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Wound On A Spindle

Will the new law help the girls at Tirupur's garment sweatshops?

Wound On A Spindle
Balamurugan Arumugam
Wound On A Spindle
Sew Up The Hemlines
  • Tirupur's garment industry projects a turnover of Rs 10,000 crore this year, down from Rs 11,000 crore in 2006-07, thanks to the falling dollar
  • It employs 4,00,000 workers regularly and an additional 5,00,000 seasonally, most of them women and teenaged girls
  • Lured by promises of a lumpsum for dowry at the end of an apprenticeship, thousands of teenaged girls find they're trapped into a life of misery
  • While NGOs say labour laws are not stringent enough, Tirupur Exporters Association's S. Sakthivel says "flexible labour laws, favourable to entrepreneurs" are needed if India is to compete with China, whose market share of garment exports industry is 25-27 per cent as opposed to India's 3.5 per cent


Three months ago, an enticing flier flooded Tamil Nadu. It said, "Golden opportunities for working women—eighth, ninth and tenth class pass or failed. We provide food and accommodation. After three years, we pay Rs 70,000." Such pamphlets have been around for almost a decade now. And many gullible parents send their 'marriageable' daughters to work in Tirupur's garment industry and earn a dowry at the same time. Often, these promises prove empty and the girls, mostly 15-18 year-olds, are brought in as apprentices to work in deplorable working conditions for poor wages. It's called the 'camp coolie' system, also known as 'sumangali thittam' or 'mangalya thittam' and has been around for the last ten years.

A flier promising Rs 70,000 to employees

But the Tamil Nadu government has recently passed a bill to stop this notorious system. Labour minister T.M. Anbarasan, while moving a bill to amend the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, that will lay down new rules of employment, re-employment of apprentices, probationers and temporary and casual workers, said, "Many industrial establishments engage young women as apprentices for three years and after completion of term, they are sent out of service".

Currently, a majority of the workforce in the garment industry are apprentices, but the new bill will force employers to have only a fixed percentage of apprentices in its workforce. While MLAs, even from the AIADMK, welcomed the government's intervention, NGOs working in the area are skeptical about its enforcement. "Existing labour laws should have been adequate to prevent this practice, but factory inspectors and other government officials have looked the other way," says A. Aloysius, convenor, Tirupur People's Forum (TPF), an umbrella organisation of NGOs covering 17 districts in the south and west of Tamil Nadu, from where the girls are sourced through a network of brokers who are themselves garment industry workers.

A TPF poster cautioning against such jobs

On a visit to several of these mills and garment factories, this reporter came up against an evasive response. Two of the biggest mills—Sulochana Cotton Spinning and ncc—turned down requests for a factory visit on the various pretexts. Both these are top export earners in an industry that has a projected turnover of Rs 10,000 crore this year, down from Rs 11,000 crore in 2006-07 thanks to the falling dollar. It's an industry that has grown hugely since 1984, when its annual turnover was just Rs 10 crore.

This labour-intensive industry employs 4 lakh workers regularly and a staggering additional 5 lakh seasonally—mainly women from TN, Kerala and even the Northeast, Bihar and Orissa. According to a TPF study, 'Women Workers in a Cage,' undertaken last June, these girls are paid Rs 34 per day for the first six months, with an increment of Rs 2 for every six months till they earn Rs 45 by the time the scheme comes to an end. Every month, Rs 450-550 is deducted for boarding and lodging.

According to Mercy, a coordinator with the NGO SAVE, these girls are almost like prisoners in their hostels, which are usually in the same compound as their workplace, and can only step outside the gates escorted by a warden. "Even interaction with parents is restricted to a specified day and for a limited time," says Joseph Raj, Trust for Education and Social Transformation. There were even cases, he adds, where parents were not intimated when accidents occurred or the worker was ill. Eighteen-year-old Kumari from Tirunelveli, an employee of Excel Goodwin in Erode, lost her right hand in July 2007 while working on a machine, but her family was kept in the dark.

Highlighting the deplorable housing conditions of these workers, the TPF study says, "Sumangali scheme workers are kept in an abandoned poultry farm at the Nethaji Apparel Park. Approximately 50 to 60 women workers sleep in a 80x20 square feet area which is dusty and dingy. There is no space for privacy and there are only four toilets." So much for the AC rooms promised in the fliers!

Among the critics of the government's intervention is A. Sakthivel, president of Tirupur Exporters Association and chairman, Poppys Group, whose turnover is estimated at Rs 250 crore. He says, "The government has done this in a hurried manner, pressurised by the Left parties. It should have sent a team here to assess." He adds, "We don't have sumangali thittam employees in our industry. The spinning mills at Dindigul employ them." But the government's report reveals that 21,599 girls are working as 'camp coolies' in Coimbatore district, 7,810 in Erode and 9,052 in Dindigul.

But Sakthivel maintains, "The girls are paid well and get very good facilities. It's not manual work. They live in AC rooms." He adds that the demand for women workers is so great that "the employees can switch over to another company if they are unhappy." Confronted with reports of girls running away because of exploitation, he counters, "NGOs get paid for every line in dollars. Their interest in raking this up is purely driven by money." One study by TPF says, in one instance when 145 girls were employed together, only seven were paid the promised dowry lumpsum at the end of three years. Sakthivel's response: "It's happened only in cases where the companies have gone into crisis leading to bankruptcy."

"Promises of letting the girls attend computer classes, giving them time for recreation or yoga are false," says Ravindran, who has sneaked into many sweat shops posing as a broker. "There is no corporate social responsibility, no initiatives in health and education," adds Aloysius. Instead, lured by false promises, they end up trapped, facing verbal and sometimes physical abuse and gruelling work hours—often forced to work double shifts. Many suffer severe nutritional deficiencies as well. Will the new law finally ensure Tirupur garments don't come stained with the sweat, tears and shattered dreams of teenaged girls?


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