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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 34  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 125-131

Causes and consequences of employment in textile industries: A study on employed adolescent girls of Tamil Nadu

Department of Community Health, Division of Occupational Health Services, St. John's Medical College, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Web Publication29-Jun-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Nancy Angeline Gnanaselvam
Department of Community Health, Division of Occupational Health Services, St. John's Medical College, Sarjapura Road, Bengaluru - 560 034, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_19_17

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Context: A distinctive recruitment strategy named “Sumangali scheme” operates in the textile industries of Tamil Nadu, where adolescent girls are lured to work for a specified period of time in return for a bulk amount of money at the end of the tenure, which can be used for their marriage expenses. Aims: We aimed to assess the causes and consequences of such employment on the lives of adolescent girls. Settings and Design: The study was conducted at Sirkazhi, Sembanarkoil, and Kollidam blocks of Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu. Qualitative study methodology was chosen for the study. Subjects and Methods: A total of nine focus group discussions (FGD) among adolescent girls and three FGD among their parents were conducted. Six in-depth interviews were conducted among key stakeholders. Statistical Analysis Used: The content of discussions and interviews was transcribed and qualitative content analysis was used to analyze the transcripts. Data analysis was a continuous process with generation of categories and subcategories and revision and re-examination by the authors. Results: The qualitative study among adolescent girls, their parents, and key stakeholders revealed that poverty, lack of livelihood opportunities in the study area, violence and alcoholism in family, and disinterest in studies are factors responsible for employment in textile industries during adolescence. Consequences of employment in textile industries include musculoskeletal pain, frequent sickness, abuse at workplace, and complexity in marriage due to social taboos. Conclusions: Employment during the age of adolescence for women causes negative impacts on their lives which are to be addressed at workplace and the community through awareness creation and education.

Keywords: Adolescent girl, textile industry, worker

How to cite this article:
Gnanaselvam NA, Joseph B. Causes and consequences of employment in textile industries: A study on employed adolescent girls of Tamil Nadu. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2018;34:125-31

How to cite this URL:
Gnanaselvam NA, Joseph B. Causes and consequences of employment in textile industries: A study on employed adolescent girls of Tamil Nadu. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2018 [cited 2022 May 25];34:125-31. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2018/34/2/125/235657

  Introduction Top

Tamil Nadu is one of the most progressive states in India. It is among the top three states in the country in terms of social and economic indicators.[1] It has always been in the forefront of economic growth in the country with multiple manufacturing sectors including the textile industry. This industry provides massive employment opportunities for the residents of the state as well as other states.[2]

The textile industry, with the help of labour recruitment agents, recruit adolescent girls from the state of Tamil Nadu through a particular strategy called the “Sumangali Scheme.” This is a nongovernmental scheme for recruiting unmarried girls on an unwritten contract. One-third of the salary is usually withheld till the end of the contract period. Employee welfare programs such as provident funds and Employees State Insurance are not offered to these girls. Most girls joining this scheme are from the Dalit community with motivation to save money for marriage and dowry.[3],[4]

In traditional societies, leaving the place of residence before marriage for employment could have a significant impact on the lives of women. It could provide them an independent life and income, thereby empowering them or affecting them adversely because of long working hours, exploitative and unsafe working environment, and social taboos.[5] Numerous international organizations have generated multiple case studies and reports on the Sumangali Scheme and its characteristics such as wages below the legally set minimum standards, prolonged working hours, limited freedom of movement, difficulty in obtaining redress, and unhealthy working conditions. These features meet the definition of worst forms of child labor set forth by the International Labour Organization for children up to 18 years of age.[6],[7],[8],[9],[10],[11] The role of local Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and international agencies has proved to be significant in improving the working conditions of the Sumangali Scheme employees.[12] However, until now, there is no clear understanding on the causality and key players of this complex social problem in the textile industries' supply chain.[13]

In this context, we aimed to assess the causes and consequences of employment in textile industries during adolescence in this study.

  Subjects and Methods Top

Study area

The study area includes Sirkazhi, Sembanarkoil, and Kollidam blocks of Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, located in the River Cauvery's delta region where agriculture is the main occupation. An agrarian crisis due to insufficient irrigation is a persistent problem in this district.[14] The study blocks are similar in terms of language and culture. Due to inadequate livelihood options, adolescent girls are recruited for employment in textile industries from this region.

Ethical approval

Ethical approval was obtained prior to the study from the Institutional Ethics Committee of the authors' institution of work. The procedures followed in the study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the committee from which the approval was obtained and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, revised in 2000.[15] All participants received oral and written information before giving their written consent. For participants with ages below 18, written consent was obtained from parents, followed by assent from the participants. Permission from local village panchayat leaders of the study blocks in Nagapattinam district to conduct the study was also obtained.

