is because I am young and have come from the city: she suspects that I work for the owner of the mill she left six months ago and will take back what she says to the owner. When she left, she had been told not to talk about what goes on and Niraimathi is visibly uncomfortable as she answers my questions.

She joined a spinning mill in Udumalaipettai near Pollachi at 16, after signing up for a three year scheme. Unable to stand the harsh and illegal working conditions, she quit six months back and came home, with no part of the promised money. She says her father made several visits to the factory after she quit, but the management keeps asking him to come back later to collect the money. Last time he went he was told to come back after six months.

Niraimathi heard of the “scheme” when her aunt’s daughter joined a spinning mill through a job agent. Having stopped her education, and with at least two years to go before she could legally be married, her parents were enthused by the plan by which their daughter could earn Rs 50,000 at the end of three years. She was also entitled to a Provident Fund (PF) of Rs 10,000, besides monthly wages. Niraimathi had no idea of the number of shifts she would have to work when she left Chinnaovalapuram and travelled to the factory in Udumalaipettai. The broker had conferred with her parents, but she was not party to it, and it is not clear whether she was ever consulted or had any idea what she was getting into.

In the factory she was to put to work operating the machines that took cleaned and processed cotton fibres and spun it into yarn. She says she was treated well initially. The supervisors and the managers did not shout at her, there were no insults and abuses, and the warden did not make her feel like a prisoner in the hostel, where she shared a room with four other girls. This would change within two months.

From the beginning, she had to work two shifts. The normal eight-hour one and a compulsory extra shift of four hours. Her typical day began with getting up at 5 a.m., a hasty breakfast at the mess and reporting to work by 5.30. At 2:30 p.m. there was a half-hour break for lunch. The lunch was frantic, with 1,000-odd women standing in queue for grub that had to be swallowed down in time to avoid the ire of the floor supervisor. They had to get back before the minute hand slipped past twelve.

The monotony was unrelieved and tedium unbroken except for two tea breaks—before lunch and one in the evening. Two girls were taken off the line two at a time, led to a tea table and given five minutes. Once they were done, they would re-join the line allowing two others to break off.

Niraimathi doesn’t know that it was illegal of the company to make any labourer work for more than nine hours a day. In her mind, overtime meant night shifts that would start at 5.45 p.m. or 6 p.m. and would go on into the night, sometimes till the early hours. She said she was never paid any wages for the extra hours. 

As she got off her normal double shift by 5.30 p.m., if the supervisor didn’t assign her to OT (as overtime is called), she says she would head back to the hostel, hoping more than anything that she could go to sleep immediately after dinner. It was a wish often unfulfilled.

“If more hands were required for the night shift the manager would ring up the warden and read out a list of workers’ ID numbers and names. We had to report to the factory immediately, even if we were sleeping. 

“We have been woken up really late at night by the warden shouting outside our doors. She would yell at us until we donned our uniforms and left the hostel. At times we have refused to go because we were so tired, but then she would report us to the manager who would threaten to fire us. If we asked for permission to call our parents, they wouldn’t let us.”

Niraimathi says she worked a night shift on an average of three times a week and that she was lucky if she got two Sundays off. She was paid around Rs 3,000 a month in wages when she joined and it went up to Rs 3,900 by the time she left. Meagre by Indian standards, the pay was generous compared to what girls from her own village were earning in spinning mills.

Studies carried out among textile workers show that many mills pay no salary at all to girls employed under variants of the Sumagali scheme, making them, in effect, bonded labourers forced to work till the end of their contract periods, or risk forfeiting the end payment. And in most cases where daily or monthly wages were paid, including Niraimathi’s, costs for food and accommodation were deducted from their salaries, quite contrary to promises made by the agents.

When the export boom started in Tirupur in the early Nineties, hundreds of factories started to come up in other districts in the state to meet the rising demand for different types of spun yarn. The state government has released no data on the number of spinning mills registered in the state, but NGOs working with textile labourers estimate the number to be over 2,800. SAVE says it was unable to obtain complete figures for the number of mills or labourers in spite of requests to various district administrations under the Right to Information Act (RTI).

Figures for 18 out of 32 districts released under RTI show that there are 1,807 mills in these districts. Field surveys carried out by SAVE in Coimbatore, Dindigul, Erode and Tirupur districts collected data on 1,311 spinning mills. Based on spot interviews with workers and their families, SAVE estimates that over three lakh labourers are employed by the industry in these four districts, of whom over 1,78,000 are women.

According to field data, over 1,05,000 women stay in hostels inside the factory complexes. Over 87,700 are adolescent or post-adolescent girls lured into working with the promise of lump sums at the end of three-to-four-year contracts, often attractively packaged to their parents as schemes by which the girl can earn her own dowry. A large number of them are child labourers between 12 and 14.

