Captured by cotton- a story of dalit girls of Tamil Nadu

Posted on | mei 23, 2011 | 4 Comments

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.

AUTHOR: Mujtaba Syed
E-MAIL: syedalimujtaba [at]


4 Responses to “Captured by cotton- a story of dalit girls of Tamil Nadu”

  1. Alex Villipin
    mei 23rd, 2011 @ 15:17

    I’m surprised to see the arguments of SOMA on the
    way the workers spend their money.

    Its the earning of the workers & they can spend
    it on their own. They can buy clothes, land or they can give to their family.

    Thats all dependent on the wish of the worker. What
    the factory can do on that?

    Dowry is prohibited as per Indian Law. If SOMA
    found dowry is still existing, what the factory can do on that?

    It has to be taken to the Government. Not with the

    Factory can’t be held responsible for the dowry or
    the girls marriage.

    What you require from the factory? That only you
    ask them. Like

    1) Minimum wages should be paid

    2) No child labour

    3) Labour Laws of the Naation where the factory is
    existing is met.

    4) What else is required…

    I had a discussion with a social worker in Tirupur and he told me the shocking news.
    Also it is very cruel by the SOMO that it is trying to create a Caste / religion issue in the textile field. Daliths were doing only low level jobs including cleaning toilets. Now the textile industry is giving them equal opportunities along with all other caste workers and giving same wages. By this way their symbol of low rated jobs are now getting started abolished. Atleast this will reduce the symbol in atleast 2 decades. There is NO difference in the treatement of those dalith workers in textile field at all. But this SOMO / ICN creating unwanted problems & the clients starting to reduce orders. By this way the factories are going to have very less or NO orders and they have no other go except shutting down the factories. This will end up with lot of unemployment issue & the consequences will be terrible.

    The negative mentality of the SOMO will lead to creating huge unemployment

  2. Joseph
    mei 23rd, 2011 @ 18:35

    I’m a school teacher for mathematics and also a social worker. I have evaluated the full report by SOMO & found the below inaccurices.

    1) The author mentioned the paid wage as 60 Rupees = 0.88 Euro ( He took Euro @ 68) (Page no.: 12. para 3. Line 4)
    Next line he mentioned to be paid wage is Rupees 1,85,000 = Euro 2900. (He took Euro @ 63) !!
    This shows the author’s intention was to blame on the factories than bring out the realities. He used wrong value in same para!!

    2) Also he mentioned Minimum wage per day is rupees 171 X 30 days = 5,130 per month.
    But if the worker works 26 days 171 X 26 days = 4,446 per month
    So do the want the workers to work 7 days a week?!!

    I feel the report is made to create wrong publicity & doesnot have intrest on the workers.

  3. madesh
    mei 24th, 2011 @ 08:10

    Just visit the link
    About 365 workers completed their Higher Secondary schooling this year from a mill. The top scorer among the workers got more than 88% marks. (1058 out of 1200). Since year 2006, about 7,000 candidates working in the mill have completed school or college education through private study or distance education. If the workers don’t have time (If they work overtime) how come these education is possible?

  4. madesh
    mei 24th, 2011 @ 13:36

    I had seen an article in India’s national newspaper Hindu. ( here is the online version : ). Also the same was published in Indian Express.
    About 365 workers completed their Higher Secondary schooling this year from a mill. The top scorer among the workers got more than 88% marks. (1058 out of 1200). Since year 2006, about 7,000 candidates working in the mill have completed school or college education through private study or distance education. If the workers don’t have time (If they work overtime) how come these education is possible?

    More detailed Facts on this article is available at :

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