Selection and description of participants for the study

A qualitative study was done, with focus group discussion (FGD) and in-depth interviews (IDIs) being the methodologies chosen. Qualitative data were collected from the adolescent girls, young women and their parents, and other stakeholders. Participants were selected on the basis of convenience. Qualitative methods include FGDs and IDIs. A total of three FGDs among the never been-employed adolescent girls, three among current employees, and three among past employees were conducted. A total of three FGDs were conducted among parents of the current and the past employees. A total of six key informant interviews were conducted in the study area among key stakeholders. Pretested FGD and IDI topic guides were used for discussion and interviews. All sessions were conducted in the local (Tamil) language. None of the participants refused to participate in the study. A research diary was maintained by the principal investigator on her values, prejudices, and possible influence on the outcomes of the study. Both the investigators were involved in data analysis and writing of manuscript to ensure balanced reporting of results. The topic guides used in the study are presented in [Table 1].
Table 1: Topic guide for the focus group discussions and in-depth interviews

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Focus group discussions

A total of 12 FGDs were conducted among adolescent girls, young women, and their parents separately. The villages were selected based on feasibility. The current employees and the never been-employed adolescent girls belonged to adolescent age group. The past employees could be adolescent girls or young women. The never been-employed adolescent girls were either studying or at home. Village contact persons were identified by the research team in the study area to recruit and mobilize girls to participate in the FGDs. The contact persons were responsible for identifying and inviting the study participants for FGDs. FGDs were conducted in quiet venues such as community halls.

In-depth interviews

Six IDIs were conducted among purposively sampled individuals who were identified as key stakeholders in the study area. These individuals included the village nurse, village police officer, local NGO worker, recruitment agent (the person responsible for recruiting workers for the factories), school head mistress, and an elderly person. IDIs were conducted in the participant's houses or in tree shades. The investigators and a trained notetaker conducted the FGDs and the IDIs.

Statistical analysis

The recorded responses to IDIs and FGDs were transcribed and translated into English by the investigator. All kinds of views and opinions from the participants were considered for analysis. Emerging issues were identified and categorized into themes as transcripts were being reviewed. The analysis of the qualitative data was performed by the authors using the qualitative content analysis approach. Data analysis was a continuous process with generation of categories and subcategories and revision and re-examination by the authors. Full records of the transcripts of conversations with the participants are maintained by the principal investigator.

  Results Top

The age of participants of the FGD in the never been-employed group ranged from 12 to 17 years. The age of participants of the FGD in the current employees group ranged from 16 to 19 years. The age group of the past employees group ranged from 16 to 28 years.

The themes which emerged from the discussions are described in [Table 2].
Table 2: Emerging themes from focus group discussions and in-depth interviews

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Reasons for joining employment

In discussion among adolescent girls, poverty, lack of jobs in resident district, long distance of schools from villages hindering further studies after 10th grade, and family problems were mentioned as reasons for joining employment in textile industries. Mothers majorly pointed out the girls' disinterest in studies as the main reason for going to work.

Girls hate house work. They are lazy and do not want to go to school or work hard in the sun in the fields. Even if we refuse, they go with their friends to factory work. We want them to study well and come up in life but they have no interest in studies. They refuse to go to school after tenth grade” (Mother of a current employee).

Alcoholism was mentioned as a major social problem in the study area resulting in debts in the family, poverty, and family issues.

“There is not a single man who doesn't drink in this village. We cannot sleep peacefully even a single day in our houses due to the alcoholism problem among our men. Every day they fight. They use filthy words, beat us and our children. This problem forces us to send our children to the factories” (Mother of a current employee).

Many mothers expressed their helplessness regarding employment opportunities in the study area and their poverty. These problems make them to send their children to factories in other districts for work.

“Even if our children are at home, we cannot give good food due to the fathers who are drunk every day. Even if we want to send our children to work in this (Nagapattinam) district, we are left with only agricultural jobs with meager income. We have lots of debts and only because of extreme poverty we are sending the girls for work” (Mother of a current employee).

“Brokers are kind and friendly. We trust them and send our children with them. They promise good money of around INR 25,000 at the end of 3 years. We also get INR 3000/month” (Mother of a current employee).

Discussion with the current and the past employees revealed that poor socioeconomic condition of the families and debts form the major reasons for joining employment. It appears that they have been made to bear adult-like responsibilities during adolescence.

“Most of us are the sole earning members of our families. We are coming to work because of sickness, debts and poverty in family. Many of us want to make our younger siblings study” (Current employee).

