Trafficking of teens into Tamil Nadu’s textile mills peaks during the pandemic

Trafficking of teens into Tamil Nadu’s textile mills peaks during the pandemic

Trafficking of teens into Tamil Nadu’s textile mills peaks during the pandemic

Representative image (Picture credit - ILO/A.Khemka)

The prevalence of child labour in Tamil Nadu has increased by nearly 280% since March last year, and a huge number of these new, teenaged workers are being fed into the state’s gigantic but poorly regulated textile manufacturing sector.

Chennai: On a July afternoon, last year in Tiruvannamalai, child rights activist CM Sivababu (52) was visiting his friend and neighbour when he learnt that their teenaged daughter Lata* had been recruited into a job at a textile unit in Tiruppur, nearly 300 km away. His wife had made the arrangements without asking him and Lata had just left home that day, the father told Sivababu, who later learnt that she was among several girls from the district who had been lured to work at these factories in Tiruppur and Coimbatore.

Shocked, Sivababu alerted district officials before rushing to Kadaladi, a village 26 km from Tiruvannamalai, where Lata and more than 200 other girls were gathered before being shipped off to their new workplaces. Most of the girls had been studying in classes 8 to 12 before the pandemic struck. Before he could reach them, the teenagers were trafficked away in two buses, despite the fact that the lockdown was in effect and public transport was off the roads.

It took two days for Sivababu to track Lata down, at a textile mill in Avinashi, 14 km from Tiruppur. With the failure of district officials and the state child helpline to act on the complaint he had filed on July 13, Sivababu and his friend rode all the way to Chenniyappa Yarn Spinners Pvt Ltd from where Lata was rescued the following morning.

Soon after, Sivababu filed a habeas corpus in the Madras High Court seeking action against the mill/factory owners and the errant officials following which over 174 teenagers were rescued in two batches from the same mill and sent back home through their respective District Child Protection Units.

In March 2021, Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) (Tamil Nadu and Puducherry), a network of NGOs working to protect child rights, conducted a rapid survey in 24 districts of Tamil Nadu. Titled ‘Lost Gains - COVID-19 - Reversing the situation of child labour’, it showed that the prevalence of child labour among vulnerable communities increased by nearly 280 per cent compared to the pre-covid situation. And 18 per cent of these working children faced mental, verbal, physical abuse by their employers.

CACL convenor and Director of the NGO Rights Education And Development Centre (READ), R Karuppusamy, said that 30.8 per cent of the survey’s respondents were employed in textile units where they were made to work for anything between 4 to 12 hours for a minimum daily wage of Rs 100 to Rs 300. Considered a non-hazardous industry, compliance with child labour laws is lax and many teenagers are employed in local units where they don’t have to produce proof of age.

While the instances of teens being lured to work increased sharply during the pandemic, not many cases or complaints were registered, rued Tiruvannamalai’s Childline Project Director S Murugan. “During the lockdown, relatives of the children acted as agents and managed to transport them on their two-wheelers to the mills,” he said, adding that at least 58 teenagers from the district have been rescued from these industrial hubs since the pandemic.

Driven by debt, encouraged by families

Amudha* (15), a Class 9 student from Adamangalam Pudur, 24 km from Tiruvannamalai, never thought she would have to earn a living. But mounting family debt and her father Pandian’s* failing health forced her and her sisters -  Kalai* (19) and Senthamizh* (17), studying in class 12 and 10 respectively - to seek work at a textile unit for Rs 7,500 per month.

Pandian had borrowed money from an insurance company to marry off his eldest daughter. His wife works as a farmhand and the sole income had become insufficient to run the family and cover their debt. They allowed an agent to recruit the girls in early 2020, and though the girls returned home after a few months due to lockdown, Pandian plans to send them to work again.

In other districts too, the story repeats itself. Geetha* (15), a Class 10 dropout from Krishnagiri, was trafficked into working at a spinning mill at Dharapuram (69 km from Tiruppur district) in June 2021 where she received a monthly salary of Rs 9,000. She needed it to clear a debt of Rs 4-5 lakhs that the family incurred to pay her younger brother’s medical bills, her father said, adding that she was among the 15 teenagers from their village of Venkatapuram who were carted off by an agent for this work.

