All Work. No Freedom. Women garment workers in Tamil Nadu

Do you ever wonder where your clothes come from? Who made your clothes? What their working conditions are like?

T-shirt, vests, leggings and pyjamas – all made from jersey knitted fabric – are some of the clothes we wear most often. Many of these garments are made in Tamil Nadu in South India.

For hundreds of thousands of young women in Tamil Nadu the textiles and garments factories provide a vital source of employment. But the price they pay for earning a wage can be years of harsh conditions that damage their health and deny their freedoms. Women are recruited from poor rural areas to live and work onsite under ‘Camp Labour’ and ‘Sumangali’ schemes where rights abuses are extreme and widespread. These condition are common in the textile mills and garment factories where 100s of 1000s of young women and girls work. Some are breaches of human rights as well as basic labour rights:

FORCED LABOUR – living on site the women are unable to refuse when the company demands 12+ hour days, sometimes for 7 days a week.

CHILD LABOUR – most of the workers are between 14 and 18, but some are even younger than 14.

BONDED LABOUR – some women are paid a very low wage but promised a lump sum at the end of a 2 or 3 year contract. These are known as ‘sumangali schemes’ and are a form of bonded labour. The lump sum is often paid late, only partially or not at all.

DISCRIMINATION – ‘sumangali’ schemes are targeted exclusively at young women workers, and recruiters generally target ‘dalit’ or low-caste women .

POOR SANITARY CONDITIONS – the hostel accommodation is often poor with a lack of decent food and clean water.

UNSAFE CONDITIONS— working conditions are unhealthy and unsafe. A number of young women have died in the factories.

LOW PAY – pay is well below minimum wage and wages are frequently withheld.

NO FREEDOM – there are strict controls on the women, unable to leave the premises unaccompanied, unable to visit or telephone family, freedom of association is non-existent.

SEXUAL HARRASSMENT— Women are vulnerable to harrassment by male supervisors.

Campaigning for decent working conditions - what is happening?

There has been a strong campaign in India and beyond, against these rights abuses. This has involved both trade unions and NGOs. This campaign has begun to have an impact internationally, and high-street retailers are under pressure to respond and demonstrate they are taking action. We are working to strengthen the women’s voice within these initiatives and campaigns. We believe it is essential that the women workers are at the centre of these campaigns, and are able to articulate their own demands.

Campaign Resources:

Forced Labour in Tamil Nadu’s Textile and Garment Industry

Forced labour in the Tamil Nadu garment industry Briefing note

Background to Tamil Nadu Garment Industry. Briefing Note

Health and Safety Issues in the Tamil Nadu garment industry Briefing note

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