India 'Shines' While It Sinks: Dalits Hit by 'Globalization'
By Yoginder Sikand
'India shining' truly does encapsulate the experience of some Indians, but this banal slogan is a cruel joke as far as literally hundreds of millions of other Indians are concerned, whose conditions have rapidly worsened in recent years at the same time as ruling elites and the burgeoning Indian middle-classes have thrived and prospered. As numerous studies have shown, the unprecedented prosperity the latter have witnessed has been at the cost of a huge section of the Indian population, whose grueling exploitation has made their prosperity possible. Elitist 'globalization', driven by corporate greed and a stern aversion to state intervention on behalf of the poor, has opened new doors for India's super-rich and its massive middle-class while pauperizing millions of others, leading to further widening enormous socio-economic inequalities. This process has particularly hit the most vulnerable sections of Indian society the worst, including Dalits and Adivasis. That grim reality is, however, generally obscured in the Indian 'mainstream', elite-oriented media.
A recently-published study, titled 'Captured by Cotton: Exploited Dalit Girls Produce Garments in India for European and US Markets', brilliantly brings out how multinational corporations and Indian corporate houses are raking in vast profits by exploiting cheap Indian Dalit women's labour on a vast scale, with these labourers living in slavery-like conditions. A joint publication of the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, the India Committee of the Netherlands, and the Campaign Against Sumangali Scheme, the report highlights the grueling conditions under which Dalit girls are compelled to work in hundreds of spinning mills and garment factories across Tamil Nadu that are oriented to the foreign market and are one of India's major sources of foreign exchange earnings. Tamil Nadu hosts more than 40% of the bigger Indian cotton mills and almost 80% of the smaller ones.
The report is based on an intensive study of the innocuously-sounding 'Sumangali Scheme' that has been adopted in vast numbers of garment factories across Tamil Nadu, mainly producing clothes for European and US buyers and store-chains, that have flourished In the era of 'globalization'. The Scheme serves as a bait to trap unsuspecting Dalit girls into a brutally exploitative system. The term sumangali refers to a happily-married wife, and the Scheme is projected as a means for unmarried girls to be able to save a lump-sum by working three years in the factories in the hope of being able to tot up a decent-enough dowry in order to be able to find a decent-enough husband. The actual working of the Scheme, however, the report shows on the basis of detailed empirical investigations, is in total contrast to this promise of marital bliss and is in gross violation of labour laws.
A large section of the girls trapped into the Sumangali Scheme, the report indicates, are from impoverished Dalit families. Female employees, particularly from Dalit families, are preferred by mill-owners as they are seen as cheaper, more pliable, docile and amenable to exploitation than males, particularly non-Dalits. 'Globalisation' has thus led to an increasing feminization of the labour force in the textile industry, where a male, permanent labour force has been replaced by a female, contract-based labour pool. Today, the overwhelming majority of workers in the textile industry are temporary workers who lack the facilities and rights that permanent workers once enjoyed. Employers prefer to hire workers on a temporary basis in order to cut costs in salaries and benefits and to avoid trade unionization.
Factories advertise the Sumangali Scheme as a 'unique opportunity' to earn a lump-sum of up to Rs. 40,000 in three years, and also claim to provide comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and leisure and educational activities under the Scheme. Recruiters visit poverty-stricken villages and identify young girls whom they seek to lure with false promises. Today, some 1,20,000 workers are employed under the Scheme, and a huge proportion of them are from landless Dalit families, many of which are deep in debt.
Once they join the factories under the Scheme, the girls are pushed into horrific work conditions. They also discover that the promised end-of-contract lump-sum that they hope might turn them into sumangalis one day is actually not a bonus but a part of the regular wage that is withheld by their employers, being deducted from their daily wages. Often, they do not even receive this full sum. 'The fact that employers are holding back part of the workers' wages and only pay them out after the three years have been completed makes this scheme a bonded labour scheme', says the report, adding that this is in total contravention of Indian and international labour laws. In most cases, the girls are provided no contract letter, while some are forced to sign a blank contract, leaving them with no proof about what was promised to them by the company's recruiters.
