TRAID has funded READ’s work in Tamil Nadu, South India to support the most exploited garment workers since 2010.  READ works tirelessly with villages, garment factories, spinning mills, the media, state government, national government and international brands to address serious labour rights abuses and human rights violations, especially of young women and girls employed in Tamil Nadu’s spinning sector. This region is a major manufacturing hub for knitwear supplying big brands, and there are at least 1,600 cotton spinning mills in operation.

To date, TRAID has funded READ’s programme of work to tackle and end forced labour schemes – known as ‘sumangali thittam –  in cotton spinning mills which target young women and girls.  Successes over the last decade includes identifying and removing hundreds of under-age girl workers from appalling conditions in mills, raising awareness of the realities of this work in the communities targeted by recruiters, and significantly, campaigning successfully for the highest court in the state to implement existing legislation to protect girls and women from abuse – including registering hostels and establishing Internal Complaints Committees in mills. Find out more here.

READ’s work has contributed significantly to ending the ‘official’ use of these forced labour schemes; nevertheless, there are still many challenges for textile workers’s rights, particularly, and increasingly, for migrant garment workers. In 2021/2022, TRAID is supporting READ with £31,849 to improve conditions for around 15,500 local and inter-state migrant workers. It’s estimated that of those garment workers in Tamil Nadu, around 30% are from other Indian states.

Migrant garment workers are far from home, and do not qualify for local welfare schemes. Their precarious situation has come into sharp focus during the pandemic which has seen millions stranded, jobless and in many cases destitute.  During Covid, the READ team stepped in with emergency support providing meals, and urgently needed monthly food, mask and sanitiser parcels to over 2,000 abandoned migrant workers and their families in the regions so far.

Inter-state migrant workers travel to Tamil Nadu for work in the textile sector because there are few employment prospects in their home states of Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. READ’s research has found that very few migrant workers are registered as they should be by law. This makes them easy to exploit and unlike local workers, they have had very little representation from labour rights organisations.

The team’s investigations also found that mill owners were now promising a different lump sum payment  via the the Provident Fund (PF) – India’s mandatory Government pension scheme. A worker is entitled to withdraw from the fund before retirement for some payments, such as a housing loan or to pay for their children’s education. However, just like the ‘sumangali thittam’ scheme, workers are typically unable to secure promised payments.

Only 401 spinning mills and garment factories are even registered for PF in the region. Payments are unreliable, malpractice is rife such as reducing the number of hours workers, and most employees do not even know their registration number.

This phase of the project will see READ working both with the workers, the industries and the department and taking the legal action needed against offending mills. Workers will be supported to check their PF account status, to keep records of their work, to know their registration number and to be given legal help where necessary to claim payments owed.

Other tactics to support workers will be to continue to strengthen Internal Complaints Committees – forums in mills and factories for workers to make grievances known – to significantly increase the registration of migrant workers by 5,000 via READ’s Help Desk and app which has been up and running since December 2020, and to continue its work with industry to create model mills which follow the law. By project end there will be 35 model mills in operation. In addition, legal and welfare clinics will support at least 450 workers to access their rights.

READ and Tirupur People’s training on the laws for the Protection of Adolescent Girls in Tamil Nadu.

Garment working women will be supported to join the Erode District Women’s Federation to empower themselves and others to access rights and improve representation. Former garment worker Janaki explains the benefits of joining with others to lobby for worker’s rights.

Extreme poverty also means that many migrant worker’s children end up working to supplement the family income, with few opportunities for education. Rates of child labour, abuse and trafficking are high. As well as rights training, READ also provides education scholarships for the children of textile workers to avoid school dropouts, child labour and under-age marriage and this year will see at least 25 girls receive a scholarship and supported into education.