Aruna, a 19-year-old nurse I met in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is a lot like some of my friends in Washington, DC—bright, single, self-assured, loves her job. She speaks quickly and eloquently, not stopping to drink her tea and hardly ever even pausing to breathe. When I first meet her in Coimbatore, a city known for its textile industry, she is on her lunch break, wearing her freshly starched white uniform and a traditional red bindi dot on her forehead.
If Aruna were one of my friends in DC, no one would be asking her why she isn't hitched yet. But in Aruna's home village, if you haven't secured a husband by your early 20s, you're in for a hard ride. "In India, a woman is auspicious because she is married," says Srimati Basu, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky who is an expert on the status of women in India. "Lack of marriage is horrible for the person, the family, and the community."
In order to get married, Tamil village girls like Aruna need at least three gold British sovereigns—bullion is the preferred currency for dowries—the equivalent of about $1,200. Together, Aruna's parents make a little less than $400 a year.
As a child, Aruna dreamed of going to college. But by the time she was 15, when her government-subsidized schooling ended, she understood that she was too poor. Then, a stranger promised to change her life. He offered her a job at a textile factory that has supplied companies including, until recently, UK-based maternity wear maker Mothercare. Her pay would be about $105 a month—enough for food for her family, her further education, and most importantly, the chance to build a dowry.
When Aruna arrived at the factory, about 40 miles from her home, she found a vast facility where close to 1,000 girls, many in their teens, lived 10 or 15 to a room. From 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. every day, including weekends, she fed and monitored rusty machines that spun raw cotton into yarn. Her bosses often woke her in the middle of the night because, she recalls, there was "always some sort of work, 24 hours a day." Aruna made just a quarter of the $105 a month she was promised, about $0.84 a day.
Aruna shows me a scar on her hand, more than an inch long, where a machine cut her. She often saw girls faint from standing for too long. One had her hair ripped out when it got caught in a machine. Others were molested by their supervisors. "They said we would get less work if we slept with them," Aruna says. Sometimes girls would disappear, and everyone would speculate whether they'd died or escaped. Still, she needed the money, so she worked there for two years. After she left, a garment workers advocacy organization called Care-T helped her get her current job at the hospital, where she is slowly saving up for a dowry. When I ask if she still has her sights set on college, Aruna shakes her head and tears fill her eyes. But almost instantly, she wipes them away. There's no point thinking about that, since she already has a steady income. "I like my job at the hospital now," she says. Most of her friends are still working at the factory. (The names of Aruna and other former factory workers have been changed to protect them from retaliation.)
In Tamil Nadu, many people know a girl like Aruna, someone who has been lured to work in the garment factories with the promise of earning a dowry. The scheme is so common that it even has a name: sumangali, the Tamil word for "happily married woman." A 2011 report by the Dutch watchdog groups Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and India Committee of the Netherlands found that sumangali factories employed an estimated 120,000 workers, some as young as 13, and supplied dozens of international companies, including Gap (which denied the allegation), H&M, American Eagle Outfitters, and Tommy Hilfiger.
Last April's building collapse in Bangladesh's Rana Plaza, which killed more than 1,000, briefly drew attention to the plight of garment workers. India is an even larger global player than Bangladesh: It's the third-largest textile and garment exporter in the world (after China and the European Union), with about $29 billion in 2012 sales. Between June 2012 and June 2013, the United States imported about $2.2 billion worth of cotton clothing from India, and that number is expected to grow as India ramps up its textile industry.
In the garment industry the world over, it is common for workers to be locked into exploitative conditions until they fulfill contracts. But in India, the dowry tradition—which persists even though it's officially illegal—makes teenage girls especially vulnerable to these schemes. In part because of this, India has comparatively strong child labor regulations: It's illegal for children younger than 14 to work in factories there, and all workers must be paid double for overtime. Enforcing those laws, however, is another matter. Factories go to great lengths to cover up illegal practices. (Aruna recalls that when inspectors would come—she didn't know whether they were government or company auditors—factory supervisors would shove the younger girls into a special wing. If they were found, they were told to say that they were 18.)
And workers themselves hardly ever report abuse, in part because many come from lower castes, including the dalit, or untouchables. "People don't take up these issues with factory management because they are afraid of losing income and afraid of possible retaliation because they are in a vulnerable position in society," says Heather White, a fellow at Harvard's center for ethics who has researched global clothing supply chains. In her interviews with factory workers, she says she heard about "numerous cases of sexual harassment, which normally in the factory worker context means rape."
In 2012, the workers' rights group Fair Labor Association examined the cases of 78 sumangali workers who, at dozens of factories, had committed to work for three years. Of the 34 girls who did not complete their contracts, 4 died from accident or illness, 11 were forced to leave due to health problems, 17 were taken home by their parents, and 2 left on their own. Twenty were still working at the time of the FLA interviews, and 24 had completed their contracts. Several other NGOs confirmed that it's very common for girls to not complete their contracts and that on-the-job accidents and even deaths are not at all unusual.
Although some of the workers told the interviewers that they had been sexually harassed by supervisors, the report's authors noted that girls rarely report such incidents because doing so could affect their marriage prospects—and is unlikely to bring results in court, anyway. While reported cases of rape in India have been on the rise, the conviction rate—less than 27 percent—has dipped over the last decade, and victims who go to the police have been known to be raped by them as well.
