Every year, schemes in India known as ‘sumangali thittam’ lure thousands of girls, often from poor rural communities, into the garment industry with an incentive of earning their own dowry (marriage payment) at the end of a three-year ‘apprenticeship’. Instead these young girls end up working in deplorable conditions, returning to their families years later empty-handed due to a lack of legal or regulatory protection.
Amiya* would rather die than go back to working on the sumangali thittam scheme. “I don’t want to live in this world if that happens,” she says, folding and re-folding the material of her pepper red sari on her lap. “I felt like a slave.”Amiya had planned to work for three years, for a daily wage of 110 rupees (less than £1.50) and an end payment of 40,000 (£520). She lived in a hostel at the mill, and worked from 3.30pm to midnight, or midnight till 8.30am, every night of the week. Often she would be forced to work a double shift, meaning she would work for eighteen hours, with just two 15-minute breaks. She was given dosa (a pancake made from rice batter) for breakfast, and rice and water for lunch and dinner. Very soon she became anaemic.Amiya didn’t make it to the end of her contract. Eighteen months in, her friend was found dead during a shift, having consumed chemical hair dye. The supervisors said she had committed suicide “because she was in love with a boy”. Amiya thinks differently. “I think they have done something to her and killed her,” she says, explaining her friend’s body had been found covered with mysterious wounds and bruises.After that, Amiya persuaded her parents to let her leave the scheme. She has nothing to show for her time in the mill: she spent her wages on treating her anaemia, and was too frightened to ask for any part of the end payment. “I was afraid [the supervisors] would threaten me,” she says. Through this project, Amiya is now enrolled on a one year technical training course in fashion design at a training centre in Dindigul. Here she hopes to gain the knowledge and skills required to secure safe employment or start up her own business.* Name changed to protect anonymity
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