Kavitha, 18, earns a residing at a clothes manufacturing unit within the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like lots of her colleagues, she lives in lodging supplied by the manufacturing unit, the place she shares a dimly lit hostel room with 16 different ladies.
The rooms in these hostels have little in the best way of dwelling comforts – there are not any followers or air-con – and the ladies sleep on easy mats on the ground. Life revolves round work on the manufacturing unit, the place Kavitha stitches as much as 80 T-shirts an hour, eight hours a day, six days every week, for round £60 per 30 days.
Again on the hostel, Kavitha’s life is shut off from the world behind locked doorways and the excessive perimeter fences of a completely guarded compound. Other than being shuttled to the manufacturing unit and again, the ladies are set free roughly as soon as every week for a number of hours – however at all times accompanied by wardens or guards. By no means alone.
To many, this would possibly sound quite a bit like a jail. However these circumstances are a day by day actuality for a lot of hundreds of younger, single, feminine staff who’ve moved from rural areas to work in factories. The produce garments for manufacturers corresponding to Hole, H&M, Hugo Boss, Subsequent and Tesco.
Such hostels have turn into ubiquitous in India (and elsewhere). They’re sometimes owned and operated by the manufacturing unit, with funds for meals and lodging normally deducted from staff’ pay. The residents present an on-tap workforce the place staff – generally locked in to long-term contracts – are available, even for probably the most undesirable shifts.
All of this leaves staff with little management over their lives, which has led to widespread criticism of the hostel system. Certainly, there’s some proof which suggests that almost all of garment trade hostels in India are “illegally limiting the free motion of resident staff”. And a current report recognized what it described as “large-scale violations of human rights” and a “sky excessive” danger of pressured labour practices.
However analysis on southern Indian hostels by a group from the College of Bathtub, Royal Holloway College of London and Simon Fraser College, revealed a distinct view – from the ladies who stay in them. We spoke to greater than 50 staff and their households (in addition to employers and wardens) concerning the realities of hostel life. We discovered that the ladies’s dad and mom specifically appeared to welcome the restrictions skilled by their daughters.
A matter of security
Relatively than being perceived as prison-like, the hostels are seen as locations the place younger ladies are protected and even liberated. As one mom instructed us: “They don’t seem to be protected right here [in the village], so we’re sending them [to the hostel] – they are going to take excellent care of the women.”
Such sentiments might consequence from fears for younger ladies’s security in a rustic which isn’t any stranger to gender-based violence. A high-security hostel is seen as a protected vacation spot for girls leaving rural villages to work underneath the “safety” of city manufacturing unit homeowners.
One other perceived profit for these ladies and their households is that their reputations is not going to be questioned once they return to the village for marriage, given how little alternative they’ve to satisfy males within the strict regime of hostel life.
Such interpretations of hostel residing clearly stem from the extremely gendered and patriarchal surroundings into which many ladies in southern India are born. Male staff face few if any of the identical restrictions in their very own extra liberal lodging.
Besides, for younger ladies who’ve confronted intensive restrictions even at dwelling, the hostel can truly really feel like a liberation of kinds. As one mom defined to us: “If [my daughter] comes dwelling, she has to remain inside the home, [and] we don’t let her out of the village in any respect.” Within the hostel, although, younger ladies have alternatives to socialize with their friends.
At a few of the higher hostels, leisure is supplied on the weekend, together with programs on topics together with computing, yoga and swimming. Some even provide coaching in vitamin and hygiene, in addition to monetary literacy and ladies’s empowerment.
Once we spoke to staff themselves (at dwelling or in group centres away from the hostel), one stated that she most popular life within the manufacturing unit lodging. “I just like the hostel extra as a result of we will have enjoyable over there”, she confided to us out of earshot of her household. One other stated: “We will have enjoyable with our mates and might be pleased.”
The truth of hostel life, then, appears quite extra advanced than we’d first assume. There isn’t a denying that they’re deeply problematic locations the place low wages and exploitation might be rife. However any makes an attempt to deal with these points ought to acknowledge the vital, if restricted, freedoms they supply.
Activists, and even manufacturers themselves, have lengthy pressed for change in hostel practices. For instance, the Moral Buying and selling Initiative, an organisation devoted to enhancing corporations’ sourcing practices that counts Subsequent, Primark, Superdry and Tesco amongst its members, has stated: “We recognise that poor circumstances and restrictions on freedom of motion exist in mill-owned hostels, and quite a bit nonetheless must be executed.”
Whereas our analysis suggests this has led to raised circumstances in lots of hostels and the curbing of a few of the worst types of exploitation, freedom of motion stays a sticking level. We additionally discovered that many factories desire to dodge the scrutiny of outsiders quite than danger a gentle provide of low-cost labour.
What is required shouldn’t be extra strident calls for to easily stop restrictions on freedom of motion, however the growth and implementation of a longer-term imaginative and prescient for change in and across the trade. This would possibly contain establishing authorities or NGO-run hostels using extra humane practices.
It may also embody efforts to extend the availability and scale back the price of non-public rental lodging round worksites, and improve household lodging to cut back the reliance on single-women migrant staff. Efforts to raised align wages with the price of residing outdoors of hostels also needs to be a precedence.
The longer-term goal, although, must be broader political, social and cultural change. Change which tackles the deep-seated gender discrimination and patriarchal relations that younger Indian ladies like Kavitha face wherever they’re – at dwelling, in a hostel, or wherever else.
Andrew Crane obtained funding from the British Academy for this analysis.