“Factories started to provide hostels inside the campus for workers only in the late Nineties. It was started by a few textile mills in Coimbatore and Dindigul and soon factories started canvassing unmarried girls for the Sumangali scheme. Now at least 80 per cent of the spinning mills operate girls hostels on the premises,” says Aloysius of SAVE.

Niraimathi was 16 when she joined the factory; she was by no means the youngest there. There were several girls below 15, some of them as young as 12, she says. “What mattered was not the age, but the size.” 

She says, “When the government inspector visited the premises, the management always knew beforehand. We were warned by a whistle. They then herded all the girls who looked small and younger than 18 into the guest houses and locked them in till the inspector left. Once more than a hundred girls were locked up inside for a whole day. Since I looked bigger than my age, I was never taken off the shift during inspections.”

In the two years that she lived in the hostel in Udumalaipettai, Niraimathi stepped out of the factory campus only thrice. Those were times when she was allowed to visit home for two or three days. The girls are not allowed outside the hostel and are not permitted to receive any visitors. Parents can visit their wards only once in several months. The visits are brief and their frequency is strictly regulated.

“If parents come too often, the warden has a word with the manager. The manager then speaks to the parents and tells them that the girls would grow home-sick and will not be able to work,” says Niraimathi.

To ensure that only immediate family members have access to the girls, a visitor’s pass is given to parents that carry their ward’s photograph, a three-digit identity number, and the home address. The card is signed by the factory authorities and has to be produced to enter the hostel. Niraimathi says she has never fallen sick, but when any of the girls needed to visit a doctor, they are always accompanied by the warden and security staff.

It is not merely visits that are restricted, but also telephone calls to the outside world. Girls were allowed to speak with their parents only once in two weeks and for very brief periods. When parents call, they are usually told that the girls are at work or sleeping.

“One of the senior girls told us that everything we say over the phone is recorded. So even when I talked to my parents, I wouldn’t dare tell them anything about what was happening there,” she says. Niraimathi never found out whether the telephone conversations were really recorded or not. It did not matter in any case.

When a male worker insulted and abused a friend beyond all tolerable limits, Niraimathi found that she couldn’t take it anymore. She quit in disgust—the thought of what her family could do with the Rs50,000 could no longer hold her back.

If Niraimathi’s account is accurate, the factory management systematically violated almost all the provisions of the Indian Factories Act (IFA). Employment of children under the age of 14 in factories is a cognisable offense under section 67 of the Factories Act. Minors aged above 14 but under 17, like Niraimathi, cannot be asked to work for more than four and a half hours a day or after 7 p.m., under Section 71(1) and Section 70(1A) of the IFA. Section 71 (2) prohibits adolescents from being employed after 7 p.m.

No factory can have more than nine compulsory working hours (section 54) while any overtime work must be paid at double the normal rate (section 59). Any night shift has to be compulsorily followed by a day’s leave and weekly holidays that are cancelled have to be compensated with a substitute. The penalty for not complying with several of these sections is imprisonment extending up to two years and fine. The wages paid fall far below the minimum wage, which in Tamil Nadu is fixed at Rs 171 for adult workers and Rs 110 for apprentice workers for the textile industry.

In 2007, the Madras High Court declared that the Sumangali scheme amounted to bonded labour. With the scheme gaining in notoriety, recruiters for the textile companies have renamed the scheme “Kanmani”, “Thirumangalam Thiruman Thittam”, or merely the “scheme”. Pamphlets printed in Tamil, with offers of employment in textile mills for young unmarried girls are a common sight in Theni. They promise comfortable accommodation and good food at the company’s expense, and like the brochures of private colleges often carry graphics of happy girls at the production line or relaxing in spacious hostel rooms with friends during off-hours.

They promise unlimited TV and music, different varieties of food and proximity to towns as attractions. The pamphlets as well as the middlemen state that the girls would be required to work only eight hours a day and would get holidays on all Sundays. They would be paid monthly or daily wages and would be given a large amount of money at the end of their contract. Varying from company and scheme the amount could be anywhere from Rs 35,000 to Rs 75,000, not including Provident Fund (PF) and ESI.

Studies by NGOs based on testimonies from labourers report high levels of health problems from the uninterrupted labour, lack of medical care and reluctance of factories to grant sick leave. Both male and female labourers report being forced to work prolonged periods in spite of illness, and of being relieved of duty only as a last resort. Women, most of them in their teens, interred in factory campuses have no independent access to medical care and their chances of getting treatment are completely dependent on the will of individual managers or supervisors.

A report on the condition of the garment industry in Tamil Nadu by the Fair Labour Association (FLA) says vomiting, numbness, headaches, heavy body pain, diarrhoea, anaemia, menstrual, uterus and stomach problems is prevalent among labourers working under the Sumangali system. It also identified a high incidence of respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis, Tuberculosis and deposits of cotton in the lungs because of lack of proper protective gear.

