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breaking caste

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.

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.

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.

"When I went to work, there was some respect," says Vasandi. "People said, 'Okay, these girls are earning money.'"

But Mr. Samy argues that the mills are preying on his community, and reinforcing the idea that these factory jobs are the best these girls can hope for. "Only higher education is going to change things," he says.

Mr. Samy himself has a master's degree in social work, but he remains a rarity in a caste group where tens of thousands of people still work in "manual scavenging" – collecting and disposing of human excrement.

"These companies interrupt the education of these girls, and exploit them," he says. "We need work, but not for under-18-year-olds."

'I'm too old to go back to school'

Divya Naharaj was 14 and just past third grade (with illiterate parents and teachers who rarely showed up at school, she had struggled to get even that far) when an agent came to her two-room house in the village of Mangalapuram to talk to her.

"He told me, 'Your uncle's daughter is working there and you can also go and your family's problems will be solved,'" she said. "My parents have only coolie work, so they don't earn much, and they have three daughters" – so a hefty dowry bill loomed on their horizon.

Ms. Naharaj went to the S. M. Mill in Shakti in January, 2010, learned to operate a knitting loom, and stuck it out for 19 months, working a cycle of four days of night shifts and seven days of day shifts, with a day off in between. She described her time at the mill in a grim, flat voice.

When she left to start working, Ms. Naharaj didn't imagine she was leaving school forever. "I had the plan to go back to school after the mill, but I haven't. I wanted to be a teacher, but now I'm too old to go back to school and sit with all the small children."

Some textile companies offer continuing education classes to support workers to finish high school, as Ms. Naharaj's did – but only after a 10- or 12-hour shift. "I wanted to go to class. But it was that or sleeping. And I was so tired." The closest she got to school was to take magazines and joke books out of the library.

These days she does housework; her two younger sisters go to school and her parents work in the fields until after dark.

Ms. Kowtal of the Dalit Women's Rights Forum says the Somongali scheme perpetuates the idea that a woman's worth is in her marriage, and that she is a financial burden to her family. But she isn't surprised to see it so openly marketed, because the Tamil Nadu government does it too – offering four grams of gold and $500 of "marriage assistance" to any girl who completes high school.

The state's chief minister, Jayalalitha, triumphantly introduced the plan a couple of years ago as part of a spate of measures she claimed would boost the status of women, openly defying the national dowry ban.

Ms. Kotwal calls this a classic Indian paradox: The country has excellent laws on paper, but zero enforcement when it comes to the interests of the poor, marginalized or out-caste.

One reason the mills like the scheme, READ's Mr. Samy says, is that the teenage female workers can all be classed as apprentices, and thus by law can't organize into labour unions.

READ attempts to advocate for them; for example, it is trying to help Vasandi get her withheld wages. It also tries to give young women who leave the mills job training – the state government is supposed to provide them low-interest loans to start small businesses, but the reality is that most get married when they go home, and do not do paid work again, except in landlords' fields.

Vasandi is learning to stitch clothes, but she is also waiting for a wedding. "My parents are looking for a boy," she says, ducking her head shyly.

And her parents will borrow money to pay her dowry – a big pile of rupees.

Read more pieces from the Breaking Caste series here

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