CHENNAI, India, Feb 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rasu
Mahalakshmi didn't celebrate when she received compensation for
a factory accident that cost her four fingers. She had waited
seven years for help and got just $2,000 for her life-changing
Her fight is far from over - and campaigners say her plight
is typical in the country's textile industry.
"I lost my fingers, my livelihood and my confidence,"
Mahalakshmi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The garment worker was 19 when she was caught up in a mill
accident in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It took until last
December for Mahalakshmi, now 26, to get 136,000 Indian rupees
($2,000) from the government to cover her medical fees.
Her fight for a 500,000-rupee payment from the mill
management goes on.
"They paid for the immediate surgery and the hospital stay
but then forgot all about me," said Mahalakshmi.
"There were multiple visits to the doctor, medicines to be
bought and bandages changed. I had to pay for all that."
Mahalakshmi was employed under the Sumangali scheme, a form
of child labour where adolescent girls are hired for three to
five years and promised a final lump sum to pay their wedding
dowry. She was promised 30,000 rupees after three years.
SHOWN THE DOOR
Then the accident happened.
"One day I was suddenly shifted to work on a machine I was
unfamiliar with," she said, recalling how her life changed
forever when she switched machines.
Mahalakshmi said that when she approached managers with her
parents and asked for compensation, they were "shown the door".
Money had already been deducted from Mahalakshmi's salary to
pay for a state insurance scheme that should guarantee workers
access to free medical treatment. Nor was she paid for the two
years of labour that preceded her injury.
Campaigners say that factories are defaulting on their share
of the scheme or paying only in part - meaning that her struggle
for justice is the norm in India's $40 billion garment and
NO WORK, NO PAY
Just as Mahalakshmi finally received her payout, another
drama began, when a garment factory van overturned near the
state capital of Chennai, injuring seamstress M. Muniyammal and
11 other people.
Two weeks after the accident, Muniyammal was back at a
factory sewing machine, stitching clothes for global brands.
Her injuries had not healed and she suffered excruciating
pain. But according to co-worker A. Nithya, she had no choice.
"Twelve of us were injured in the accident. We were told we
would be compensated for the medical expenses and paid salaries
only if we went back to work. She needed money," Nithya said.
Two months on, the women are fighting to have their bills
reimbursed and hold on to their jobs.
Prema, who did not give her full name, injured her hand in
the same accident as she travelled to work with her 6-year-old
son. Prema said she had to go to the factory 10 times just to
get her November salary.
The mill management denied the allegations.
"We are willing to pay them after they show us proper
medical records," said a company representative, requesting
"We have audits where we have to justify every expense. How
can we pay them salaries if they don't come to work?"
For an estimated 45 million workers employed in India's
garment and textile industry, battlelines are drawn each time
there is a work-related injury, campaigners say.
"The accidents have a ripple effect on the entire family
because in most cases, the woman is the only earning member,"
said Sujata Mody of the Garment and Fashion Workers' Union.
"In this case, the company had defaulted on paying its share
of medical insurance, though they were deducting the workers'
share from their salaries every month."
In 2016, Felix Jeyakumar - of non-profit Social Awareness
and Voluntary Education - documented 13 accidents and eight
deaths in factories in the "textile valley" of Tamil Nadu.
In every case, there were long deliberations with management
over medical expenses and how much time off the injured could
take without losing their money or their job, he said.
"In most cases, the managements try to pay a few thousand
rupees and end the case," Jeyakumar told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation. "Even in cases of death they don't take into account
that often the woman is the only earning member of her family."
($1=67.175003 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ed Upright and
Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
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