“I want to marry now. But I could not because the whole family burden is on my head. I have to pay my brother's school fees; I have to save money for my sister's wedding. My father is an alcoholic and has lots of debts” (current employee).

In our study, most of the study participants lived in kutcha houses which by definition have walls and/or roofs made of materials such as unburnt bricks, bamboos, mud, grass reeds, thatch, or loosely packed stones. An IDI with a recruitment agent who recruits girls for employment in textile industries revealed that many girls wanted to join employment due to attractive offers such as a clean place to live, exposure to the outside world, and to avoid the domestic violence which is common in the study area.

“Even if these children study well they won't get decent jobs due to the system of bribery in our country. They lack exposure to outside world. Claims such as, neat living place, television, freedom from parent's supervision and being with friends attracts the girls to join employment. I make sure that factories give good food and salary before recruiting the girls” (Recruitment agent).

“There is no unity among young people in this village. There is poverty and ignorance. There is no political commitment to improve this area. Very few people in this area possess farming land. Due to debts and poverty they migrate to far-off areas for employment. Schools and colleges are far from our village” (Sub-Inspector of Police).

“Schools and colleges are far from most of the interior villages in this district. Even the school that I am working is a Government-aided private school. We don't receive funds on a regular basis to run the school. Only recently we have constructed a toilet for the school. Parents in this area want their children to study well but due to poverty, alcohol problem at home and distance of school from their homes their children drop out early”(School Headmistress).

Impact of employment in textile industries

Most of the interviewed participants disapproved of employment in textile industries. It was not considered respectable and only families who had debts and were poor sent their daughters for employment. Parents were concerned about the food and sleeping conditions in the hostels of factories.

“Due to standing for prolonged hours during work, less rest and sleep, employed girls become sick soon after employment. They don't get good food there. They cannot speak to family members frequently. This can cause loneliness. They are prohibited from speaking to family members due to strict rules. But they do like this in the factories for the safety of the girls only” (Mother of past employees).

From this verbatim, it is understood that parents of adolescent girls in factories are helpless over the situation at the factories. They had to prioritize safety over the difficult job, lack of good food, and restrictions in communicating with parents.

In the FGDs, among the never been-employed adolescent girls, it was observed that there was a general thinking that one can become fair skinned if we join the factories due to less exposure to sunlight at work.

Many employed adolescent girls and young women mentioned of injuries and accidents that have happened to others. They also narrated how a girl in the initial days of joining work appears to be healthy and later due to exertion and lack of sleep becomes sick often and leaves work.

“Lot of girls become fair skinned and gain weight in the first few months of employment in the factories. After that they lose weight and become normal complexioned. Many girls have had injuries due to fingers getting stuck in machines. This will happen mostly at nights when they are sleepy” (Schoolgoing adolescent girl).

“We frequently get sick while employment in factories. Main problems are body pain and fever. To see a doctor we have to adjust duty timings and with difficulty we go to a hospital. We cannot sleep properly due to constant work in noisy surroundings.” (Past employee).

“Work is always heavy. There is fixed duty timings if we live in hostel. Most of the times, we work from 8:00 AM to 12:00 AM. We run, walk and stand all the time during duty. We get very less time to sleep” (Current employee).

“We do get scolded by the supervisors for trivial reasons in our factories. This is considered as normal and we are used to it” (Current employee).

In one village, we could not invite a past employee for FGD since she was engaged to be married. We discussed this situation in the IDI with an elder person and a local NGO employee and the information obtained confirmed the social taboos which exist in the society regarding the girls returning from factories as past employees.

“Girls returning from factories have a tough time finding suitable grooms. Because there is a general thinking that girls returning from factories will be infertile or they would have lost their virginity. Many girls hide the fact of past employment from their future in-laws” (Elder person).

“We know of girls whose marriage has been stopped after the groom family came to know that she had returned from factory. We also know of instances where a girl had to undergo virginity test after marriage because she was a past employee of a factory” (Local NGO Employee).

The above verbatim describes the taboos a woman has to face after employment in the textile industry due to the existing social norms and illiteracy.

  Discussion Top

All the working adolescents in the study were above 14 years of age. This could be due to the awareness among the community, importance given to education by the family, and Education for All movement by the Government of India. Strict implementation of The Factories act in the textile industries could have prevented the recruitment of girls below the age of 14.[16] However, in a report on “Sumangali scheme” by Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), 12.4% of the employees were below 14 years.[17]

Most of the working adolescents mentioned that they worked for >8 hours in a day. Similar results were observed in a study done in spinning mills of Tamil Nadu where the mean hours of work in a week were observed to be 65 hours.[6] This is in excess as compared to the standard 60 hours work/week which includes 48 hours of regular work and a maximum 12 hours of overtime work, recommended by the International Labour Organization.[18] Even though there was restriction of movement at workplaces due to safety reasons, mothers of the girls were satisfied since they knew that such restrictions are put in place for the safety of the girl. This thinking is in line with the local customs, where an unmarried woman should be residing in a place which is safe, with adequate confinement to prevent them from interacting with the outside world.

