Vasandi heard the girls in her village talking: Satellite television with movies. Air conditioning. Three meals a day. Swimming pools. And after three years, a bonus of 36,000 rupees (about $650), a sum of money so huge she could barely picture what it might look like, all those rupees stacked in a heap.
It could all be hers, if she were lucky enough to work in a local textile mill, the girls said.
They had heard the news from a recruiter, who was paid 1,500 rupees ($30) for each new single girl he brought to the mill works, with its unending hunger for fit bodies to keep the machines running 24 hours a day.
To Vasandi (who, like many southern Indians, uses only one name) it sounded splendid. She was 16. Not long before, she had left school after Grade 7. She was living with her family in a stuffy one-room house in a rural village.
And so, in May, 2010, her father dropped her at the gate of JV Spinning Mill outside this small industrial town. She put her small bag of clothes in the dorm she would share with 320 other women, mostly Dalits like herself, from the “untouchable” bottom of the Hindu caste system.
Within days, she had been trained to run skeins of cotton thread on to a giant spindle, and to clean cotton fibers off the machine continuously to keep it from jamming. Her ears grew accustomed to the constant thunderous clatter in the mill, and she got used to waking at dusk for a night shift.
She was working at one of the hundreds of mills and dye operations and garment factories that dot the plains of western Tamil Nadu, spinning cotton for textile factories that supply the biggest European and North American retail chains, including many brands people found this week under their Christmas trees.
H&M, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Marks and Spencer have all sourced materials from this area over the past few years.
There were indeed movies on the dormitory TV, but she was usually too tired after a 12-hour shift to watch them. There was a pool, where she dipped her feet, but none of the girls knew how to swim.
She was desperately homesick. She had never been away from her family and village before, and it would be six months before she was allowed home for a few days’ visit. And the dormitory warden bolted the door on her building each night from the outside.
Still, she was earning $50 a month, with the promise of that bonus dangling a few years in the future. So she tried to settle in.
Her parents were earning a couple of dollars a day doing occasional agricultural labour – “coolie work,” as it is called in English and Tamil around here – on the farm of a dominant-caste landowner. But often there was no work. And no one Vasandi knew – other than the mill girls – had ever had a steady, waged job.
For a barely educated Dalit girl, it could seem a rare opportunity, marketed as Somangali Thittam, or “the marriage scheme” – an ostensible social-welfare plan provided by the textile industry, as a payoff from India’s growing participation in the global economy.
Except for just a few details.
‘Bonus’ or bondage?
It was, for one thing, illegal. As a child under 18, she was by law required to be in school. She was also underpaid, earning less than half even Tamil Nadu’s low minimum wage for apprentice textile workers, 196 rupees ($4) a day. (The mills counter that the lodging and meals they provide, which are obligatory, represent the balance of the wages.)
What’s more, unknown to Vasandi, the money for that promised three-year bonus was being deducted from her own wages – making her, technically, a bonded labourer, which has been illegal in India since 1976.
Finally, the bonus was explicitly marketed as being for her dowry – the cash and jewellery her parents would be expected to give her in-laws at her marriage. Dowry has been illegal in this country almost as long as bonded labour. But there is so little enforcement of the law that the textile mills market the scheme with images of wedding jewellery designed right into the logo.