There are over 3,500 spinning mills in operation in Tamilnadu. These mills employ 5 lakh               workers of which over 2 lakh adolescent girls been employed as camp coolies under various              pretense. Spinning mills are the second highest sector employing women after agriculture              sector. A study by NGO reveals that in Dindigul district alone there are 200 spinning               mills (167 large and 33 medium) employing 96,000 persons of which 78, 400 are women.

Majority of these women don’t have any form of representation as they do not enjoy equality among their male counterparts and are not represented in the unions until now.

These women, thought work at par with their male counterparts are paid less wages, and are treated second class citizens even among the other trade unions.

As the age old saying “necessity is the mother of all inventions” it was deemed necessary to unionize the several thousands of unrepresented women workers working in the spinning mills.

As a result of relentless efforts of several notable women Tamilnadu textile and Common Laborers union- TTCU was born on 30.08.2013 registered under the trade union act of 1926. Started with an initial membership of 143 the union in 2 years have grown to be a 1985 member strong organization, operating in 10 districts of Tamilnadu.

Women in textile industry

It was 1980s, the period when trade union movements started gaining stronghold in the southern districts of Tamilnadu. Mill owners and big labour intensive manufacturing sectors overnight were faced with protests, Strikes and shutdowns by the workers who started to unionize themselves and start to demand for their rights.

Having things written on the wall, the mill owners were faced with 2 challenges. One being how to handle the issues of the trade union strikes that was rapidly eating into their profits and two being how to continue production to stay in the competition. The answer for both were one. Women. Women, typically subservient, hardworking equal to their male counterparts but can be paid less, women who don’t take frequent leave, quickly became the ideal solution for the problem faced by the mill owners.

Having seen the light at the end of the tunnel, the mill owners were quick to recruit women in large numbers to fill the gaps caused by striking employees. Once the supply of alternative labour force achieved, the mill owners, with the help police force severely clamped down the union protesters. Brutal force was used against the workers. As a revenge action, these actions destroyed several trade unions and union members working in the mills were systematically replaced by a new breed of workers. A new breed that is faceless, voiceless and clueless of what lays ahead of them.

An idea, which evolved out of necessity surprised even the mill owners in terms of results gained. Overnight mill owners were handed over the power to do anything with their employees with impunity. Women were hired and fired at will, working hours became 12 hours, and pay was halved. Employment became short term contracts, medical allowances casual leaves, Provident funds, Dearness allowances, Overtime etc. became defunct.  It’s is during these times, the spinning mills owners became one of the richest and most powerful industrial houses in the state. Today over 80 percent of workforce working in the mills are women.

Sumangali Thittam (Camp Coolie System) - Origins of Sumangali

Having tasted the benefits of using women, to replace men to work in the mills, the ever so greedy mill owners devised a more sinister plan to lure younger and younger women, as contractual slaves. Girls aged 12 to 18 were the primary targets this time. With a promise of paying 80 to 120 rupees per day and bonus amount of 40,000 to 1,00,000 on the fulfilment of the contractual period of 3-6 years. This amount, looked very attractive for the poor improvised families. This scheme in which a meager amount is paid as salary and a final lump sum amount which could be used for the marriage dowry of the young girls was named (Sumangali Thittam)

An agreement under labour laws act 18(1) would be signed between the workers and the mill management and the girls will be made to work for the stipulated contractual period of 3-6 years. What happens during these years is beyond any imagination.

Origins of Sumangali Scheme in Tamilnadu

The southern districts of Tamilnadu are generally drought prone. With the traditional agriculture system dependent on ever failing monsoon rains, families of traditionally agriculture and agricultural dependent land less laborers often face extreme situations and perpetual poverty. Girls are considered as liability, and oftentimes it was a social practice to systematically cull girl child after birth. Education for girls were deemed unnecessary waste and most girls were married off as child brides with dowry. The practice of dowry by the bride to the groom is a cultural necessity in these areas.
Capitalizing on existing situations such as illiterate parents, treatment of girl child as a liability and the compulsion of need to give hefty dowry to get the daughters married off, the spinning mill owners devised a new novel scheme of enticing the parents to send their young daughters 12 years  of age and above to work in the spinning mills for a period of 3-6 years, the mills promised food and accommodation for the duration and to pay a lump sum amount at the end of the contractual period. The lump sum amount would be used to pay the dowry of the young girl who would have finished her contractual period at the age of 18-19 years of age.  The end contract bonus would range anything from 30,000 rupees to 1, 00,000. But the wages or stipend would be far less than what is paid to other regular workers, (much less than the minimum wages regulated by the government of India).

This scheme popularly known as Sumangali Thittam (Sumangali= Married woman) also comes under different names, such as Mangalia Thittam, tirumana Thittam etc... Though there are several names they all follow the same principle and mean the same.

From the perspective of the illiterate parents, this offer from mill owners seemed to be a win win situation where the burden of responsibility of the daughters is taken away from them, suddenly the parents need not worry about their daughter’s education, and the dowry money to get their daughters married off. For the girls thought they had no say in the matter. In most cases the recruiting agents of the spinning mills target girls from broken families, dalith, minority girls from poor, illiterate families or anyone who don’t have a voice to question the motives or the treatments of the girls once signed into the contract to avoid future complications. These agents, encourage the parents to pull their daughters away from school and to send them to the mills. An added convenience of no legal liability for the mills to employ girls 14 years and above enables the spinning mills to recruit girls with no impunity.

Some of the realities in the spinning mills

  • Girls, 12 years and above are often given fake names and age by the mills to avoid identification and confrontation
  • The girls are given salaries far below the government stipulated wage (Minimum wages act 1948)
  • The working hours range from 10-14 hours with no overtime pay. Lunch break is generally 30 minutes. Toilet breaks are frowned upon.
  • The girls do not have access to any employees benefit such as PF, ESI, and Pension etc.
  • The girls are not allowed to take casual leave, medical leave allowed only on extreme situations and the girls are not permitted to leave the factory premises.
  • Food provided in the factory lacks any nutrition value and the same kind of food is repeated day in and day out.
  • Average living space is about 10 square feet per person. 10- Girls have to share a dorm of 100 square feet. The toilets are about 1 toilet for 100 girls.
  • Almost all girls are subjected to some form of abuse. Verbal abuse is very common, physical and sexual abuse is also a common phenomenon.
  • Girls are forced to work with fast moving machineries, accidents are common, and when accidents happen, the girls are forced to declare that the cause of the accident is slipping off the bathroom or something similar.
  • Long working hours, lack of sleep, extreme concentration for long durations etc. are some of the common workplace condition in the spinning mills.
  • In the past 10 years there are more number of deaths reported among girls working in spinning mills than all other sectors put together. Most of these deaths are registered as suicide
  • Majority of the female employees in textile mills are from Dalit, Backward, and Minority, illiterate rural populace who don’t have any social, political or economic strength.