Forced labour in South India: Sumangali schemes

In this post, FWF’s Suhasini Singh and Lisa Suess explain the issue of Sumangali.

The Indian state Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 spinning mills and employs around 400,000 workers (sixty percent female). Most of the production is concentrated in the districts of Erode, Tiruppur, Dindigul and Coimbatore.  A forced labour issue has emerged in the region in the past 20 years: Spinning mills employ agents that use the vulnerability of poor, often rural families from lower castes, tempting parents with a lump sum payment for their daughter’s wedding at the end of three years of labour.

The Sumangali Scheme is also known as the “marriage assistance system” and, while increased attention to has led to it no longer being referred to as Sumangali, the core issue remains the same.

A cultural issue

The scheme ostensibly meets the needs of poor families and provides stable workforce to factories in Tamil Nadu. In Tamil, sumangali refers to a happy and content married woman. In a traditional Hindu arranged marriage, the bride’s parents provide a substantial dowry to the groom’s family and bear the expenses of the wedding. While this practice has been illegal since 1961, it is still very much alive throughout India.

Most practices within the Sumangali Scheme, though widely accepted, are not legal according to Indian law and constitute a clear violation of FWF’s Code of Labour Practices.

A labour issue

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the defining feature of the Sumangali Scheme is its promise of a lump sum instead of monthly wage slips. Arguably, this makes the agreement a form of bonded labour under Indian law. In practice, most workers do not receive any payments at all if they leave the factory before the three years are over. Apart from the lump sum promise and misleading promises of quality accommodation and food, the Sumangali scheme is associated with other labour issues, such as the employment of children and juvenile workers.

These young workers, mostly 14 to 20 year-old girls, experience limited freedom of movement, excessive working hours, an abusive work environment, sexual harassment, no adequate leave, and discrimination on the basis of caste. Local stakeholders (such as SAVE or READ) as well as various Indian newspapers continue to report cases of sexual violence and suicides.

Using the work of young girls is preferred at the spinning mills because culturally girls are more likely to quietly follow instructions without asking many questions.

FWF’s work in Tamil Nadu

Fair Wear Foundation’s local team of trainers and auditors have become increasingly aware of problems associated with Sumangali(-like) schemes. However, FWF’s mandate only covers work in the Cut-Make-Trim (CMT) units. Since most workers employed under a Sumangali(-like) scheme work in spinning mills, FWF can only investigate cases when the mills are vertically integrated to the CMT.

Nevertheless, FWF has been trying to address the issues related to scheme workers through trainings of top and middle level management. It also works to improve the conditions of young workers living in hostels.

Factory audits in high-risk areas include the inspection of situation of dormitories/hostels where these workers live. Findings of audits and trainings are consistently followed up by FWF, together with local and international stakeholders. Support is given to management and workers to help them understand the risks and to change practices step-by-step.

The situation in some of the bigger spinning mills in Tirupur has improved. Workers are now paid monthly, and receive a salary slip. However, the percentage of such factories is still far from enough.

What companies can do

FWF updated its guidance on Sumangali, to provide companies possible prevention and remediation measures.

For example, as a preventive step, FWF members sourcing from India should consult with their current or prospective suppliers to emphasize that employment under Sumangali(-like) schemes is clearly in violation of the FWF Code of Labour Practices.

Companies should ensure that information about their rights, and the FWF complaints line are also available at subcontractors, dormitories or hostels where the workers are found.

Also, agents or intermediates working on a company’s behalf should be aware of the risks outlined here. FWF strongly encourages companies to schedule regular visits to Indian suppliers including dormitories/hostels.

These measures are in addition to all standard FWF procedures, like posting the FWF Code of Labour Practices in the local languages, the complaint number and participation in the Workplace Education Programme. FWF members sourcing from India are assessed each year on their efforts and systems in FWF’s Brand Performance Check.

 

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