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A 14-year-old girl who has started homebased tailoring work subcontracted by factories during the pandemic. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

In India’s T-shirt factory of the world, Covid-19 puts clock back 20 years on child labour

  • The garment hub of Tiruppur in India employs 700,000 and exports up to US$4 billion annually to global brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, and Gap
  • Until recently, it had been making progress in eliminating child labour. Then Covid-19 came along
Human rights

Suma* turns the mustard-yellow sleeve inside-out, straightens the creases, and places it neatly on top of a pile. Next to it are two other piles – one for necks, and another for body pieces.

Sitting cross-legged on a floor mat, the 14-year-old works eight to nine hours every day. Her employer, Nicholas*, 51, stitches the sleeves and necks onto the bodies to make T-shirts. During a single day Suma will pile up parts for 300 T-shirts, and earn 150 rupees (US$2).

Suma started working with Nicholas last year after the Covid-19 pandemic hit India in March 2020. Her parents, daily wage labourers, lost work to the pandemic and have earned nothing for the past 10 months. To survive, they have borrowed US$1,600 from private lenders at an interest rate of 10 per cent per week.

Working next to Suma are Mukul* and Manik*, two brothers from her neighbourhood, aged 12 and 13.

All three attended the neighbourhood government school, which has been shut throughout the pandemic. Suma has been attending classes three days a week since September 1, when the state government reopened schools for Grade 9 and above. Mukul and Manik, in lower grades, watch classes on a state-run television channel for half an hour everyday.

“My parents don’t like me working. But, we have no choice,” Suma said, speaking in fluent English.

Life in a Child Labour Free Zone hasn’t been the same since the pandemic began.
Manik, 13, works at a small garment enterprise manufacturing T-shirts in Tiruppur. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

‘T-shirt factory of the world’

Suma, Mukul and Manik live and work in Pandiyan Nagar of Tiruppur, India’s largest garment hub and the unofficial “T-shirt factory of the world”.

Tiruppur, a city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, exports goods worth US$3.5 billion to US$4 billion annually to some of the biggest global brands, including Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, and Gap. The garment cluster, home to more than 1,000 enterprises, employs over 700,000 people.

The industry has long been dogged by child labour, but in recent years campaigns by residents, non-profit organisations, the government and the industry itself had made progress.

In one such campaign, communities created Child Labour Free Zones (CLFZ), areas where children were removed from all forms of labour – gruelling factory jobs or menial home-based work – and enrolled into formal schools.

“We then went around every house verifying that no child was working and pasting a sticker on the door,” said Kala Devi, a member of Child Rights Protection Forum, a neighbourhood committee that monitors Tirupur’s Anna Nagar ward. The sticker reads “education to all” and signifies that the household has no working child. In two wards, they covered over 3,000 houses.

On December 28, 2016, the Pandiyan Nagar and Anna Nagar wards were formally declared CLFZs. Between 2015 and 2017, the campaign transformed 12 of 60 wards of Tiruppur into CLFZs. It takes three years of work to create a CLFZ, and continuous monitoring to maintain it, Devi said.

But, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry has regressed. The forum members have reported a resurgence of child labour in all CLFZs.

“We have gone 20 years back in our fight against child labour,” said Viyakula Mary, Executive Director of Save, a non-profit group that was instrumental in creating CLFZs.

Kala Devi, a member of the Child Rights Protection Forum in Tiruppur’s Anna Nagar ward. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

‘20 years back’

Many garment enterprises, reeling under pandemic-induced shutdowns and a slump in orders, have roped in children. They are also facing labour shortages with migrant workers staying away due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, families have lost income and are under financial pressure. The prolonged closure of schools has made children available for work. The state-run education television channel has poor content and is watched by few, while online classes are inaccessible to the poor who can’t afford smartphones and data plans.

Nicholas has been running his T-shirt enterprise for 20 years. During the pandemic, several neighbours have asked him to employ their children. “I try to help as much as I can,” he said.

Nicholas receives work from factories, targeting both export and domestic markets, through subcontractors. But the orders have come down from about 5,000 pieces in a week to 2,000. Currently, there’s no export work, which pays double the domestic rates. “The piles of cloth used to touch the ceiling. Now, this is all I have for today,” he said, pointing at a foot-tall pile of knitwear material.

