There are an estimated almost 8 million people living in modern slavery in India (GSI 2018). India has a population of more than 1.3 billion people, there are still at least 270 million people living on less than US$1.90 per day. While laws, systems and attitudes regarding key 'fault lines' such as the caste system, gender and feudalism are rapidly changing, social change of this depth and scale necessarily takes time. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that existing research suggests that all forms of modern slavery continue to exist in India, including forced labour. Young women and girls, often from lower castes, are exploited in Indian spinning mills. They are contracted for three or more years to work in the textile factories of southern India and do not receive minimum wage. At the end of the contract, workers receive a premium, but that is often not the amount promised. This form of exploitation was called Sumangali (Happy Bride), because the premium was supposed to serve as the bride price. While the spinning mills no longer advertise this kind of work under this slogan, the practice continues.
Revathy went to work at a spinning mill after his parents could no longer afford her education. She was hired by an agent who offered food, accommodation and salary for an eight-hour working day. However, upon arrival, Revathy was forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions and had her pay deducted for the food and accommodation she was promised. She recounts the working conditions and illnesses workers developed in the mill.
My name is Revathi. I’m 18 years old. I completed year twelve in 2011. I worked at the spinning mill in 2012 and 2013. At the end of 2011 I stopped studying because my family couldn’t afford any further education for me, so I decided to join the spinning mill. My dad never works. Because he is unwell he can’t work. Yes, he stays at home.
My mum works in a different cotton mill. Because only my mum was working, I could only attend school until year 12 and we couldn’t afford it after that so I had to start working too. I sent money back home and my family bought medicine, groceries, clothing, and other expenses.
We told the mill owners our family couldn’t afford food. The agents came from the mill and offered food, accommodation, and salary for eight hours of work a day. They hired us and took us to the mill and put us up in a hostel. Only then did we realise there was no safety at all. The heat was too much and we couldn’t eat. The cotton fibres went into our body so we got stomach pains and ear pains because of the excessive loud noises, which sometimes caused deadness in some of the girls.
They initially took us on a one year scheme which offered us 25,000 rupees a year ($455 AUD/$420 USD). They offered us the scheme expecting us to stay for three years. We accepted and went to stay for three years. But we couldn’t stay because we very often got deafness, headaches, stomach pain, and sickness. Because of this we left.
[How do the mill owners recruit people?]
Sometimes people who work at the mill refer people or there are brokers who get paid commissions or are bribed to bring for example ten people and they bring them to the hostel. Otherwise the mill owners go out themselves to recruit vulnerable young people and they offer jobs and schemes promising they will get extra money.
[How did you get recruited?]
People came and asked us. They had offered people already working at the mill a commission to bring more people to work and offered for example 100 rupees ($1.80 AUD/$1.64 USD) per head. And they offered this money without having to do extra hours at the mill, so people go out and recruit young kids and old people from their village and take them and put them in the hostel.
Yes they were known to me. […] they were my relatives.
Originally they promised us 3000 rupees ($55 AUD/$50 USD) if we work eight hours a day, thirty days a month, but at the end they give us less than 3000 rupees as they deduct some. They deduct for reasons such as accommodation, food, and medicines and they give us only around 2000 rupees a month or much less.
The job is very hard and we need to do it for a minimum of eight hours a day. It’s physically demanding and even though we tell them it’s really hard work and beyond our physical capabilities, they force us to continue working. Even though we say were are tired and need a rest they won’t let us rest and demand we finish the work otherwise they threaten not to pay us.
Sometimes we have to pick up heavy loads which requires two people to lift the load but they insist we do it alone and put on even more load. They don’t give us any lunch breaks or any small breaks and they force us to continue working so we need to ask friends to look after our machines so we can quickly have something to eat and come back within ten minutes. Once I come back from lunch, I need to look after my machine and my friend’s machine so she can quickly eat too. Sometimes we don’t get this luxury of replacing each other so we have to continue working without food.
There are no documents to prove I’m working there. When you get recruited you just get taken to the mill and give your name to the supervisor. Many people live in the hostel, about 500 people, and the sleeping space is very small and we have to almost sleep on top of each other. Beyond our regular shifts they give us overtimes schedules and if we refuse to do overtime they force us to work and there is no time to have a break. There is no time to rest and sometimes we become so tired we lost our balance and faint.
If we get sick they don’t take us to the doctors or give us medical assistance and only give us a table and as soon as we take the tablet they ask us to work again. The usual health problem we experience are constant headaches due to working continuous day and night shifts, and also we get severe ear pains due to the loud noises of the machines in the mill. The cotton fibres gets into our mouth and nose so we constantly feel full and we cannot eat and if we do eat we get stomach pains.
There are no nutrients in the food we eat. Because of the lack of nutrients and health issues, we don’t get our periods or our period cycles are very irregular. We are constantly tired and have no energy at all to do anything and lack motivation too. The floating cotton particles cause eye irritations, infections and discomfort. We also get breathing problems because we aren’t given protective gear and we are constantly breathing in the cotton fibres.
There are cases where long hair gets caught in the machines and they get pulled into the machine. If we don’t take care, the strong cotton thread cuts and hurts our fingers and hands. The machines are really hot so it burns our skin. The supervisor gives us unrealistic targets to finish the work in two to three days and if we don’t finish and don’t meet the targets on time they verbally abuse us and beat us. To avoid the abuse we work overtime, beyond our capabilities, to finish the work. If someone gets sick and can’t meet the target on time, they get beaten and they don’t get paid for the day.
[do they provide hygiene for your period cycles?]
They give us one or two napkins to use for the month but it’s not enough. But we have to just use what we are given. They only give us rice and once a week they give us idly and they don’t give any vegetables and most of the time the food is only half cooked. There is no taste in the food and because we eat half cooked food we get digestion problems. But we have to eat the food they give us and we can’t ever ask for specific food. They cook food once a day and we eat the same thing all day. You have breakfast and when you go back for lunch you’ll see the same food. By then we can see the food is spoilt and we can see worms in it, but they just simply take out the worms and feed us the same food. They don’t prepare any other food and force us to eat the same food.
They don’t give us any safety equipment or gear to use when we work day to day but when there is an audit or an external inspector comes or there is media presence, they give us a mask, gloves, and safety glasses, ear plus, aprons, and safety shoes to wear. But as soon as the inspectors or media leave, we have to give the protective wear back and continue work without safety gear.
At the mill the owners separate the younger girls and make them work along and abuse them sexually, and if we make a complaint or try to report this abuse, they don’t take the complaint seriously because we can’t offer any evidence. And considering the cultural barriers and shame, we can’t talk about this with anyone or tell anyone about it.
[What would you say to other young girls who might be thinking about signing up to the Sumangali scheme to work in the mills?]
I would tell them you shouldn’t go and work in the mills and don’t sign up to the Sumangali scheme. And don’t put yourself in this situation because there is no safety and you don’t get paid what you’re promised and after they have used you, they will just send you back without much at all. They will just recruit even younger girls who they think can do more work, faster. Some people might think money is important but it’s not worth it.
They don’t pay you what they promise and don’t look after you. It’s not worth working there and risking your health and your life.
I don’t see any future for me because I couldn’t afford to continue my studies and only my mother works so although it’s hard work physically and mentally, I may go back to work in the same mill. I know it’s a bad place to work and it’s hard but considering my family situation and how poor we are, we have no other choice. I have no other option unless my family gets money for me to continue my studies. Then I can get a better job to support my family.
At least I know I can get the job at the mill so I can feed my family.
Narrative as told for the documentary Sumangali produced by Stop the Traffik (now Be Slavery Free)