Many workers under the Sumangali Scheme earn a paltry Rs. 60 a day, with a gradual increase of only Rs 10 every six months, up to a maximum of Rs. 110 on an average. Food and boarding charges are deducted from this measly wage—much less than the statutory daily minimum wage, which, in Tamil Nadu, is Rs. 171 a day for the textile sector. To circumvent the law, the girls are hired as apprentices because in Tamil Nadu, in contrast to other states, workers can be registered as apprentices for a maximum of three years, which is probably why the Scheme is generally devised as a three-year package. At the end of the three year period the workers are entitled to the Sumangali lump-sum, but, according to the report, many workers have been denied this money. Many who quit before the contract period is over, often due to ill health caused by the unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and poor food or being deliberately fired on feeble excuses just before the end of the period, are denied the sum deducted from their wages for the lump-sum.
Working conditions under the Scheme are pathetic, the report says. The girls, many of who are below the minimum age of 14 set by Indian labour laws, are forced to work 12 hours a day, and often do not receive any compensation for over-time work, which many are compelled to do. Their work-week of 72 hours violate Indian and international laws. 'When a worker refuses to work more than one shift,' says the report, 'she is often verbally abused by the supervisors and threats are made to withhold a month's pay.' If they take some time off to rest, this must be compensated for later or else they are threatened with wage cuts. In one factory that the study team visited, the tea break for the evening shift was just three minutes! Long hours of work leads to various health problems, including respiratory diseases caused by inhalation of cotton dust and shoddy ventilation systems, tiredness and sleeplessness, but many factories lack any first aid facilities. Numerous workers reported ailments caused by over-work, such as irregular menstrual periods, heavy menstrual pains, infertility and premature menopause. Hostels, revealingly also called 'coolie camps', run by the mills for these workers are in a pathetic condition, with poor food, crowded rooms and sub-standard hygiene.
The girls' movements are carefully monitored, probably to ensure that they do not complain about their despicable working conditions or contact trade unions, and they are not allowed to leave their hostels freely. They may visit the local market once a fortnight but only if accompanied by a guard from the mill. The report quotes a girl-worker as complaining that she and her colleagues were not allowed to even speak to their families on the phone without the presence of a warden. Another girl complains that permission must be sought from the supervisor to even visit the toilet. Physical and verbal abuse from supervisors, mostly men, is not uncommon.
In one company surveyed in the report, one of India's largest apparel manufacturers, some 1250 workers are employed under the Sumangali Scheme. In order to complete the Scheme period, many workers are forced to work considerably longer than the agreed period in order to receive the lump-sum if they miss a single day of work. At the end of the three year period, the average daily wage of workers is a measly Rs. 100. Overtime work is mandatory for hostel workers and during peak production periods hostel workers have to work night shifts after having completed a full day shift, receiving a miserable Rs. 50 for four hours overtime, while according to Indian law they should actually receive double the normal wage. Parents may visit their daughters just once a month and that, too, for just an hour. The girls are not allowed to have mobile phones. They may use the phone in the warden's room on request but only to call their parents.
Sumangali workers are denied the legal benefits that other workers enjoy. Many employers do not remit workers' and employers' contributions to the Employment State Insurance and Provident Fund schemes. Typically, trade unions are not even allowed to enter the factories, and so there is no freedom of association and collective bargaining. Numerous workers under the Sumangali Scheme who have joined trade unions have been fired.
Pressure to scrap the Sumangali Scheme has been gaining momentum, with a number of trade unions, activists and NGOs, in India and abroad raising their voices against it. But, given the greed-driven logic of 'globalization', which the Indian ruling class has whole-heartedly embraced (completely unmindful of the harsh reality that if India is 'shining' for some, it is sinking for millions of others), new ways to exploit cheap Dalit labour might easily be devised even if this particular scheme is abolished. Unless the entire 'development' paradigm itself is interrogated, from a caste-class perspective and from the point of view of sustainability and ethics, merely scrapping the Scheme will not make much of a difference to millions of people whose lives are being devastated at the altar of 'development' that is based on the insatiable avarice of some at the cost of millions of others.