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But it’s not a declining industry’s desperation for viability that has pushed it to exploit children. The industry has maintained revenues, with a surge in domestic sales compensating for the drop in exports in 2020-21. Raja M Shanmugam, president of Tirupur Exporters Association, estimates that in the 2021-22 financial year exports will increase by 20 per cent, to US$4.1 billion, “owing to a surge in demand for casual wear globally”.

Rather, it is about cutting costs. As Mary put it: “Employers can’t hire adults for the wages they pay children.”

It is not only home-based or micro enterprises like Nicholas’ that are employing children. Since the start of the pandemic, big factories have been employing them in ever larger numbers.

Shanmugam said the industry had advocated the eradication of child labour for the past 15 years but was unsure if the pandemic had changed that. “The pandemic has restricted physical visits. So we don’t know if things have gone wrong.”

A garment factory in Tiruppur. Factories of varying sizes dot the Tirupur landscape. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

Going wrong

Devi, the protection forum member at Anna Nagar, said her neighbours, two sisters aged 12 and 14, joined a garment factory after their elder sister and mother had lost many months’ income. The girls worked as helpers – trimming extra threads, folding clothes, and packing boxes – 12 hours a day and up to 16 hours when urgent orders had to be finished. Each girl made around US$20 per week.

The girls didn’t like working but their family’s finances left them little choice. “Despite having worked against child labour all these years, seeing their financial struggle, I did not have the heart to ask them to stop working,” Devi said.

India has specific laws against child labour. But there are loopholes in the laws and laxity in their implementation. The age of the child and the nature of work and risks involved determine whether an offending business is punished. Businesses take advantage.

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The garment industry was powerful, financially and politically, said C Nambi, founder of the non-profit Centre for Social Education and Development, which works on protection of child rights. “This adds to the government’s reluctance in acting against them.”

In several rescue cases, officials have shied away from booking offenders under laws relating to child labour, bonded labour, or human trafficking. Often, cases are filed under lesser charges, such as negligence. During the pandemic, cases have been filed under quarantine and travel-related offences.

An official with the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health said that with schools closed, there had been a slight increase in incidences of child labour. “In August, we conducted raids at 56 factories across Tiruppur. We rescued 13 children from 10 factories.”

Garment factories overlooking the Noyyal river in Tiruppur. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

These raids have been directed by the state High Court in a case that reveals the extent to which officials have shut their eyes to the problem.

In July 2020, a social activist CM Sivababu had to rescue a friend’s daughter from a spinning mill near Tiruppur himself, after his plea elicited no response from officials. It was only after he filed a petition in the High Court that the government raided the mill and rescued a group of 40 children. Most were girls between 13 and 16 years of age.

In spinning mills, over 60 per cent of workers were girls, Nambi said.

On August 6, 2020, the court ordered another raid and another 113 children were rescued from the same mill. The police filed a First Information Report under two laws related to the pandemic – one for negligent acts causing spread of infection, and another for disobeying quarantine rules. Both carry prison terms of up to six months or a monetary fine or both. No charges were filed under laws relating to child labour, bonded labour, or human trafficking.

The next day, the court observed that the case was “only the tip of an iceberg”, and that child labour was “rampant”. It directed officials to “conduct raids regularly to eradicate child labour”. Following this, the police filed charges under bonded labour, trafficking of persons, and cruelty and exploitation of children.

Some of the rescued children testified. The court observed that they appeared to have been tutored to make statements in favour of their employers.

Most other children were sent back home without even recording their statements, said an activist who was part of the rescue operation. “Without strong testimony of victims, the case is certain to collapse in court,” the activist warned.

Suma, 14, Mukul, 12, and Manik, 13, work on manufacturing T-shirts at a micro garment enterprise in Tiruppur. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf

Still hope

Still, while the Child Labour Free Zones of Tiruppur may not be all they once were, Suma hasn’t given up hope. She plans to study further, even though she will continue working after school to support her family and ensure that her younger brother remains in school.

Asked about her aspirations, she bit her lip. “Teacher?”, Nicholas’s wife prompted her.

“No,” said Suma firmly. “I want to become a doctor.”

“Army,” Manik chimed in. “Police,” said Mukul.