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New field staff in south India explain why their work matters

September 26, 2017

In Tamil Nadu, the Centre for Action and Rural Education (CARE) in Erode district is one of our newer NGO partners, working against bonded labour of girls and young women, especially in textiles. Meeting with the new field staff, we wanted to know if they had grasped the work and what they saw as the priorities.

Each of the workers is responsible for the work in five villages, helping families and young people gain enough economic strength, knowledge and determination to avoid hazardous work – or to find ways to help the mills and factories improve the pay, conditions and safety.  The field workers’ own experiences in the mills are a huge motivation for each of these staff.

One of them had worked three years since she was 16, living at the mill hostel. She said “I was in bonded labour and then working in piece-rate tailoring.  I never imagined I could be able to work for people that are suffering like I was.  After CARE’s three-day training, I wanted to come as a village coordinator.  I had lots of challenges at first and I had never spoken in front of even 10 people.  Now I’m able to conduct a meeting confidently.  It takes lots of motivation to get the girls to go to school, but now the parents are thankful.” 

Another fieldworker explained that at the mill “I always felt dominated and discriminated.  I was paid Rs. 150 ($2.20) per day.  I came out of exploited labour to do this work.” 

The workers described the issues they had recently been working on: “There was one girl from a neighbouring village who was studying in 9th grade but her father was an alcoholic.  At 14 years old, she was being forced to marry a 30 year old. When one of her friends found out, she talked about it in the adolescent group in my village, and they then told the Community Support Group. This group took action and went to the family and stopped the marriage.  Now the girl has passed her exams and she’s in the 10th grade.”  

The fieldworker also highlighted how the use of alcohol by men in the community was leading to more adolescents having to go into the mills to supplement family income, but the fieldworker’s efforts to find a solution was risky: “When we organised a protest to close down the liquor store in the village, they were threatening me. I couldn’t go home for two months because of the threats. But I knew that the girls in the village were stopping going to school because of the harassment from men at the liquor shop. So far they have refused to close the shop, but I’ll continue.”

Despite the risks of her job with CARE, she feels the work is good for her and her family: “When I was working at the mill, I didn’t get time with my daughters.  Now I can spend one hour a day with my girls to understand what’s happening to them. I feel I’m being a good mother.”

Still we wondered how these local efforts added up to a bigger plan.  The CARE staff explained that in every village where they work, they’ve formed an adult community support group.  They recognise that as individual groups they can’t always persuade mills and factories – or government officials – about the changes that are needed.  But they believe that if they federate the support groups together across the villages, they can have a bigger voice to push for basic rights for mill workers.

CARE staff also say they cooperate well with the District Child Protection Unit, so they can help all the official Village Child Protection Committees to get formed and start meeting, and then take up their role of finding children at risk, ensuring school attendance and other support. If they do that in all the villages where they work, they say it will make a structural change.

Three of the Freedom Fund’s 13 NGO partners are working in this district, and together they reach over 90 villages, so CARE explained that if the three NGOs collaborate, they can help the government arrange with all the mills in the area to get their hostels registered and inspected so that no child is working.

The Freedom Fund’s Southern India hotspot helps reduce bonded labour in textiles, especially among girls and young women working in spinning mills and garment factories. Find out more about our program

Written by
Ginny Baumann
Senior Program Manager