Why is Tamil Nadu called Nadu

The "unhappy brides" of Tamil Nadu

Lekha paid for her dream of a little bit of wealth with her life. The young girl from a village in Tamil Nadu was only 16 years old when the man stood at her parents' door. It was an intermediary who wanted to recruit fresh workers for one of the many spinning mills in the textile location in southern India. He extolled the virtues of the job and made tempting promises. Too tempting for the destitute family: the father trusted the words and placed his daughter in the care of the husband.

For the girl it was a path to hell. And in death. The backbreaking job in the spinning mill quickly made her sick. Despite the fever and pain, the guards forced her to continue working and received no medical help - until she ended up in the hospital. Her father persuaded her to return to work after she recovered. Hoping it would get better from now on, she agreed. But nothing changed. A few weeks later, she begged her father to take her home. Otherwise she would die. He finally did - and immediately took her back to hospital. But Lekha was already too weak by then. Only one day later she was dead.

Organized exploitation on a large scale

Anibel Ferus-Comelo is the author of the study on work in Indian spinning mills

Lekha's story is written in sober words in the new study "The modern form of slavery in Indian spinning mills". It is only a case study and gives a name to the torment of tens of thousands of young women. The study was carried out on behalf of the Indian non-governmental organization CIVIDEP and the German association FEMNET. The author, Anibel Ferus-Comelo, was now visiting Germany to publicize the study here. And to create awareness of the catastrophic conditions under which - similar to Bangladesh - clothing is made in India, which later ends up in the shops of large chains such as H&M or C&A.

Young, mostly rural women are lured to work for three years in one of the nearly 2,000 spinning mills in Tamil Nadu, says Ferus-Comelo. According to government figures, almost 270,000 people were employed in the factories of the South Indian textile location three years ago. Other estimates, however, assume 400,000. The non-governmental organization SAVE (Social Awareness & Voluntary Education) also estimates that well over three quarters of them are minors when they start working.

Sacrifice in every way

And many of them not only work in the factories, but also live there. With the wages, which are only paid at the end of the three years, the so-called camp workers are supposed to earn their own dowry. Behind this practice is a tough business principle, from which in the end only one side benefits: the company. The model has its own name. It became known under the Tamil term "Sumangali", which translated means "happy bride". But that has nothing to do with reality.

Many of the workers in the spinning mills are minors - sometimes not even 14 years old

"The girls who are victims of the Sumangali or camp work system come from the poorest of backgrounds and belong to the lowest castes," says the sociologist. "They are held like prisoners on the premises of the factory. From the moment they start their job, they are practically forced laborers. They are economically exploited and are defenseless victims of physical or sexual violence." Time and again, female workers take their own lives out of desperation. Fatal accidents at work caused by exhaustion are also not uncommon. "In the past four years we have had 86 suspicious and suspicious deaths," says Anibel Ferus-Comelo. Most of them probably suicides.

Giving a voice to the weak

As a rule, the workers have no rights of their own. "They do not get an employment contract, no factory ID, there are no pay slips or anything else that shows the employer-employee relationship," says the author of the study. "Due to the lack of evidence, they cannot exercise their rights or claims in any court - For example, suing for the often partially withheld wages. Actually, the mandatory minimum wage is the equivalent of 113 euros per month. In fact, according to the study, the girls only get around 19 euros per month in the end.

In addition, the work that the young women do is not just physically tough. She is also dangerous. The workers usually come without previous experience and are not prepared or trained for the tasks they are expected to perform. "They also don't get any protective equipment. That's why injuries occur time and again."

Prevention attempts at the place of residence

Mary Viyakula and her colleagues know many sad stories from young women from the spinning mills

But the girls had no idea of ​​any of this before they entered the textile industry. "They have no idea what to expect," says Mary Viyakula. The SAVE employee goes through the villages with her colleagues and tries to prevent the underage women from even being recruited by agents. And if they do despite the warnings, at least provide them with emergency contact numbers. So that they have someone to turn to. "Because in the spinning mills the girls are almost completely isolated from their families, they have no external contacts."

But even when they are lonely, far away from parents and siblings - the girls are never alone: ​​they each "live" in one room with ten to 15 others. Often people only sleep on thin mats on the otherwise bare floor. "They work at least twelve hours a day, often up to 16. There are no fixed rest periods. And the food is bad. The diet is very one-sided," says Viyakula. This in turn leads to women quickly becoming powerless.

The question of social responsibility

Up to 15 young women have to share a room to sleep - mostly on mats that lie directly on the bare floor

The spinning mills and the working conditions on site are hardly checked - although there are authorities in India that are responsible for this. Ferus-Comelo explains that there is seldom anything public about actual and daily labor law violations. And even if the government agencies take action, it often happens half-heartedly and negligently, according to the study. "The Indian government and also that of Tamil Nadu are convinced that the textile industry is the key to growth and development. That is why it relies on economic growth at all costs." Accordingly, the government is also careful that as little as possible is leaked out about the catastrophic working conditions within the camp system. "However, the Sumangali system has come under increasing public criticism in recent years. Since then, there have been at least slight improvements."

The foreign manufacturer chains are now worried about their own reputation and are therefore taking a closer look at the spinning mills before doing business with them. That, according to Ferus-Comelo, is the most effective leverage, especially if different brands were to join forces. This is exactly what the sociologist is hoping for. Because if the customer companies from Kik to Otto don't go along with them, nothing will change for the workers in the spinning mills. "Women need their jobs. There are few career alternatives for them. But they are dependent on outside help. They cannot fight for their rights on their own."