Women are disproportionately subject to violence, ranging from verbal abuse to sexual harassment, in Tirupur’s garment factories. In one factory, gender discrimination in workplace opportunity is highlighted by the lack of women employed in more highly paid work, such as ironing, as factory owners often believe “they can be paid less and do what they are told”. Highly pressurised working conditions can lead to such exploitation, with tight production deadlines imposed by brands pushing factories to demand long working hours and intense turnover rates. Salma, a 23-year-old garment worker in Tirupur, explained how women often face verbal abuse, such as sexualised humiliation by their supervisors, to make them work faster. This exploitation coincides with the rise of fast fashion, in which brands compete to offer consumers new product ranges more quickly and frequently.
In Tirupur, adolescent girls from rural families often engage in a practice called sumangali, in which brokers offer a girl’s family money for completion of a three-year contract in a garment factory. However, female migrants experience restrictions in their movement, staying in hostels attached to the factories in which they work. These measures are in line with local customs to try to ensure women’s safety by preventing them from being alone on streets at night. One factory owner in Tirupur reported that “female workers are restricted…no one can enter or go out without permission. Their safety is taken care of. We don’t let them go outside regularly”. Female sumangali migrants are also made financially dependent on their employer as many do not pay their wages until the end of the contract.
To tackle the high rates of gender-based violence in Tirupur’s garment factories, numerous NGOs (Non Government Organisations), such as Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), operate training sessions for all workers, including managers. The sessions occur during working hours, with participants earning wages at the same time. They work to encourage female workers to report their experiences about workplace harassment, with a 31-year-old woman explaining how “management now takes quick action when a complaint is brought to them. In the past they would not even know what we were going through”. While these training sessions should be fostered carefully as they can lead to unfair dismissal of female garment workers, they illustrate key steps toward recognising and reducing the highly unequal experiences of workplace violence for women in Tirupur’s garment factories.
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