Bonded labour at mills for unmarried girls

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Chennai:  Poor girls in rural Tamil Nadu are being exploited by spinning mills promising them a lump sum for their wedding if they work for three years. Similar to the bonded labour system, it clearly violates labour laws. Perhaps for the first time, the victims themselves lead an expose of the racket in a public hearing.

At seventeen, Shanthi agreed to work for a spinning mill in Coimbatore on a three year contract. In addition to her daily wages, the employer had promised her family Rs 30,000 at the end of her contract. But six months before her tenure ended she met with an accident at work and lost her fingers. She was sent back home with no compensation or the promised amount.

"Life has become so complicated and difficult for me now. Often I feel should I live at all?" she says. 
 
Shanti is one of the 40 young women who narrated their plight at the public hearing organised by the Tamil Nadu women's commission.

The system is akin to a modern bonded labour system called Sumangali. It targets poor unmarried girls and lures poor families in remote villages with wedding prospects for their daughters. But drop outs at any stage are not even paid the proportionate lump sum.

K Venkatachalam, Chief Advisor of the Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association says, "There is some exploitation, we are not saying no, but we are also sending clear guidelines to our mills what they can do and what they cannot do."

The government on the other hand agrees that the labour department has been turning a blind eye to the practice. "The labour department can be a bit more pro-active, that's what the jury felt," says Dr Qudsia Gandhi a member of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women.

According to government estimates more then thirty seven thousand adolescent girls are trapped in this system across Tamil Nadu. But ironically this public hearing was limited to working out cash compensation and there was no action on human rights violations.

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