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Imprisoned between factory walls for dowry

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The Indian KPR Mill manufactures clothing for H&M and C&A. The personnel work there under severe conditions. “Girls are just happy with what you give them.”

Chitra (19) was secretly honoured that the recruiting agent of KPR Mill, Mr Muti, took the trouble to come and see her almost everyday. He did not give up until Chitra had spoken to her niece, who was already working at KPR Mill. Her niece convinced her to also come and work at the factory. "We get three meals a day here, and we are happy," she assured her.

In 2005, Chitra, then just over 14 years old, started working in the spinning mill of the KPR Mill plant in Indiampalayam. She lived in a hostel on the factory site, and was not allowed to leave after working hours, except sometimes on Sundays, with a chaperone. Twice a year she was given eight days holiday to visit her family. Due to the humid heat and the cotton fibres she was breathing in, she sometimes had difficulty breathing. Chitra kept going, because after three years at KPR Mill, she would receive a large amount of money: 30,000 rupees (€500), enough to pay her dowry.

Girls like Chitra are called Sumangali workers, because the promised bonus is attractive to unmarried girls (‘Sumangali’ in Tamil). There are no official figures, but according to a local development organisation, Serene Social Services Society, there are 21,000 girls working under the Sumangali system just in the vicinity of Tirupur, an important textile city one hour’s drive from Coimbatore. Presumably there are many times that number working in the entire state of Tamil Nadu.

The girls are recruited from remote villages in Tamil Nadu, where the soil is too dry for agriculture. Their parents cannot pay for secondary school. The offer from a recruitment agent for the textile factories is therefore extremely welcome. Working in a factory provides status; there is air conditioning and your skin stays light. And although they may be paid less than the Indian minimum wage, after three years there is the bonus for their dowry.

In India, everyone closes their eyes to the Sumangali system. Trade unions often do not accept these girls as members. "That is not the law, but is the practice," says a trade union representative. Local development organisations have a great deal of information on the working conditions, and sometimes organise public meetings. But they are wary about publishing their findings, out of fear of threats and ‘problems’. And the government does not intervene, because the textile industry, the motor of the local economy, is short of cheap labour.

The system is particularly popular in cotton spinning mills, the majority of which in India are in the state of Tamil Nadu. In the mills, cotton is teased, spun into a thread and then delivered to a material or clothing factory. It is therefore difficult to establish a connection to a Western client. Moreover, Indian factories often make use of an export company with a different name. The girls are also often paid by a special recruitment agency.

At KPR Mill, where Chitra ended up working, the connection to Western clients is clear. The stock-exchange listed company, with an annual turnover of €130 million, and 9000 textile workers divided across five sites, is a major player in Tamil Nadu. KPR Mill has everything under one roof, from cotton processing to making material to manufacturing clothing. All the clothing made by the company is intended for export.

According to KPR, they pay the girls a minimum of 3450 rupees (€57) per month, from which approximately 1000 rupees is deducted for room and board. But according to Chitra, she only earned a maximum of 1300 rupees per month (€21). This is less than one quarter of the minimum loan for a textile worker in India.

It is usual that the girls have to relinquish their wages to their family, because they are so poor that they can use all additional income. Sometimes the girls get pocket money, to buy sweets. Chitra was also not permitted to keep the money herself. Her father came to collect it. "It wasn’t very much," he says, apologetically. "And we had to pay for clothing and cosmetics for her."

Palanisamy Nataraj, member of the Board of Directors of KPR Mill, is proud of his labour model. "Girls here get opportunities which Indian girls do not normally get. For country girls, it is a big step forward to be allowed to work here. At home, they have to collect firewood and take care of the cattle. While they are here, the family is arranging a marriage."

At the KPR Mill plant in Arasur, a walled complex just outside Coimbatore, hundreds of identically clothed girls are sitting in a lecture hall after lunchtime. They first get into a prayer position, and then listen to someone calling orders from a stage. They stand up, put their hands up, bow forward, turn to the left, turn to the right, and sit down again, all synchronised. After this, they march to their workplace. They carry out this ritual twice a day.

"With girls, it is easy to keep discipline," says financial director Kumar when he is asked why the manual work at KPR Mill is carried out almost exclusively by women. "We do not like them to leave the complex. Boys would never keep to that rule, they want to go on the streets, always wanting more freedom. Girls are simply happy with what you give them."

According to Kumar, it would be culturally unacceptable if his workers would be allowed to leave the site unimpeded. “They are unmarried, you know. We have to offer them safety.”

All of the 9000 textile workers of KPR Mill live in hostels on site. The hostel at Arasur looks well maintained, with a large courtyard. The living areas are small, however, with mats to sleep on.

That the girls have barely any contact with the outside world has another advantage, it appears. According to director Nataraj, "Trade unions have no chance whatsoever to get in here." According to Kumar, trade unions create a great deal of unrest. "Textile factories elsewhere have been closed down due to the interference of trade unions. We offer the girls every facility. Why would they then still need trade unions?"

Nataraj says that the girls receive a bonus of 40,000 rupees after three years. "You can see it as savings that we deduct from their wages. It helps them to get married. In our culture, women have to pay a lot for this."

