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Captured by Cotton: A story of Dalit girls of Tamil Nadu

Saturday May 21, 2011 05:58:11 PM, Syed Ali Mujtaba

Jack & Jones, C&A, GAP, Diesel, Marks & Spencer, Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, well these names rings the tune of global brands manufacturing high class cotton merchandise.

Little is known fact about such high profile garment manufactures chain is about the nature of their sourcing activity. These big garment brands have their products made under exploitative and unhealthy conditions by girls in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, India. The girls, mostly younger than 18 and from a Dalit ('outcaste') background are employed under the ‘Sumangali Scheme.’

The word “Sumangali” in Tamil means an unmarried girl becoming a respectable woman by entering into marriage. Thus, the scheme is also known as “marriage assistance system”.

This employment scheme stands for bonded labor, as described in 'Captured by Cotton', 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. These enterprises produce for Bestseller (e.g. Only, Jack & Jones), C&A, GAP, Diesel, Inditex (e.g. Zara), Marks & Spencer, Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, and many other European and US garment companies.

The Sumangali girls are recruited with the promise of a decent wage, comfortable accommodation, and, the biggest attraction, a considerable sum of money upon completion of their three-year contract. The scheme promises Rs. 30,000 to 50, 000 at the end of the third year of service along with the daily wages reported to be about 50 rupees a day.

The reality stands in sharp contrast to the alluring promises as the wages below the legally set minimum, there is excessive overwork, non-payment of overtime work, restricted freedom of movement, lack of privacy, no possibility to lodge complaints or get redress, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions and many more.

Actually, the promised sum is not a bonus, but is made up of withheld wages; nevertheless this lump sum comes handy to pay dowry, the bane of arranged marriages in India, says Payal Saxena, Advocacy and Communication. In a number of documented cases girls have not received the lump sum they were entitled to, despite having completed the contractual three year period, she adds.

The SOMO and ICN report says the ‘girls' freedom of action is severely restricted with guards keeping a constant eye on them. They are compulsory accommodated in basic dormitories, often within the compound of the factory. This also means workers hardly have a chance to get in touch with trade unions or advocacy groups.

This situation fits the definition of 'worst forms of child labor' as laid down by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for children up to 18 years old, a clear breach of international labor standards and Indian labor law, says Kasi Viswanathan Tamil Nadu vice-president of AITUC.

SOMO and ICN have shared drafts of the report with the companies that are named in the report. A number of companies have undertaken steps towards the elimination of the Sumangali Scheme, but abusive labor practices still remains widespread.

Parallel to the SOMO and ICN report findings, a non-governmental organization, ‘Vaan Muhil', conducted a survey in four districts of Tamil Nadu, following complaints on the exploitation of girls in some of the textile units.

The survey revealed that the touts, who get a commission up to Rs. 2,000 per girl, targeted poor girls between the age group of 13 and 18 from backward, most backward and Scheduled Caste communities with poor educational qualification.

The girls work hard continuously for 12 hours and even more and were getting only between Rs. 10 and Rs. 50 for the additional work, They are not suppose to complain about working conditions, poor sanitary conditions, ill-equipped dormitory, inferior food quality etc, the survey said.

Apart from not being allowed to avail the weekly off, the workers would be allowed to talk to their parents over the telephone only in the presence of a supervisor and they cannot even move around freely. There are allegations of the girls being subjected to physical and sexual torture.

Most of the spinning mills terminate the services of these girls by leveling fake charges towards the fag end of their contract period so that they need not be given the assured sum, the survey said

M.A. Brittom Director of ‘Vaan Muhil' who is actively campaigning to end the Sumangali Scheme, says that it is one of the most horrible programme being followed by a group of textile units in the guise of helping poor unmarried girls.

The NGO has decided to initiate multi-pronged strategy that includes legal intervention to get adequate compensation for the victims, systematic and sustained campaign, advocacy, counseling, medical assistance to the victims, ensuring alternative livelihood and so on.

The NGO has made a 15-member committee comprising of educationists, social activists, animators of women self-help groups, rural local body leaders, NGO representatives, trade union leaders etc. to look into this problem

The committee is to make a representation to the government with suggestions to abolish such exploitive scheme and if allowed to be continued should have a monitoring committee conducting periodical social audit over the execution of the scheme by meeting the laborers.

The Sumangali scheme is not a straightforward issue of bonded labor. The problem is complex and should be viewed in the context of the Indian caste system. It can be considered to be operational only when it addresses the needs of both the victims and the employing factories. Any solution to the problem must be legal and sustainable.


Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at



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