The death of a 14-year-old girl, who went to work despite suffering from pneumonia, has renewed scrutiny of the conditions of Indian spinning mills that supply the world’s big fashion brands. N. Kalaiyarasi, who died on Tuesday, returned to work following a hospital visit to avoid forfeiting her 2,700 Indian rupees ($41.52) bonus, which is paid to individuals who worked during the annual Hindu Diwali festival.
“Her death could have been prevented,” Thivyarakhini Sesuraj, an adviser to the all-women Tamilnadu Textile and Common Labour Union ("TTC"), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. “Making bonus conditional is not acceptable. The girls are already paid less [than the legal minimum]. The bonus is technically their right.”
India is one of the world’s largest textile and garment exporters, following behind China and Bangladesh. Some 1,600 spinning mills in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state employ an estimated 400,000 people to turn cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes and export it to some of the world's largest retailers. The workers are mainly young women from poverty-poverty-striken communities, who work up to 12 hours a day. They routinely face intimidation, sexual harassment, and abuse while on the job.
The TTC union has reported that N. Kalaiyarasi's death is directly tied to “occupational negligence” on the part of the owner of the Dindigul Cotton Textile Mills in Tamil Nadu, as the teenager was working without a safety mask and the factory did not employ a nurse for the 200+ people working in the unit, despite unions' pushes for on-site medical care at garment factories and textile mills.
The 14-year old was earning 230 Indian rupees ($3.54) per day according to the union, well below the the minimum wage for "unskilled" laborers in India, which as of March 2017 was 513 Indian rupees per day ($7.87), according to Delhi's Labor Department.
A co-worker took Ms. Kalaiyarasi to the hospital on Saturday, where she was prescribed medication and sent home. She returned to work on Sunday, but when her condition deteriorated further, she was admitted to the Madurai Government Hospital, where she died two days later.
The factory owners/operators did not respond to telephone calls from Reuters seeking comment. The union has demanded 15 years’ salary as compensation for Ms. Kalaiyarasi's family in connection with the death of their child.