Her father is also hopeful that the job will help her get married in a couple of years and he could be relieved of his “burden”.

National Child Labour Project (NCLP) official D Vijayakumar, who has been conducting several rescue operations in Coimbatore, said employers justify engaging teenagers and parents too feel that their kids will pick up new skills at work instead of idling away during the lockdown. While their department has been raising awareness about the ill effects of child labour by sticking bills and posters, agents and factories have been more creative in luring kids to work.

According to Karuppusamy, the textile sector became infamous for perpetuating child labour after the labour laws were diluted by the new economic policy in the late 1990s.  Globalisation, a fallout of the new economic policy, relaxed market regulations and led to an increase in the demand for child labourers, he explained.

“It was the same time when heads of textile units decided to give VRS [voluntary retirement] to existing employees and hire young girls to maximise profit. They also introduced the camp coolie system, also known by many names like Sunmangali Thittam. Roughly translated, it means ‘marriage scheme’ and is a ploy to trap girls with an assurance to provide a minimum wage and a bulk amount after 1-3 years of working in the unit. When a former employee gets married, the mill workers attend the function and use that as a platform to advertise their offerings,” he added.

A Viyakula Mary, Executive Director of Tiruppur-based non-profit societal reconstruction organisation Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), said that some textile units are turning teenagers into recruiting agents by offering them extra money and attractive rewards. 

Banners from textile mills advertising incentives for those who recruit workers. (right) Popular textile mill KPR offers Rs 3500 plus a saree and a make-up set if one brings in one 'kanmani' or an adolescent girl worker. If one brings in ten 'kanmanis', they will get Rs 35,000 and an LED television; (left) A similar offer by a hostel for textile workers that offers gold coins for those who bring in new workers (Pictures sourced by RK Srividya)

Children of single parents and those who live with their grandparents are the most vulnerable, stated P Kavitha, who works for the READ. “To control this, we formed local adolescent groups which identify vulnerable kids and raise awareness on several topics including menstruation. We also involved their parents in community support groups where they shall be educated about the ill-effects of sending children to work.”

“Of late, society’s perspective towards work has changed so much that troubles at the workplace are being normalised. Usually, when someone below 15 years is employed in a non-hazardous industry, no case will be reported. Also, the officials initiate action only after any child or teenager at work complains. In this scenario, it becomes challenging to bring down the child labour cases in the state,” Mary said, speaking to 101Reporters.

Home-based units go unnoticed

On one hand, more teenagers are being trafficked to work in mills, and on the other, a sudden spike has been observed in the number of child and adolescent workers in home-based units, especially in suburbs and rural areas of Tamil Nadu, during the lockdown.

When tailors Anitha* (29) and her husband (31) from Karpanapalayam in Tiruppur district lost their jobs to the pandemic, they found it very difficult to sustain their family of four, which includes two boys aged 9 and 7. After her husband fell ill, Anitha took up cloth-cutting work in a home-based unit near her house for 9 to 10 hours every day. Some large garment units outsource such cutting work to home-based units through agents who pay workers on a piece basis. After the pandemic, this work became Anitha’s only source of income

Before the pandemic, she used to make Rs 3,000 per week by cutting 30 to 50 pieces for Rs 100. However, to compensate for the loss of her husband’s income, Anitha has started to involve her eldest son in the work. Asked if the young boy likes helping her, she said both her children understand the family’s situation. “The elder one is uninterested in piece cutting. He, however, continues to do a little work amid play for some pocket money to buy his favourite snacks. Now, together we make Rs 15,000 a month,” Anitha said.

The only way to curb child labour, Karuppusamy stressed, is fair trade and the need to track the origins of products. “While social auditing, foreign brands and retailers should be made to ensure that their suppliers are accountable for the labour they hire. One has to ensure that child labourers are not engaged at any point of the supply chain,” he said.

Unintended consequences of reforms

R Vidya Sagar, a child protection specialist who has worked with UNICEF, opined that the legal framework of the country has made it easier for industries to exploit adolescent labourers.

Experts pointed specifically to two Centre-driven reforms for worsening the situation.

