In India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, girls and young women are recruited and employed on a large scale to work in the garment industry. The promise: a decent wage, comfortable accommodation, and, the biggest lure: a considerable sum of money upon completion of their three-year contract. This lump sum may be used to pay for a dowry.
Although the payment of a dowry has been prohibited in India since 1961, it is still a general practice in rural India for which families often incur high debts. The recruitment and employment scheme – the Sumangali Scheme – that is the subject of this report is closely linked to the payment of a dowry. The Tamil word Sumangali refers to a married woman who leads a happy and contented life with her husband with all fortunes and material benefits. The reality of working under the Sumangali Scheme however, stands in sharp contrast to the attractive picture that is presented to the girls and young women during the recruitment process. Excessive overwork, low wages, no access to grievance mechanisms or redress, restricted freedom of movement and limited privacy are part and parcel of the working and employment conditions under this scheme. The promised end-of-contract sum is not a bonus, but part of the regular wage that is withheld by the employer. Often women workers do not even receive the full promised lump sum. Without exaggeration, the Sumangali Scheme in its worst form has become synonymous with unacceptable employment and labour conditions, even with bonded labour.