Project location: Tamil Nadu, India
Funding: £166,719
Year / duration: 2020 / 1 year; 2017 / 3 Years; 2013 / 3 Years
Partner: READ

Sumangali Thittam (marriage scheme) is one of the worst practices in the textile industry. In Tamil Nadu, South India, up to 300,000 girls and young women are lured into three year apprenticeships in spinning mills, in return for a lump sum which can be used for their dowry In reality only about a third of these apprentices finish the three years and receive the payment. Most leave prematurely because of ill health, accidents or abuse – spinning mills are dangerous and difficult places to work.

TRAID has funded READ since 2013 to end the bonded labour of girls in cotton spinning mills. The project has been instrumental in raising awareness of the problem of bonded labour in mills, the prevalence of Sumangali Thittam in the region and putting into place actions at every level – village, community, government, legislation, mills, brands and the media – to this labour abuse. This work has removed thousands of girls from exploitative work and done a huge amount to improve the representation and rights of the most marginalised textile workers in Tamil Nadu.

In 2020, TRAID funded the next stage of READ’s work to address the exploitation of migrant and local workers who work in Erode district and aims to benefit around 17,500 workers.

Covid Update

In 2020, READ focused all its efforts to support garment workers, inter-state migrants and their families who lost jobs and incomes due to the pandemic. In many cases, brands abandoned suppliers leaving thousands of workers completely destitute. In Erode where the project is based, around a quarter of spinning mill workers are migrants whose home states are over 1,000km away and it was extremely difficult for them to return home. READ provided 1,120 garment working families with food packages to see them through the crisis including rice, wheat flour, oil and dhal until they are allowed to return home to their states.

The Project

In Tamil Nadu, South India, girls and young women are working in appalling conditions in spinning mills making clothes for big brands and retailers under a scheme called Sumangli Thittam (marriage plans). Recruiters target poverty stricken families promising their daughters will be given decent wages, good accommodation and a lump sum payment at the end of a three to five year contract. This sum can be used for a marriage dowry which these families could not otherwise afford.

The reality is that the girls live in mills in squalid, cramped hostels paying for housing and food costs from their already tiny wages. They work long hours with forced overtime, are closely supervised and are allowed little contact with the outside world, including their families. Their isolation leaves these girls vulnerable to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Few girls ever receive the bonus payment as they are fired just before the end of their contract or leave due to ill-health, injury or depression.

The project worked to make poor families aware of the reality of the scheme, pressured the state government to implement and enforce labour legislation and lobbied the national government to adhere to UN guiding principles on Business and Human Rights. Vitally, the project built relationships with spinning mills, worked with management and owners to improve their practices to establish five ‘model mills’ which are free from child labour with good pay and conditions. Very young and vulnerable girls were given training for alternative employment or reintegrated into the school system.

The project also worked to engage international brands supplied by mills in the project area to use their influence to improve working conditions and stop this scheme.

2020 Project Funding

A key problem identified by READ’s research is that many hostels and migrant workers are unregistered, creating a culture of unaccountability. Trafficking, child labour, sexual abuse and erratic payment is rife. READ aims to tackle this by promoting safe migration which includes developing an app to capture worker’s data; setting up a help desk number for migrant workers and improving links between Tamil Nadu and origin states like Odisha and Bihar.

The project aims to improve conditions for local workers by addressing clear abuses of the Provident Fund (PF) system which research has shown has replaced the practice of Sumangali Thittam. Many employees are not aware of PF, do not know their registration number nor how to check their PF status and aim to raise awareness to at least 1,500 workers. READ also found evidence of employer malpractice to obstruct PF claims which it aims to address through registration and Internal Complaints Committees.

An important part of READ’s work is empowerment of workers from the grassroots up. This part of the project will aim to form a federation in Erode to represent women textile workers as a registered body to develop its political clout and aim to increase its membership by 300.  150 workers stand to benefit from access to legal clinics and more widely to empower this labour movement by working in solidarity.