Monday, December 2, 2013


The Sumangali Girls in India Who Spin the Yarn for Our Cheap-Ass Sweaters

At Mother Jones, Dana Liebelson follows the cheap-clothes supply chain back to:

...a vast facility where close to 1,000 girls, many in their teens, lived 10 or 15 to a room. From 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. every day, including weekends, [Aruna] fed and monitored rusty machines that spun raw cotton into yarn. Her bosses often woke her in the middle of the night because, she recalls, there was "always some sort of work, 24 hours a day." Aruna made just a quarter of the $105 a month she was promised, about $0.84 a day.

Aruna shows me a scar on her hand, more than an inch long, where a machine cut her. She often saw girls faint from standing for too long. One had her hair ripped out when it got caught in a machine. Others were molested by their supervisors. "They said we would get less work if we slept with them," Aruna says. Sometimes girls would disappear, and everyone would speculate whether they'd died or escaped.

Aruna, a Tamil village girl, is now 19 and working as a nurse; she'd started factory work at her facility because of the promised $105 a month, which would have been enough to help her family, get her a college education and build the $1,200 dowry (paid in gold bullion!) that is still required by tradition. The dowry obligation (ban dowries) has created a market for massive exploitation: Liebelson writes, "In Tamil Nadu, many people know a girl like Aruna, someone who has been lured to work in the garment factories with the promise of earning a dowry. The scheme is so common that it even has a name: sumangali, the Tamil word for 'happily married woman.'"

Liebelson (and her photographer, driver and translator) are mobbed and threatened when they try to get into one of the gated, secure compounds, and sumangali labor seems to be a sort of open secret among the industry spokespeople she speaks to. Reform efforts often reach only the first part of the supply chain, and seem awfully toothless: just recommendations without any acknowledgment of implementation, or worse ("The Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association suggested replacing ceiling fans with wall fans, since ceiling fans 'give access for person to commit suicide by hanging'").

Marijn Peepercamp, a researcher who contributed to the 2012 Dutch watchdog report, estimates that 80 percent of spinning mills in Tamil Nadu employ sumangali workers. She tells me that when US companies find out they're supporting sumangali, they often increase inspections in garment factories—but not necessarily the mills, which can be located several villages away. Andrea Roos, a spokeswoman for H&M, told me that when inspectors find safety or labor problems at a garment factory, the company does three unannounced audits over the next 18 to 24 months. But of the spinning mills, she says, "We normally do not have direct contractual influence."

Sure you don't.

[Mother Jones]

16 Comments / Post A Comment

Angry Panda

Dowries are illegal in India already.


@Angry Panda Since, like, Nehru, right?


@Angry Panda Doesn't mean they don't still exist. Same with the caste system.

Angry Panda

@Jaya Of course, I am not arguing that it doesn't exist. I am from India, I see it happening all the time. I typed out a longer comment the first time and then deleted it because I do not usually post comments like this, but the "Ban dowries" parenthesis really irked me. First of all, the article does mention that it is illegal, and secondly, it feels a bit patronising. I may be overthinking things, but I feel like the general coverage of women's issues in non-western countries here lately has been a bit hurried and not well thought-out.


@Angry Panda Ahh, I read it more as an exasperated "ugh, can we just ban the idea of dowries" comment than an actual idea for a solution. It'd be like saying "ban the patriarchy;" a solution that's obviously not possible but would be so nice if it actually were.

Angry Panda

@Jaya Fair enough. I am coming at it with the point of view of someone who's had to answer a lot of clueless questions about the serious issues India faces, and am a bit tired of it, which makes me cranky and easily offended, I must admit.


@Angry Panda I totally get where you're coming from. I'm half-Indian and definitely get a lot of those questions.


