Modern slavery in Indian spinning mills

Young women aged 14-18 years are kept like slaves in ultra-modern spinning mills. Girls and young women - often from the caste of Dalits, the 'untouchables' - are contracted for three or more years to work in textile factories in southern India. They do not receive the minimum wage. At the end of the contractual working time, they receive a premium - often only a few hundred euros. Until recently, this form of work was called Sumangali (Happy Bride), because the premium was supposed to serve as the bride price. In the meantime, the spinning mills no longer advertise this kind of work under this slogan, but conditions have not changed anyways. If a young girl does not endure the contract period under the inhumane working conditions, she is not always entitled to receive any money or parts of the premium.

Structural exploitation

There are about 2,200 spinning mills in Tamil Nadu with about 250,000 young women as employees. 80% of these young women are exploited under the Sumangali system. About 20% of the factories are operating in a better way and make no use of the Sumangali system. A few of the factories (23) belong to the government and pay women workers a better salary.

The female workers in Tamil Nadu’s spinning mills come from rural areas or from other Indian states. 60% of the female workers are from 29 of 32 districts in Tamil Nadu. 40% of the female workers come from other provinces of India, some of them far from the north, the poorest regions.

Spinning mills run all the time: 24 hours each day of the week – they are not shut down at night or on Sundays. Each day has three shifts of eight hours, including a night shift. (By law, night work - between 7 and 6 pm - is forbidden for women).

Audits in spinning mills: only about 10% of all spinning mills are audited.

Definitions of terms

Sumangali: means "happy bride" in Tamil. Spinning mill owners have misused the word for their own purposes. They promised young girls that in 3-4 years in a spinning mill, they would earn enough money to finance their dowry and can thus be married. It shows that if the girls endure the working period, they receive a premium that is very low and does not even account to minimum wage. In most cases, the money earned by the girls is most likely used to pay off the parents' debts or for medical expenses and rather rarely for the girls’ dowry. Due to the harsh criticism, factory owners today no longer use the word.

Camp Labour System: This word is now used instead. The bad working conditions have not changed. The word "camp" makes it clear that the young girls live like slaves on the factory site in so-called hostels and have no freedom of movement. They cannot leave the factory without permission. They now receive small monthly payments.

Modern slavery: Camp Labour is a form of modern slavery, as forced labour must be performed.

Forced labour: The ILO has Operational indicators of trafficking in human beings (PDF file). Three criteria apply precisely to forced labour in spinning mills:

  • No freedom of movement (physical confinement in the work location);
  • Psychological constraints, e.g. an order to work, backed up by a credible threat for non-compliance
  • Deception or false promises about types and terms of work

On-site research by Gisela Burckhardt

FEMNET board member Gisela Burckhardt travelled to India several times to research facts about this exploitation system.

The "Sumangali" system was only introduced on a broad scale after 2000. The amount of spinning mills increased and the industry needed cheap labour and invented Sumangali. Young girls aged 15 and older are hired as "apprentices" for 3-4 years, so they can be paid less. In fact, the women do not even receive any training/instruction, let alone instruction in safety measures, and they work as normal workers.

The girls at the age of 15/16 receive a very low wage and the promise that after 3-4 years of work they will receive a fixed sum of 30-40,000 rupees (approx. 394 to 533 EUR). Allegedly the money for the dowry is supposed to be for the marriage of the girl. We interviewed young women (16 interviewees) and almost all of them used the money for other needs. They usually give the money to their parents, who use it to pay debts or medical expenses or similar.

However, many girls do not even last 3-4 years in the spinning mill and drop out after 1-2 years. In these cases, they are mostly cheated and receive only less money or too little of the originally agreed amount.

All the girls interviewed had been in school for 8-10 years. It often means that they can only read and not necessarily write except for their signature.

Sumangali implies that the young girls stay in accommodations provided by the spinning mills that are called "hostel". Up to 12 girls sleep in a small room (12 square meters). When visiting the hostel, it showed that the girls sleep on the floor, one beside the other, often close together, each on a slightly thicker cotton cloth, covered with a sheet. Not each girl had its own pillow. To me, the circumstances appeared very bad, but one has to take into account that most Indians sleep on the floor without a mattress. I saw a few bedrooms where the girls slept during the day, the sheet pulled over their heads because they had night shifts. Especially the girls who come from far away, have no relatives nearby and mostly work night shifts.

