400,000 workers are employed by some 1,600 mills in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a major hub in India's $40 billion garment and textile industry. The industry, which produces yarn, fabric, and garments for high-end brands, mostly employs young village women from poor, illiterate and low-caste communities. They work up to 12 hours a day and say they routinely face intimidation, sexual remarks, and harassment. They are overworked, underweight, anaemic and hungry at work, according to doctors who have been running health camps in the region.
"More than 50 percent of the girls are hungry through the day, skipping meals or barely eating in their rush to get to work," said Dr Bobby Joseph, head of the community health department at the Bengaluru-based St John's Medical College. Nearly 45 percent are underweight, the study found, with most of the girls rarely eating fruit or veg. Joseph's study identifies a "lack of concern" by management."Because labour is cheap and available, they don't think it is necessary to invest more than the basic on their health needs," he said.
The non-profit Serene Secular Social Service Society, which ran a health camp in Dindigul district that showed most of its young workers were also malnourished.
"The meals they eat don't have sufficient calories," said S James Victor, whose Society works on labour rights. "We found that 65 percent of them have broiler chicken or an egg once a month and only 11.2 percent have greens in a month. What they eat is not enough for the work they do." Workers don't have a say in the food served, said Victor, adding that traditional health boosters like palm jaggery and banana had been discontinued by most mills to cut costs.
After a 10-hour shift at a spinning mill, Anandi Murugesan says she is "not very hungry anyway, just very tired". Murugesan's favourite vegetable is a variety of broad beans topped with grated coconut. But she can't remember the last time she ate it. "We don't eat vegetables like that, we just add a few pieces to the lentils and then eat it with rice and pickle," A large portion of her roughly 5,500 rupees ($85) monthly salary goes on pain-relieving balms and medicines, not food, she added.
Murugesan gets up at the crack of dawn, gulps a cup of tea and boards the factory bus at 6 a.m. for her 8 a.m. shift. Her first meal of the day is at the spinning mill at about 10 a.m. It is an unpalatable meal but she forces herself to eat a few mouthfuls to see her through the day, she said."Often the rice in undercooked, sometimes there is too little salt, sometimes more," she said. Since the management deducts a monthly canteen services fee of up to 750 rupees ($12), she brings no food from home. Some friends bring a small, steel lunch box, packed with rice and leftovers. But they still pay for the canteen, too.
"Even if the food was good, we just get 30 minutes, in which we have to queue up to use the restroom and also finish our food. Every minute that we are late, we are fined."
A survey by non-profit Community Awareness Research Education Trust shows workers get less than 10 minutes to eat. "Most girls use the toilets during this break and it takes them a minimum 10 minutes," said S.M. Prithviraj of the trust. "Another 10 minutes are spent in queuing up for plates, food, getting a glass of water and finding a place to sit. That gives each girl just about 10 minutes to eat her food, clear her plate and get back to the machine." So most eat a little, gulp water and head back to work.
Murugesan is back home by 7 p.m. Then she washes clothes, has a bath and eats a bit of dinner before sleeping. "I am very, very tired and it often feels like my body is like a machine," she said. "All I can think of at the end of the day is to sleep. I eat a little because my mother insists."
Another female worker comments: VAelankani Muttiah, 18, says all her co-workers complain of ill health.
"We work in a trance," she said. "And we all spend way too much on visiting doctors and buying medicines. We know fruits and vegetables are good for us, but we simply cannot afford it."
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