@Jaya @Angry Panda yeah that's how i meant it - that saying "ban dowries" is like saying "ban men," in that it is obviously not possible but just a really nice dream - i did peace corps in a country where dowries were similarly bankrupty and terrible and oppressive to every member of the woman's family, i'm not flippant about stuff like this and am still negotiating the way that Blog Life means coming off & being read that way sometimes

artificial owl

Fuck. This. Companies like H&M CHOOSE not to extend their contractual influence all the way down the supply chain to the mills - probably because it would end up costing them more to care about who their garment factories contract with. As it says in the article, western brands call the shots, and they could be a lot more rigorous about how they monitor and enforce labor standards within their entire chain of production. But of course they don't, and girls in the third world end up exploited and raped so girls in the first world can look cute for $15 on a friday night in something they won't keep for more than a few months. sick sad world.


my neighbor's mom makes $82 hourly on the internet. She has been laid off for 7 months but last month her pay was $13571 just working on the internet for a few hours. see this site www.Ring77.com


Unfortunately this is probably the same way expensive ass sweaters are produced, too.

Pocket Witch

@irieagogo Ugh, I know. Why is the world so awful? And why are the people who actually control the awfulness so awful themselves?


@irieagogo True. The J. Crew sweater and the H&M sweater were most likely produced by similar workers. And unfortunately, trying to buy clothing by small indie companies often means a choice between a really short, toddler-esque sundress or a cropped sweatshirt. With, like, a kitten on it. When what I really need is a black wool skirt or office-appropriate sweater.
I buy most of my clothing from consignment/thrift stores and always have, but will definitely say that it's becoming harder and harder to find used clothes worth buying.


The good news, if there could be said to be some (light in the darkness...) is that the underlying drive to purchase which drives this is based upon an unfulfilled need and agitation.

That's good news because... it's actually a build-in that if you're feelin' good you won't be feelin' like buyin' some slave labor produced goods. Organically, innately, you will be repelled, naturally. It doesn't taste good, and it's not good calories.

And, as someone with a life-long addiction to junk food, but with also a taste for good healthy food, I can attest that it's much nicer to have a more wholesome diet than to be all strung out on crappy foods that rob your energy. So there is incentive to not want to be complicit and participate in these kinds of things. Because it really gives you kind of a terrible feeling... and who wants that? Anyone who is in the driver's seat of their life would totally not. It's only when you go totally off the rails that crap like that occurs.

And, yes, it is hard to get in that drivers seat and take ownership of your life. But it's not like... impossible. And, like anything, there is a learning curve. Which is still kind of coagulating when you think that people really only became literate on a large scale in the last hundred or so years. Things can change exponentially, and it isn't only always for the bad. Awesome things can happen.


I should clarify, I'm totally not against consumption -- I'm not an Airitarian! I like things! I like nifty things! But I don't like them at the expense of my very soul and humanity. I mean, thanks, but I don't need the t-shirt that much.

We know so much about consumer behavior, and how really mostly what people are buying is an identity and a lifestyle. A certain kind of cultural currency and cache. Something that says something (good, admirable, enviable or aspirational) about them. I mean, I don't know the terms, I'm not a marketer, but we know this about consumers/people. So what we're all purchasing is rather elusive and ephemeral (while also being very --even ultra-- specific and recognizable). It's sort of a thing of our own creation. Signifiers and whatnot.


@clothierhavier Such a good point! I'm in a marketing class and it's really eye opening about how much a false sense of need can be manufactured. My teacher was talking about trends (which, let's be honest, is mostly a way of convincing people to buy a new something every season) and how when the market is saturated with a particular style you can find it at resale places like goodwill, but then she rolled her eyes and said, "But obviously we're not selling to thoooose people." It was surreal.

And I haven't purchases an unused item of clothing in years [except for my winter coat](mostly because when I buy by the pound at the goodwill outlet I can get X brand of well-made jeans, slightly worn, for fifty cents, but also because it would be a crying shame for those pants to end up in a landfill), but I haven't stopped purchasing things altogether. Each purchase though does allow a whole range of options (can I buy this used, can I buy this fair trade, can I offset this purchase with a donation to a charity?) that can minimize or balance the negative effects.

I feel like it's the very least we can do.

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