India’s cotton mills

Indian woman working in a cotton mill

To India’s poor and marginalised, it all sounds too good to be true. ‘Sumangali’, meaning ‘happily married’, is the name given to an employment scheme in some of India’s cotton mills in the state of Tamil Nadu. 

Recruits are enticed by the promise of a lump sum payment at the end of their three to five years contract, as it gives them the opportunity to pay for a dowry. In India, a dowry is a sum of money or gifts given to the bridegroom’s family along with the bride. Even though dowry is prohibited by law it is still practiced. Without a dowry, many girls are unable to get married.

The 'Sumangali' scheme has similarities to bonded labour. Of all the 'Sumangali' workers who reach the end of their contract, less than 35% receive the promised lump sum. 

How are workers recruited? 

More than 200,000 women and girls have been duped and trafficked into cotton mill 'Sumangali' schemes in Tamil Nadu, India. Six out of every ten are Dalits.

Unmarried women and girls are targeted by recruitment brokers to work in the factories spinning, weaving and dyeing cotton. The traffickers visit parents living in largely poor and marginalised communities and persuade them to sign up their daughters for employment. 
The recruitment practice often involves false promises regarding working hours, wages and safety, though this could not be further from the reality of the barbed-wired, concrete-walled factory buildings.

What are the working conditions like? 

  • Hazardous – injury and illness due to lack of safety equipment and appropriate training.
  • Exhausting – at least 12 hour working days, six days a week, sometimes without any breaks and often expected to work another 4 hours without pay.
  • Isolated – very limited contact with friends or family, confined to living and working on factory premises.
  • Vulnerable – frequent verbal abuse of female workers by male supervisors, with physical or even sexual harassment not uncommon.  

Did you know that a young Dalit girl of 14 may have been trafficked to make the cotton t-shirt you wear?

Cotton mills in Tamil Nadu, India supply high street retailers in the UK and around the world.