It has been three years since Jayapriya (25) came home after completing her three-year contract with a spinning mill in Madurai. Squatting on the stone steps of a neighbour’s house with her one-year-old boy in her arms, she compares her working days to prison time. But release hasn’t brought her freedom from the ill-use she suffered there. She still retains the visiting pass the factory gave her parents. A photograph taken especially for the occasion, it shows a smiling 19-year-old with her parents standing by on both sides. The girl staring out of the photograph is stockier, a bit plump even, very different from the bony woman with pointed face and thin lifeless hair sitting opposite me. Nothing would mark out the picture from any family photograph, except for the blue seal of the textile company and the illegible scrawl of some unknown factory official.

“This is how she used to look. The factory people completely ruined her health by making her work 15 hours a day without any rest. She has less blood now and is very weak. She gets tired easily even doing house work. We had to spend a lot on her treatment,” says her husband, Surulivel who joins us.

Surulivel is a riot of colours. Wearing a bright orange shirt with a red chequered towel wrapped around his waist, a red mobile phone can be seen sticking out of his shirt pocket and his dark wiry legs are splattered with mud. He is an agricultural labourer and as he bemoans the shortage of money, he keeps repeating his conviction that the mill work wrecked his wife’s health.

“We have spent around Rs 15,000 on her treatment. She had problems with child birth and we had to do a Caesarean operation. It was at a government hospital, so that was free. The doctor has asked her to eat lots of fruits, but we can’t afford it.”

Jayapriya vividly recalls the deafening sounds of the machines, the stifling heat, and the cotton dust that pervaded the buildings. Two years into her work she started experiencing back pain. She had to work the full day shift which started at 5.30 a.m. and went on till 2.30 p.m., when there was a half-hour lunch break. Then followed the illegal extra four-hour shift till 6.30. A break for dinner followed and by 7 p.m. she would begin the OT shift that lasted till 1 p.m., sometimes beyond. She says she never got an off on Sundays.

When her backache became so bad that she had trouble working, she was taken to a private clinic, accompanied by the hostel warden and two security guards. The doctor spoke only to the warden and Jayapriya does not know what he told her: she remembers that he did not ask any questions about her work at the factory.

The food served was bad, almost inedible, says Jayapriya. If work was not completed by lunch time, the supervisor would not allow her to go for lunch or dinner. Some of the child workers who couldn’t stand the hunger would ask for a toilet break and slip into the lunch line, she recalls. Working hungry and lack of sleep led not only to exhaustion, but also to stomach ulcers. The condition was exacerbated because they were often served re-cooked food.
“Almost half the girls suffered from ulcers or other digestive ailments. We never got time to eat. The vegetables were often dirty and at one time, we found insects in the food,” says Priyanka, Jayapriya’s neighbour, who joined the same mill as cleaner a year after her.

She says she was taught to take apart the machines and clean them using petrol and other cleaning fluids. Though she had the same 16 hours as her friend, as a cleaner she worked in different sections, including the clinic.
“Two years after I joined there was a sudden outbreak of diarrhoea. We suspected it was because the water was bad but we never knew the real reason. Several girls were rushed to the hospital and when more fell sick they brought in doctors to treat us. But they wouldn’t let anyone go home. And when I tried to tell my parents about being sick, they disconnected the phone,” she recalls.

The wardens had little authority over shift timings and even when the girls ran fevers, it was difficult to convince the male supervisors to relieve them. “If we told them we were ill, they would look at our faces and size up how sick we were before giving even a single shift off. The only way to get leave was if the doctor said so,” says Priyanka. This was essentially a Catch-22 situation. 

While forced labour, child labour, wage theft, absence of trade unionism and systematic exploitation mark much of the textile and garment business throughout the country, there is an even darker side to the industry. The near-slavery situation in the labour camps, their insulation from the outside world and the unchecked power male supervisors and managers have, often lead to sexual harassment of female workers.

Given the cultural taboos, it goes severely underreported, say NGOs working in the field. K M Ramesh, a Project Manager with SAVE who works on child rights, reports rescuing a minor who was gang-raped and kept as a bonded labourer in a spinning mill in Sathyamangalam.

“The girl ran away from Madurai when she was around 16 after a fight with her parents. She was approached by an agent at the Madurai bus stand. When he learnt from her that she had run away from home, he told her that there was a good job. She was taken to a factory in Sathyamangalam and kept there for two years. She was not paid a paisa for the work. She says she was raped daily by the owner and other factory officials.

“Some of her colleagues who finished their contracts spread the word around in their villages and that’s how we came to know about the case,” says Ramesh.

