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Former bonded textile worker Vasandi, at left in blue, with a friend being trained in tailoring by a group called Rights, Education and Development in Satyamangalam. (Stephanie Nolen, The Globe and Mail)
Former bonded textile worker Vasandi, at left in blue, with a friend being trained in tailoring by a group called Rights, Education and Development in Satyamangalam. (Stephanie Nolen, The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste

In parts of India, dowry schemes are used to lure girls to bonded labour Add to ...

Vasandi never found out what that many rupees look like all together. She left her job this past May, two years after she started: She was anxious because girls were getting injured or falling ill from overwork around her. She thought she would be given the portion of her bonus she had earned – but the warden informed her that in leaving before the full three years, she would get nothing.

She admits she should have seen it coming: In her two years at the mill, she had only ever seen six girls out of some 600 receive their bonuses. Others were injured and let go or wore out and quit first – almost anyone close to the three-year mark would be fired for some pretext or another, she says.

That practice was found to be widespread in an industry audit by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), a Netherlands-based independent non-profit research organization.

Asha Kowtal, general secretary of the All-India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, says the Somangali schemes are nothing more than the caste system reinvented for an industrialized economy.

“How many Brahmin girls do you find in Somangali Thittam? How many Iyengar?” she asks, referring to the occupation-based groups that are considered to be the top of the Hindu caste system. “Only untouchable communities are making use of this. Somebody sitting in Toronto is buying a Banana Republic T-shirt or a Gap one and not thinking about reinforcing the caste structure and the patriarchy.”

The supply-chain sidestep

The Somangali Thittam scheme has been in place for about 10 years, says Karrupu Samy, who runs an organization called Rights, Education and Development (READ) that advocates for Dalits in bonded labour. In the past several years, READ has attracted the attention of international ethical-trade campaigners and thus of major clothing chains.

In a statement, H&M, for example, says it views the “schemes as absolutely unacceptable,” but because the mills are only secondary suppliers, “we do not have direct contractual influence.” So it pressures its own suppliers to pressure theirs, and lends support to the ethical-trade groups, the company says.

After 112 garment workers, most of them young women, died in a blaze in Bangladesh in November, companies whose clothes were being stitched there, including Walmart and Sears, said they had no idea that their products were being made in that factory, which had repeatedly been cited for safety violations such as locked exits and blocked stairwells.

The companies said that local middlemen had subcontracted out their work, a murky system that made the supply chain hard to follow – and which is equally common in India.

International scrutiny has prompted some of the mills in Tamil Nadu to make improvements, such as introducing health insurance, raising the minimum age of employees and increasing the contact permitted with families.

But India’s textile sector is so loosely organized – and facing such intense competition from China and Bangladesh – that mills change their names often to make checks, and in practice face little scrutiny, SOMO has found in repeated studies.

It says a majority of the mill workers are still under 18, with as many as a fifth of them younger than 14. A 2010 investigation by the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women estimated that 37,000 young women are employed in the Somangali scheme, across 900 mills in the state.

The Globe and Mail conducted lengthy interviews with five young women who have worked in the mills in the past year under Somangali Thittam; they told near-identical stories. The JV Spinning Mill and the other factories involved all refused to answer questions or to admit a journalist. Of eight other mills contacted, six refused to talk and two said the scheme had been stopped.

SOMO says some have indeed stopped it. But READ’s Mr. Samy has a darker reading: “All the international brands know about Somangali now, so the factories call it by another name,” he says.

Staff with the Southern Indian Mills Association also refused to answer questions, but in a recent public forum on the scheme a director described it as an “opportunity for the empowerment of women.”

It is true that the mill jobs are about the only work on offer in this region for young women with limited education. Female workforce participation remains low, as few jobs are believed appropriate for women. And the caste system remains deeply entrenched: Dalit girls are considered for even fewer jobs.

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