CHELLAMMAL is a frail, old woman, shy otherwise, but anger surges through her as she speaks of Vijaykumar Mill in Palani. Her daughter was one of the 789 girls working there as apprentices under the sumangali scheme for Rs.15 as daily stipend. Not one of them received the promised lump-sum amount of Rs.25,000 because the mill shut down in 2002.
Chellammal was at the office of the Urban and Rural Institute for Social Education (URISE), a non-governmental organisation in Madurai, which is helping the young women fight for their rights. We first approached the police in Palani, but they refused to register a case against the mill owner, she said.
Seven years have passed since her daughter was dismissed on charges of having a love affair. The mill had started retrenching apprentices since 2000 on flimsy grounds. They usually targeted girls who were close to completing their three-year term. Chellammal narrated the story of Kanni from Ayyampettai who committed suicide after her marriage plans failed because she did not get the money.
V. Napolean Raj of URISE said the mill had drawn girls from 12 districts across Tamil Nadu and had brought some even from Kerala. This made it difficult for us to bring everyone together once the workers left for their villages, he said. Mills fear strong resistance from locally drawn labour, he added.
Napolean said he learnt of the plight of the mill girls while conducting gender awareness programmes in the northern parts of Madurai district where the practices of female infanticide and foeticide are still rampant among the Kallar and Dalit communities. Petchiammal from Kinnimangalam village near Madurai had worked in Vijaykumar Mill from 1999 onwards. She said the mill atmosphere was tightly controlled by supervisors and security guards who even used verbal abuse to intimidate them. Even the letters that we wrote or received were scrutinised, she said.
She recalled being made to stand under the scorching sun as punishment for not turning up for overtime one day. There were times when the girls had to suppress natures call as leaving the shop floor during working hours was difficult under the supervisors watchful eye. About 70 girls slept in a hall. One half of the hall was used as a warehouse. She said, We had to sleep curled up on the floor so that we did not hit the girls sleeping next to us.
According to K. Selvaraju, secretary-general of the Southern India Mills Association, Vijaykumar Mill is a wrong example to go by. It became a sick mill long ago. There even permanent workers have not been given statutory entitlements, then how can a girl who worked for three years get her money? You cannot take that as an example and say the entire system is wrong, he told Frontline. Chellammals worst memories are those of waiting to take her daughter home for the Pongal holiday. We would stand for hours outside the mill gate, she said. The girl would return home looking battered after all the work, her voice choked with tears. She said inhaling cotton dust caused breathing problems and cough.
Napolean said the girls who stayed put were asked to return home and wait until the mill reopened. But that never happened; the mill shut down in 2002 citing heavy losses. The girls filed a petition in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court but were redirected to the labour court in Tiruchi. Napolean said the mill management never turned up for the court hearings and ignored the petitions from the workers.
In March 2007, the labour court gave an award directing the mill to remit nearly Rs.2 crore for the workers who had appealed. The management has not responded so far and the girls claim that the mill owner has remained elusive.Vidya Venkat