The factory owner refused to let Ramesh meet the girl saying that he would only allow her parents access to the girl. When the police refused to act, SAVE filed a case before a magistrate praying for a search warrant. Ramesh entered the factory along with the police and brought the girl out. Though she gave a statement before the magistrate saying she was raped and named the factory owner and other officials at the spinning mill, she did not want to file a complaint. “She just wanted to go home. The magistrate did not take suo motu cognisance and no charges were framed. The men she named remain at large.”

A report published by Anti-Slavery International (ASI) in December 2011 on “Forced Labour in the Manufacture of Garments for International Brands” used export data from Tuticorin port and Chennai port to find out the international clothing brands that were part of the supply chain that utilised forced labour or child labour.

According to the report, as of June/July 2011, 11 international brands were buying from Indian garment suppliers who used forced labour practices. The brands named are: Asda-Walmart, a British subsidiary of the American retail giant Wal-Mart, GAP, Marks and Spencers, C&A, Bestseller, H&M, Inditex, Mothercare, Tesco, Primark and Next.

An earlier report in May 2011 by the Centre for Research on Multi-national Co-operations and the India Committee for Netherlands named 37 brands in European and American markets as sourcing garments that originated with Indian suppliers who make use of forced labour. The end users identified in the report consisted of American, British, German, Spanish, Italian, Icelandic and Swiss brands. Apart from those named in the ASI report (except H&M) it also includes international brands and retailers such Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel, Abercrombie and Fitch and Izod (Phillips Van Heusen).

It is almost certain, however, that the number of foreign companies using products of forced labour from Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Karnataka and other parts of India is much higher. All the reports cited based their research on identifying garment exporters in Delhi and Tamil Nadu. The list is far from exhaustive. Also, many exporters source their yarns from spinning mills they do not own.

“Many of these studies… have focused on vertical garment manufacturing units with direct relations with the brands and retailers, however brands and retailers have limited access and influence on the entire supply chain where a large part of Sumangali exists,” says a report by the Fair Labour Association.

The spinning sector exports 23 per cent of its production. It is exported to Europe and America as well as to China and Bangladesh, from where they might find their way into Western markets. Campaigns against forced labour and slavery had led to negotiations with Indian garment and textile manufactures as well as the foreign companies they supplied. Though there have been promises of reform and many high-sounding declarations of intent since 2010 to reform the sector from all these stakeholders, activists working against forced labour conclude that not much has changed.

The ASI report says: “Anti-slavery’s experience of trying to engage with businesses indicates that many seem to be dealing with the question of slavery in their public chains as a public relations issue to be managed rather than as a human rights issue to be addressed.”

Tirupur Export Association president A Sakthivel was unavailable for comment. Executive secretary S Sakthivel said he was not authorised to discuss questions related to allegations of forced overtime and fair wage practices.

A P Appukutty, president of the Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association was also unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to contact him for his reaction on the Sumangali and other forced labour schemes.

Muthulakshmi joined a spinning mill in Madurai in 2006, at 15 and worked there till 2009, as an auto-cone checker and stayed in a hostel with more than 1,600 girls. Auto-cones are automated machines that wind the spun cotton into yarn and are the last stage of the production process in a spinning mill, before the yarn is exported or sold to fabric makers and garment factories.

The machines stood serially in gigantic rows, which Muthulakshmi and the other girls had to supervise. One girl had to oversee eight to ten of these machines, each winding thread at blinding speed into eight cones fitted into a circular base. The female workers had the job of making sure the threads didn’t slip as they entered the cones. It was a job that needed a lot of concentration, something that was not aided by the frequent night shifts that went on till 11 p.m. and lack of sleep that left Muthulaksmi with a searing headache.

“I used to feel that my eyes would burst in my sockets. I threw up many times during the night shifts. But if I told my supervisor he would tell me that that is how night shifts are. Around the time I joined, I had to work a whole month while sick,” she says.

One day a girl screamed when the thread sliced off her finger. Muthulakshmi didn’t hear it as the steady drone of the machines drowned out all human sounds. But she saw the blood splatter across the factory floor and remembers feeling faint. She says sleep-deprivation must have made the girl groggy as she was handling the thread.
In her three years at the factory, two more girls lost fingers in similar accidents. No compensation was paid to any of them. And what is more, they had to continue working till they completed their contracts.

The accidents became a drag on Muthulakshmi’s mind, but she didn’t want to go home without the money. With an alcoholic father who was unwell, and a brother who was studying a B.Ed, her wages kept the family afloat. She earned only between Rs 35 and Rs 55 a day, but there was the promise of Rs 70,000 at the end and that kept her going.

It is that promise that keeps thousands of girls going. It makes them live inside factory walls, in hostels that are like jails. It makes them swallow down their lunch so that they can get back to the production line before the supervisor shouts. It makes them work day and night like slaves. It causes ulcers and TB. It cuts fingers. It ruins bodies. And when companies renege on that promise, as they often do, it kills dreams and snuffs out hope.