Despite the growing evidence that abuse is common in sumangali factories, most Western companies have not yet eliminated the practice from their supply chains. A major American trade group, the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USA-ITA), has pressured suppliers in other parts of the world to clean up bad labor practices; it recently convinced Bangladesh to pass a binding five-year plan to increase the number of inspections and improve worker safety training. Yet when I asked Samantha Sault, the group's spokeswoman, about sumangali factories, she said, "We have not been aware of the labor practices that you describe." She added that it sounded "disturbing."
Sinnathamby Prithiviraj is a gruff, heavyset man who heads Care-T, the group that helped Aruna find her nursing job. For a decade he has been working with sumangali girls from his office in Coimbatore; he has helped 1,600 of them find work after returning from stints in the factories. If I want to see where the girls come from, he says, I need to go to Aruna's home village, where he's seen an uptick in recruitment recently. He says I should look for "the girls with alcoholic and missing fathers," because "that's where the recruiters are looking."
We set out early the next morning, driving south through heavy traffic past unfinished strip malls and gated textile factories. Getting to the village—a tea-growing area of 71,000 residents, with settlements clustered around 56 different estates—requires a fearless driver managing a rickety stick shift on tight hairpin turns and a healthy tolerance for the 2,000-foot elevation gain. We repeatedly stop the car to let our guide vomit. When we arrive, we see the tea blooming in neon-green tufts straight out of Dr. Seuss. Most of the tea workers are from the lower castes and make about $3 per day; it costs a month's salary just to outfit a child with books and a uniform for school. "We can't give all our children food and schooling, so we sacrifice one child's future for the others," one mother tells me. "In these jobs, girls are preferred, so girls go."
When I arrive at Care-T's office in the village, I am greeted by Julia Jayrosa, the organization's 31-year-old coordinator, in a small room packed with a dozen women and their children. Jayrosa, who seems to have boundless energy and speaks so quickly that I have to beg her to slow down, makes it her business to know what's happening in every house in the village. She tells me there are at least 800 girls from here working in sumangali arrangements right now. Agents are paid $34 to $50 for every worker they recruit to the mills, she says, showing me a bright pink poster that was distributed around the village in May. It promises that in the factories, girls will get part-time education, private bedrooms, and excellent pay. Jayrosa is afraid of the agents and fears that they might shut down her meager business: She provides space for several dozen former factory workers to use their stitching skills and sell their own garments in the village. Her main concern right now is raising enough money to get the women a bathroom, so they don't have to keep going in the jungle.
I spend the day with Jayrosa, talking to the villagers who come in and out of the office. I meet five former sumangali girls, as well as three mothers and a father who sent their daughters to the factories. I talk to a woman who had a miscarriage at a factory because she had to stand so long in the heat, and another who tells me that sexual harassment was rampant in her factory, but "you have to be smart enough not to fall for their tricks."
At dusk, I meet a girl named Selvi, whose family invites me to their home. At 20, Selvi looks no older than an American middle-schooler, and she weighs 85 pounds. She is shy, quiet, and doesn't often make eye contact. She says she spent the last two years doing stitching for a factory. The recruiter promised her 250 rupees (about $4) per shift, but she says she made only 150 (about $2.50) plus overtime of 15 rupees per hour—even though the legal overtime requirement is twice her hourly pay, or 34 rupees per hour.
The company that owns the factory where Selvi worked has supplied clothing to Mothercare, Walmart, H&M, and the Children's Place. H&M reports that it found no evidence of sumangali workers in its recent audits of three of the company's factories. In 2011, however, the workers' rights group Anti-Slavery International found that the company that runs the factory where Selvi worked was paying workers less than half of what they were promised, sometimes withholding a portion of pay until the workers completed their contracts, monitoring the girls' phone calls, and refusing to let parents visit their children. (The company denies these allegations, and Selvi was allowed to collect her pay and take leave from the factory in March because of problems with her thyroid. She plans to go back to work as soon as she gets better.)
As night approaches, a village official hurriedly tells us we need to get back to the main estate. "The mist is coming," he warns. "The men come home drinking at this time. They are rowdy. Also, the tigers descend." I want to ask him what's more dangerous, the drunk men or the tigers, but he's one step ahead of me: "Elephants. Yesterday this time, there was one right here." I exclaim, "It's like a jungle!" My driver looks like he wants to strangle me. "It's not like a jungle. It is a jungle," he snaps, slamming the door.
Back at my hotel that night, I rummage through my suitcase, looking for the least smelly thing to wear the next day. I find a brown T-shirt I picked up from Urban Outfitters. With a touch of dread, I search the seams for the manufacturer's label. It says "Made in Indonesia," so I can be sure it wasn't made by one of the girls I've just interviewed. But even if it had been made in India, if I had called the company and tried to figure out which mill it came from, it would be almost impossible to determine whether sumangali workers were involved. Indian companies work hard to keep their labor practices quiet, hiding workers from inspectors and threatening NGOs that expose their practices. "This is not the USA or the EU," says Care-T's Prithiviraj. "There is no physical safety for us and our staff."
Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work has also appeared in The Week, TIME's Battleland, Truthout, OtherWords and Yahoo! News.