Western clients should not have any problem with this method of working. "Many potential clients are attracted by our facilities and our unique labour model," says Kumar. When asked, he shows the clothing that C&A and H&M manufacture in his factory – a men’s sweater, a red polo shirt and children’s leggings.

C&A and H&M had previously ended their cooperation with KPR Mill – in 2007 and 2009, respectively – due to the poor working conditions. Only when they were approached again this year by Quantum Knits, a full subsidiary of KPR Mill, did they go into business with the company again.

Working hours of 12 hours a day are very normal in most textile factories in Tamil Nadu. But KPR claims that the girls never work more than eight hours per day. The rest of the time is spent on educational courses, yoga or computer lessons. There are four computers for thousands of girls. There is a swimming pool on the site, which was not being used during the visit by De Volkskrant, according to staff because there were ‘male visitors’ present on the site.

Chitra confirms that computer and yoga classes are given, but she herself was too tired to attend them after working hours. This is because she worked twelve hours rather than eight hours per day on Fridays and Saturdays. "As compensation, so that we could take one day a week off." This day off was, however, largely spent cleaning the hostel and washing clothes. Trips outside the gate were a rarity.

On the workfloor, girls process bales of cotton using large machines. KPR Mill issues them with facemasks, basically large handkerchiefs, but they prefer not to wear them, due to the humid heat in this department. "Those masks make you short of breath," says Chitra. According to Kumar, only girls over 18 years of age are recruited for this heavy work.

Further along, in the spinning mill, girls rollerskate across the floor past the spinning machines. This enables them to check the machines faster than if they were walking. Rollerskating for eight hours a day is physically exhausting for girls, a local development organisation has warned. According to Kumar, the rollerskating is voluntary. "Rollerskating improves efficiency by 65%. The girls get extensive training. If they do not want to do it any more, we accept this."

Lakshimani (22) cannot bend her fingers. It is as if she has rheumatism. When she was 17, she started working for KPR Mill in Indiyampalayam. Before that, she helped her family on the land. Just like Chitra, she was approached by a recruitment agent of the company. "A man came by and promised 30,000 rupees if I would work there for three years."

After she had worked in the factory for 18 months as a cleaner, she fell ill and was forced to stop. Lakshimani is visibly disabled, but the cause of her disability is unclear. "It was caused by the chemicals she had to use for cleaning," she herself says. According to her uncle, the heat in the factory was the culprit.

After she left, Lakshimani has not yet been paid the amount of 15,000 rupees which she had built up up to that point. At many of the textile factories which use a Sumangali system, non-payment of the bonuses in such cases appears to be the rule rather than the exception. It is one of the objections which development organisations and Western clothing companies have to this working method.

At KPR Mill, the girls are not given an employment contract, which makes it difficult to check, after the fact, what exactly has been promised to them. But during a visit to the factory in Arasur, Nataraj denies the accusations. "The girls are always given their share, even if they leave earlier, whatever the reason is for this."

Only after Lakshimani told her story at a public meeting of former Sumangali workers in Chennai, did KPR suddenly offer her a settlement, she says. They said they would pay her 12,000 rupees. Lakshimani is now trying to get the rest of the money at the women’s commission of the court in Chennai. She is currently living in her uncle’s house.

Quite a few girls fell ill at the textile companies, according to employees of local NGOs, who are united in the Coalition Against Sumangali Scheme. A number of employees of KPR have been admitted into hospital with food poisoning, according to this organisation. According to a local newspaper, one girl died. The affair led to a furious response against KPR Mill in a local Dalit community, traditionally the casteless in India.

Director Nataraj of KPR refers to the stories as false accusations. "The trade unions hate this system, because they are losing their power. That is why they fabricate this type of story."

Chitra completed the three years at KPR Mill, and received the promised 30,000 rupees. But she was not given the opportunity to use this as a dowry, because shortly after she left the factory, she got stomach ache. She was operated on in a local hospital. Doctors found a ball of cotton fibres in her bowels, presumably ingested while working with raw cotton without a protective mask. All her money went on the operation. Her arranged engagement was called off.

Responses of H&M and C&A
H&M and C&A had been given the opportunity to respond to the findings of De Volkskrant with regard to KPR Mill.
H&M started an investigation on Friday into the working methods of KPR Mill. If H&M finds out that a Sumangali system is in place, it will end its cooperation with this company.

C&A issued three statements. In its first written statement, the clothing chain stated that it had thought that it was doing business with a different company, Quantum Knits. C&A only recently discovered that this is a full subsidiary of KPR Mill. C&A stated that it ended its business relationship with KPR in 2007, after indications emerged of the existence of a Sumangali system.

In a second statement, C&A stated that KPR only manufactured a trial shipment of 30 items of clothing. The actual order, for 58,000 men’s sweaters, was allegedly cancelled last week, because the working conditions at the company were ‘suspicious’.

Finally, C&A stated on Friday in a telephone statement that the communication department initially made a mistake: it turns out that C&A never placed orders with KPR Mill, including before May 2007.

Source: de Volkskrant

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