Before the Right to Education Act was introduced, Tamil Nadu had a unified elementary education system. When the RTE Act ensured free education until Class 8, there were dropouts in secondary education, which went unaddressed even as child labour among teenagers and adolescents continued to increase. So, it is essential to make secondary education mandatory. Post-pandemic, over a million kids are out of school in India, with the path to their return unclear, Sagar explained. 

Senior advocate Geetha Ramaseshan also stated that gaps in legislation are creating space for violations. She pointed to the recent labour law reforms which consolidate 29 Central labour laws in four Labour Codes, effectively diluting the rule of law. For example, doing away with physical inspections at the industries is not the way forward as there are high chances of young workers being trapped in mills, she said, adding, “The Codes are giving up on the protection of workers by excluding units in domestic, home-based and unorganised categories.”

The exploitation of teenagers in the name of internships/short-term work in the medium and small textile units should end, said child rights activist M Andrew Sesuraj. For this, the state government should make efforts to strengthen child protection committees in villages, and announce a cap on the recruitment of adolescents under the Apprentices Act, 1961. He urged the government to be accountable for the working condition of labourers, especially in the unorganised sector, and sought the inclusion of textile units under the list of hazardous operations. 

Funding institutions at the forefront of the fight 

Another reason for child labour flourishing in Tamil Nadu is the “ineffectiveness” of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR), said sources, adding that the commission functioned without a chairperson for almost a year before the appointment of Saraswathi Rangaswamy in 2021.

Insufficient budget has been a major deterrent as well, said child rights activist A Devaneyan. “Kerala government has been allocating an annual budget of over Rs 7 crore for the commission. Tamil Nadu, however, is nowhere close. In 2019, it allocated Rs 53 lakh in the annual budget. The members are paid a meagre sum and have little to no facilities unlike their counterparts in other states.”

Introducing an online complaint system, updating complaint status in SCPCR website, issuing ID cards for Child Welfare Committee (CWC) members, appointing district secretaries for CWC, creating databanks, providing better wages and permanent posts for District Child Protection Unit workers are some of the suggestions made to help the commission function better towards eradicating child labour.

Sources in the Labour Department told 101Reporters that for the first time, the state government allocated Rs 38.05 lakh under the Tamil Nadu State Action Plan for 2021-22 to eradicate child labour. This fund shall be used to conduct awareness programmes, workshops and training programmes to educate people on children’s issues.

A top official informed that the frequent/sudden departmental transfer of higher officials and providing them with additional charges have made it difficult to follow up with the children’s issues. “During the pandemic, we issued guidelines to all district administrations for monitoring home-based units. District Task Forces were not active but efforts were made to ensure children received dry ration and eggs under the NCLP,” the official added.

Tamil Nadu has 15 NCLP districts which were to be provided with annual assistance of Rs 4 lakh by the Central government. However, not all 15 districts got this fund allocated after 2014 as some did not complete the survey on child labourers, the official pointed out.

Meanwhile, young girls like Chandra* (16) continued to be driven by circumstances to barter their childhood for minimum wage. Debt-ridden after the wedding of her two elder sisters, she joined a local baniyan manufacturing company at Vaniputhur (50 km from Erode district), working for Rs 190 a day in order to support her family. She stopped working after two months (May and June 2021) when READ offered her an education scholarship to fulfil her dreams of becoming a nurse.

Others, like the teenaged daughters of Bharathi* (42) from Tiruvannamalai district, don’t dare to have dreams. Battling poverty ever since her husband passed away, Bharathi was forced to send her 18-year-old daughter to work in the Avinashi mill last year, despite her mental health issues. In 20 days, the young girl was paid Rs 4,000 and sent home after being rescued in a raid. Now, the single mother, a daily wage labourer, is struggling to provide healthcare for her daughter during the pandemic.

While the harsh reality is that such jobs are often the only bitter hope for thousands of teens and their families, governments must continue to reform and enforce child labour laws, empower institutions that act against the exploitation of children as well as create targeted employment opportunities for vulnerable communities. 

*Names of all minors and a few others have been changed to protect their identities

This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation 

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