Textile mills take girls for a ride

Victims forced to work for three years for just Rs 30,000

This Dalit girl fled Theni, 120 km west of Madurai, to far away Ammapalayam near the hosiery town of Tiruppur to join the “Kobalt Mill.” Neither distance nor age mattered, as Rekha was among the thousands of adolescent girls from various southern districts of Tamil Nadu to get hooked by schemes offered by textile mills that masqueraded as social welfare.

Called by different names—“Sumangali scheme,” “Mangalya Thittam” or “Subhamangala Thittam”— various cotton textile spinning mills under this contractual bind promised young girls that “if they worked for three years, they will get Rs 30,000 each at the end of the third year (besides wages).”

Narrating her trauma before a jury panel here, an emaciated Rekha’s cry sounded like a pauper’s humiliating anguish. “I have completed my work under the scheme but the mill refuses to pay me the final sum,” she wailed.

Forced to stay in a hostel in the mill complex and do with barely edible food, Rekha said her “illiterate father” was first made to sign a contract that entailed working one month more for every one day’s leave she takes. As a result, continuous work fatigued Rekha until her health broke down in June 2008. With severe stomach pain and ulcer, Rekha was forced to take ten days’ leave. That prompted the company to ask her to work for ten more months. She says:“They have not paid my Rs 30,000 till date.”

Dismal plight
Now, Rekha’s health does not permit her to go back to work again. Her dismal plight is typical of hundreds of adolescent girls pathetically sailing in the same boat, who take up such mill jobs just for that magical Rs 30,000, to help give a “minimum dowry” at their marriage.

The “Sumangali” scheme, in vogue for a decade now in the rural areas, has been so “attractively packaged that poverty coupled with illiteracy has lured the girls into it,” summed up R M Ramathal, chairperson of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women (TNSCW) which has taken up their cause. Worse, “it brings back the dowry ghost to our homes,” she says. Not surprisingly, this scheme has made silent inroads into the social fabric. There are 37,117 adolescent girls and women working in 913 cotton mills in Tamil Nadu.

This one fact, got by using the Right to Information Act by an NGO working to bail out these hapless female workers, is telling enough. The affected girls are mostly from the “Dalit and Nadar communities, from the drought-prone districts of Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Tuticorin, Virdhunagar, Dindigul and Theni, who migrate to other areas (for work)”, a Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women study paper on this ‘Sumangali’ phenomenon pointed out.

Unorganised sector
In the unorganised rural sector, women usually work for lower wages, and below poverty line families struggle to get their girls married off. The cotton mills took advantage of this situation and devised such an ingenious scheme backed by “a prima facie legal contract,” the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women found, conforming earlier studies by some trade unions and NGOs’ in this field.

Girl after girl have virtually the same story to tell the jury at the public hearing here organised by the TNSCW. Individual case details varied though, from sexual harassment, a horrific instance of “acid being mixed with water”, as alleged by a dead girl’s father, to Thamariselvi of Tuticorin aghast at being denied her “Provident Fund amount, just because she spelt her name incorrectly.”

In many cases, the panel i ncluding two Judges, Justice K Sampath Kumaran, chairman, Appellate Authority, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and Justice A K Rajan, former Judge of Madras High Court, settled the girls’ grievances on the spot in a pragmatic, pro-active way.

The presence of the Labour Department officials and representatives of several textile mills at the public hearing not only helped in getting their side of the story in each case, but also to fix the compensation to the affected girls and direct the erring mills to pay the victims within a short time-frame.

However, the verdict on the legal validity of the “Sumangali scheme” could only be declared by the High Court which is now hearing two petitions challenging the scheme by two trade unions, said Justice Rajan.

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