Most employees and parents of adolescent employees mentioned poverty as the most common reason for joining employment. Similarly, in another study done among Sumangali employees, 47% mentioned family pressure to earn more income, 53% cited dowry and or staying away from village for reasons for employment.[13] In line with these results, another study done among Sumangali employees from South Tamil Nadu by an NGO has observed that poverty was the most common reason for joining the scheme for 52.08% of the participants, followed by school dropout among 25.76% and saving for marriage among 13.43% of participants.[19] In our study, IDIs among parents of adolescent girls revealed that many girls were not interested to study further after 10th grade. Even though the parents want their children to study well, due to failure in examinations, they discontinue education after 10th grade. Adolescent girls discussed that poor socioeconomic status leading to discontinuation of studies and difficulty in learning leading to hatred toward studies are the reasons for dropping out of school and opting to join employment in garment factories. From the discussions with the adolescent girls and their parents, it was observed that the reasons told by the adolescent girls for joining employment were different from the parents' perspective.

Family problems identified in IDIs conducted among the mothers of current employees were alcoholism in male members of the family, domestic violence, poverty due to lack of livelihood in Nagapattinam district, and adolescents' resentment toward parents' disciplinary actions.

In the FGDs among the current employees, the reasons for joining work identified were debts in family, disinterest in studies, lack of job opportunities in nearby areas, and poverty. All the currently employed and the never been-employed adolescent girls were single. This is expected since the mean age at marriage of women in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu, is 21.8 years.[20] Most of the adolescent girls join the work under “Sumangali Scheme,” in a hope to obtain the lump sum amount at the end of the scheme for use in marriage. Therefore, it is expected that all the current employees were single. The benefits of postponement of age of marriage due to their employment are empowerment of woman, improvement in reproductive health, and provision of sense of self-sufficiency and entitlement.[21] However, as Sivasankaran in her article has pointed out, leaving the village before marriage for an adolescent girl could cost her social standing in the village;[5] our study has brought out the difficulties a girl faces during marriage once she returns from textile mill employment.

Arranged and intracaste marriages remain the norm of nuptial practice in India. No scholar will refuse the paramount and religious importance an Indian person places on family relations and important events of life such as marriage, life, and death. In arranged marriage, the family members and kin play a chief role in the selection of one's spouse. Those who practice arranged marriages are usually the ones who are eligible as per the existing societal norms, have consciously followed the cultural rules, and lived up to the expectations of the society. A woman's reputation and character is vital in an arranged marriage.[22] Employment in factories could result in disqualification of a potential bride due to the general view that factory-employed women have a social life which might expose them to men and love affairs. Hence, in closed communities such as villages, families often hide factory employment of their girls from their neighbors.

Occupational profile of the parents reveals lack of livelihood options in the study area. Unskilled labor is the only option available for many people, as told by the mothers in the FGDs. The study area is devoid of any major industries to provide employment to its residents. It is also well known for erratic rainfall and disasters such as tsunamis, cyclones, and climate changes affecting farming practices.[23] These issues need to be addressed to the extent possible.

Skin color has cultural and social implications in India. Colorism, defined by preference for lighter skin and holding a high status for a person with fairer skin, is present in many societies.[24] There was a general opinion among the adolescent girls that joining work at textile factories could lighten the skin color. This understanding could be due to the fact that textile industry employment involves indoor work, whereas at their native villages where agricultural work is the norm, sun exposure resulting in hyperpigmentation of the skin could have happened. This was an interesting statement from an adolescent's perspective.

  Conclusions Top

Overall, the results of the study reflect that the employment of adolescent girls in textile industries seldom empowers them economically or socially. Many of our study participants considered it as an escape from their shanty living conditions, strict parental control, academic difficulties, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. However, it deteriorates their health and reduces their social status in their villages and does not improve their standard of living.

The design of the study was qualitative. It would have been desirable if a longitudinal study design was used to generate evidence regarding the factors associated with joining the Sumangali scheme and the impact of employment on the lives of young women. Future research could look into ways of improving livelihood opportunities in the study area and social concerns in a life of a young woman regarding employment in textile industries. Alcoholism in the study area was observed to be a major problem. The cause and effect of this social problem could be studied in detail.


The authors acknowledge the field work of the employees of Social Awareness and Voluntary Education in the data collection process of the study.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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