CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Spinning mills in India's Tamil Nadu are hiring more migrant workers on low salaries as a growing number of educated youngsters in the southern state say no to exploitative working conditions, labour rights campaigners said.
There is no official breakdown of workers in Tamil Nadu, but activists say more school leavers are turning their backs on the textile industry for jobs in better-paid sectors such as electronics.
"Children of textile workers are not going back to the mills to work. Many of them are first generation learners and want out," said V. Jeyaraman of the Anna Panchalai Thozhilalar Sangam union of power loom workers.
"Education has changed things and opened better avenues. Local labour is no longer available for exploitation here."
S. James Victor, director of the Serene Secular Social Service Society which works to protect textile workers' rights, said entire villages were deciding not to send their children to work in the mills.
"Young girls are choosing to become sales girls or work in the food processing industry instead," Victor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
India is one of the world's largest textile and garment manufacturers. Many of the workers employed in this $40-billion-a-year industry are trapped in debt bondage, face abuse or are forced to work long hours in poor conditions, campaigners say.
Traditionally, the dyeing units, spinning mills and apparel factories have drawn on cheap labour from villages across Tamil Nadu to turn the cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes, most of it for Western high street shops.
More than 2,000 units employ an estimated 300,000 people, most of them young women from poor, illiterate and low-caste or "Dalit" communities, who are offered lump sum payments at the end of a three-year period.
The "Sumangali scheme" (happily married) was promoted as an easy way to obtain the hefty dowries families need to marry off daughters. But in July, the Madras High Court issued a directive demanding the state government abolish the scheme.
"According to the government, the scheme has been scrapped but migrants are being lured with similar promises," Jeyaraman said.
In India's poorer states, workers can expect to be paid 170 rupees ($2.50) a day, while textile workers in Tamil Nadu are typically paid 270 rupees ($4.00) a day, campaigners say.
"For want of local labour the industry is hiring considerably more people from other states," said K Venkatachalam, chief advisor to the Tamil Nadu spinning mills' association.
But he denied workers were being exploited and said they were being paid fairly.
Jeyaraman said mill managers were spending a lot of money to circumvent labour laws and avoid paying minimum wages.
"The industry is not in good health and the migrant worker continues to bear the brunt of it," he said.
"It's not as bad as it was when I was 19 and worked in a spinning mill, but it's not good either."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)