The costs for accommodation and three - bad - meals (approx. 800,- Rupies/month) will be deducted from the girls' wages!

In many hostels there is no fan on the ceiling, it is hot with twelve people in one room. For 24 girls there is often only one washroom. When shift change, there is often a crowd in the bathroom.

The girls are locked up like slaves and not allowed to leave the factory. They can go home for 1-2 days to visit their parents only twice a year. Even these days, they have to compensate for. The parents are allowed to visit their children in the factory for about one hour every 1-2 months.

After 3-4 years under Sumangali in a spinning mill, many women miscarry or do not become pregnant. Men often do not want to marry women who have worked in spinning mills because it is known that they have problems having children.

Girls start at the age of 15 (employment is forbidden up to the age of 14 because of child labour), but there are even sporadic employees under the age of 14. The employment of young people between 15-18 years (Abolition of Child Labour Act) is allowed under certain conditions, this is exploited by the industry to exploit the girls.

Young girls do not fight back and do what the supervisors tell them to do. There are no unions in the factories because they are not responsible for apprentices!

Working conditions / labour law violations

  • Night work
  • Girls often have no day off, work 7 days a week
  • No payment for overtime, the girls are simply deployed as needed, non-transparent payment, unclear which deductions are made for what.
  • No holidays (the women are allowed to go home for 1-2 days only twice a year)
  • Overtiredness due to overtime and night shifts. One woman said "They give us a shot when we're tired and not working well".
  • Bad food. Many girls are malnourished, suffer from anaemia
  • Work under permanent pressure, girls hardly have time to go to the toilet, every course is noted down, no one is allowed to stay away too long. When she goes to the toilet, her colleague has to take over her work, which puts even more pressure on her.
  • Many girls do not have periods (one woman reported that she worked in a spinning mill from 16-19 years and only after she ended her work, she started having her period) or they are very irregular. All of them complained of stomach aches, not only during their periods. As they are not allowed to leave the factory, the supervisors give them medicine if they are in need.
  • A woman reports: Only if she shows her sanitary napkin with blood to prove that she has her period, she will be allowed to take a longer break.
  • Anyone who is late will have a full day's pay deducted.
  • There are no doctors in the spinning mills, not even a nurse
  • Many women develop allergies on their hands
  • Insults are frequent and sexual harassment also occurs. Supervisors are all men.
  • Women are at the mercy of the supervisors' arbitrariness: he can assign them heavy work if she does not do well with him.
  • Suicides do happen. Some girls can no longer endure the working and living conditions.
  • Rapes do happen. In one case a girl didn't come back to the bedroom after the night shift, others were looking for her. It was said that she had a minor injury and was in hospital, the next day she was dead without an official investigation.

Payment (status 2013):

The girls receive less than the minimum wage. If a minimum wage was paid, the girls would receive 2446,- Euro after three years: 196,- Rs/day x 26 days = 5096,- Rs/month x12 = 61.152 x 3 years= 183.456 Rs (= 2446,- EUR) But in fact they only receive: 1200,- Rs (46,- Rs./day) after deduction of costs for accommodation and food x 12 months = 14.400,- x 3 years= 43.200,- Rs (= 576,- EUR) plus 30.000,- Rs lumpsum (394,- EUR) = 970,-EUR 

So: Instead of 2446,- EUR, the girls receive 970,- EUR after 3 years of hard work.

Demands of the NGOs in Tamil Nadu

  1. Abolition of the Sumangali system
  2. No employment of young people under the age of 18 on the pretext of an apprenticeship
  3. No night work for young women
  4. Introduction of a committee against sexual harassment in every factory according to the recently (2013) passed law
  5. Increase of the minimum wage for apprentices from 196 Rs/day (EUR 2.61) to 300 Rs/day (EUR 4)
  6. Punishment of dealers who make false promises to the girls or their parents about working in the spinning mills and receive a commission per girl from the factory (Rs. 2,000)