Up to 80 percent of workers in cotton spinning mills in southern India are female, and most are adolescent girls from low castes. Despite the importance of the industry in providing local jobs, workers face many risks. Girls are often recruited to work under fraudulent pretences and lack basic employment rights and protections. Many girls work more than 60 hours a week, yet are commonly paid at half the legal minimum wage for apprentices. Cases of physical, verbal and sexual intimidation and abuse tend to go unreported and uninvestigated.
Our local partners in the southern India hotspot, located in Tamil Nadu state, aim to tackle forms of bonded labour in spinning mills through targeted community-based interventions. Our partner, Women’s Organisation in Rural Development (WORD), works to improve conditions in textile mills through education, training and awareness-raising. WORD is an organisation led by women for the benefit of women.
With support from the Freedom Fund, WORD is working in 50 villages in the Namakkal District, an area with a high incidence of bonded labour. They have reached over 1,500 adolescent girls since the program began, providing life skills education, vocational training and career guidance to those at risk of exploitation. WORD has also been able to secure access to local spinning mills, enabling staff to deliver life skills training and health camps to current workers. By emphasising the link between improved working conditions and workers’ productivity, WORD has been able to build support and cooperation with many mill owners. In fact, some mill owners now approach WORD and ask to be involved in the program.
Renida Sarala, executive director of WORD, says that she has seen a reduction in child labour in the villages where they work; approximately 10 percent of children are in child labour today, having previously been as high as 60 percent. Just as importantly, girls who have participated in WORD’s life skills training program have gained confidence and are now helping to share what they have learned to prevent the exploitation of others.
‘I can see the improvement and empowerment among women and girls in the village compared to when I started working on this issue almost 20 years ago’, Sarala said. ‘Yet there is still a long way to go. Many adolescent girls and women remain unaware of their rights and their potential to contribute to society. We must create an environment to encourage them to pursue better lives through education and awareness.’
Despite this encouraging progress, Sarala notes that considerable challenges remain, including a lack of adequate sanitation and other facilities for women within mills and the broader community, continuing reluctance among some mill owners to grant workers’ rights and sexual exploitation of female workers by male employers that generally goes unreported.
Learn more in our new report: ‘Her freedom, her voice: Insights from the Freedom Fund’s work with women and girls‘.
The Freedom Fund’s southern India hotspot helps reduce bonded labour in textiles, especially among girls and young women working in spinning mills and garment factories.
Photo credit: Sanjit Das, Legatum Limited, 2018