Sumangali: Exploiting Indian Female labour

Girls and young women are exploited under Sumangali Scheme

Poster by Tirupur People’s Forum cautioning against the Sumangali Scheme

A Table Showing Disparity Between Wages Paid to Sumangali Workers and Minimum Wages

Girls and young women are exploited under a scheme called ‘Sumangali’ to produce garments for European and US markets, says a research report titled ‘Captured by Cotton’ by Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN).

Sumangali Scheme was started 10 years ago by textile and garment manufacturers in the Coimbatore and Tirupur districts of Tamil Nadu. Now, it has its presence all over the state, especially in Western and Central Tamil Nadu. Approximately 120,000 workers are currently employed under the scheme. Sumangali workers are mainly recruited from the lower castes of the society who are poor and looked down upon.

In southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, girls as old as 10-18 and young women are lured to work in garment mills by making huge promises of a decent wage, comfortable accommodation, meals and a large sum of money at the end of their 3 year contract under Sumangali Scheme.

These girls are mostly pressurized by their families to join the mills so that they can financially support the family and also save money for their dowries. However, once these girls sign the contract and start working, the real picture comes up. They are made to work for 12 hours or more with low wages, restricted movement and limited privacy. Very soon, they come to know that they might not get the promised lump sum amount at the end of the contract as well. The Tamil word ‘Sumangali’ refers to a married woman who leads a fulfilling life with her husband with all fortunes. The meaning seems to have nothing to do with the reality of the scheme though.

Under Sumangali scheme, women are paid low wages. Whatever was promised at the time of hiring certainly does not hold good in reality. Part of their daily wages is deducted to save up for the lump sum payment. For food and boarding, approximately 15 Rupees a day are deducted. The daily wage usually starts at 60 Rupees and increases by 10 Rupees after every six months, up to a maximum of Rs. 110 on average. If the lump sum is paid out at the end of the period workers earn in total between 95,000 and 115,000 Rupees in three years. However, if the workers are paid the minimum wage, they would earn 185,000 Rupees in three years.

A Table Showing Disparity Between Wages Paid to Sumangali Workers and Minimum Wages

A Table Showing Disparity Between Wages Paid to Sumangali Workers and Minimum Wages

The scheme is also accused of using Child Labour by many NGOs. According to the report, various indications suggest that girls under the age of 14 are recruited to work in the factories. An academic estimate says that 10 to 20% of Sumangali workers are child labourers, aged between 11 and 14.

Monika, a 13-year old girl working at Bannari Amman Spinning Mills, says “Children aged between 10 and 11 years came from my village for work. During inspection they were kept in dark room.”

The Sumangali workers are not allowed to leave the factory freely and have to stay in hostels. An eye is always kept on them, even when they go out to buy personal things. One of the workers called Prerna says,” ‘Our activities outside the hostel were restricted to the weekly day off when we were allowed to go to the market and purchase things. On these trips guards and/or the hostel warden accompanied us. We often went in the company’s vehicle. We were not allowed to talk to anyone during the trip or to make calls from the phone booth to our family members or to anyone else.”

On top of this, the Sumangali workers have to work in unhealthy and unsafe working conditions. The excessive workload takes a toll on worker’s health and soon they start suffering from headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness and tiredness. The mills generally have bad ventilation systems resulting in a lot of cotton dust in the air. Some former workers had to undergo surgery to remove balls of cotton fibre found in their bowels.

Girls and young women are exploited under Sumangali Scheme

Girls and young women are exploited under Sumangali Scheme

Accidents are also not uncommon. There are times when the machines are kept out of reach of workers. Aakriti, a Sumangali worker, says, “I had to stand all the time and the tasks that I needed to carry out required a lot of walking. I had to climb on a bench to tie the thread, because the machine was located too high. There was no chair for us to sit on. All eight hours and overtime hours I had to stand, walk and climb.”

This report highlights several labour rights violations faced by girls and young women employed under this Scheme in the Tamil Nadu garment industry. The report says that it is the apparel companies who need to work together against the Sumangali Scheme. On discovering the existence of the Sumangali Scheme, some international buyers parted ways with their suppliers. The report however says that this approach would do more harm than good. According to the report, terminating the relationship with a supplier is the wrong response as the situation for workers does not change or may even worsen. The decision to end the relationship with a supplier should be the last resort only when all efforts to improve the situation have failed.

To end the Sumangali Scheme, SOMO and ICN have urged brands and retailers to adhere to international labor standards and local labor laws and accept a broad definition of supply chain responsibility. They have also asked for setting up of genuine and credible grievance mechanisms at the supplier level. Most importantly, SOMO and ICN urge all companies and local and international civil society organisations involved to work together instead of developing separate courses of action.

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