Just over 2 years ago I promised a group of young women who were survivors of a human trafficking scheme known as the Sumangali scheme that I would tell their stories and together we would end the scheme.
This month I visited Tamil Nadu and found that the word is no longer used. It is easy to change language but have we changed the system? Exactly what does that mean for these young women and the 200,000 others working in the spinning mills and garment factories?
The good news
We asked that mills and factories cease the practices which made Sumangali, a human trafficking scheme and led to the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of young women. The following practices have been done away with in many factories:
- The practice of offering a lump sum payment at the end of 3-5 years has essentially disappeared, more from garment factories than from spinning mills but there is a huge decrease. This reduces the pressure families put on young women to complete their 3-5 years giving them greater freedom to leave.
- Contracts have largely been reduced to 1 year meaning they are able to leave freely after that time. However, many are still forced to return by their families as they have no other options. The mills reluctant to employ adult or male workers who they view as less compliant workers.
- The practice of young women needing to live in the mills is also declining. This means they are less likely to need to work excessive hours or to be abused at work. This doesn’t mean abuse is eradicated completely. We met one young woman who live with her mother and commuted each day to work. She told us that just the night before, the factory she was working in, had a power outage. She and some of her friends were sexually abused. When they reported to management, they were laughed at.
What has contributed to these changes?
- The government has introduced online Provident Fund (like compulsory superannuation) payments so employees need to be registered online. Now the Provident Fund needs to be deposited into the worker’s bank account and this means that mills who are registered have limited capacity to offer a lump sum payment.
- Local groups have played a significant part. We met an all Womens' Trade Union who single-handedly convinced mills to abolish the scheme in 20-25% of factories through organised marches and picketing.
- Auditors who take seriously their role in looking for social compliance and acting with integrity are making an important contribution.
- International businesses have played a stronger role in tracing their supply chains and apply pressure for change.
- Finally and not least, the spotlight of the world has been shone on this scheme through the work of many campaigning groups including STOP THE TRAFFIK. Local people know of our work and your contribution and are incredibly grateful.
But there is still much to be done
- We tried to get into mills and were unable, which in and of itself raises questions. If they are the lovely places the management says they are, why weren’t we shown them? If they are the lovely places management say they are, why do adults choose to work in steel factories where the work is harder and the pay the same; or in agriculture where the weather and monsoons are unpredictable and income is fragile?
- We spoke to young women who had started working in the mills before they were 14 for as little as 40 rupees (80 cents) a day. This is far below the mimimum wage and a living wage (note 1) would be closer to 500 rupees or $10 per day per adult working in a family.
- Agents are still operating as far a field is Bihar, a poor state of India about a 40 hour drive to the north. As awareness of the scheme and its abuse has grown in the local area; human traffickers are going further afield.
We had many poignant moments. One morning we had a meeting with the President of a Spinning Mills Association, he claimed his mill and all the mills in their association were wonderful places to work, air-conditioned, with personal protective equipment provided and staff enjoyed working there. Later that day we met with a young woman in a tragic situation, with a heart-breaking story of what happened to her in the mill. She was paid only 40 rupees (80 c) a day even though she had been promised 100 rupees ($1.50). Her health was fragile from inhaling fibre and she had been forced to work long hours and was offered the 100 rupees if she slept with the mill supervisor. She then told us the name of the mill, it was owned by the man from the morning conversation.
In this country of 1.3 billion people forced labour of children should not be a necessity. The law in India is very clear the duties and hours of under 18’s must be limited. We continue to believe that if workers were paid a living wage there would be no shortage of adult workers available to work in the mills and all the young women we met would be able to be in school creating a better future for themselves, their families and their country.
STOP THE TRAFFIK Australia Director
NOTE 1: A living wage is the remuneration received for a standard work week by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family. Elements of a decent standard of living include food, water, housing, education, health care, transport, clothing, and other essential needs including provision for unexpected events.