Kavitha, 18, earns her living in a garment factory in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like many of her colleagues, she lives in factory-provided accommodation, where she shares a dimly lit hostel room with 16 other women.
The rooms in these hostels have few domestic comforts – there are no fans or air conditioning – and the women sleep on simple mats on the floor. Life revolves around working in the factory, where Kavitha sews up to 80 T-shirts an hour, eight hours a day, six days a week, for around £60 a month.
Back at the inn, Kavitha’s life is cut off from the world behind locked gates and the high perimeter fences of a permanently guarded compound. As well as being transported to the factory and back, the women are released about once a week for a few hours – but always accompanied by guards or guards. Never alone.
For many, it can feel a lot like a prison. But these conditions are a daily reality for thousands of young single workers who have left rural areas to work in factories. Production garments for brands such as Gap, H&M, Hugo Boss, Next and Tesco.
These hostels have become ubiquitous in India (and elsewhere). They are usually owned and operated by the factory, with payments for food and lodging usually deducted from workers’ wages. Residents provide an available workforce where workers – sometimes locked into long-term contracts – are readily available for even the most undesirable shifts.
All of this leaves workers with little control over their lives, which has led to much criticism of the hostel system. Indeed, there is some evidence suggesting that the majority of India’s garment industry centers “unlawfully restrict the free movement of resident workers”. And one recent report identified what he described as “large-scale human rights violations” and an “exorbitant” risk of forced labor practices.
But research on hostels in South India by a team from the University of Bath, Royal Holloway University London and Simon Fraser University, revealed a different perspective – from the women who live there. We spoke to over 50 workers and their families (as well as employers and caregivers) about the realities of living in a home. We found that the parents of the women in particular seemed to welcome the restrictions their daughters faced.
A matter of security
Rather than being seen as prisons, homes are seen as places where young women are protected and even released. As one mother told us: “They are not safe here [in the village]so we send them [to the hostel] – they will take good care of the girls.
Such feelings may stem from fears for the safety of young women in a country that is no stranger to gender violence. A high-security hostel is considered a safe destination for women leaving rural villages to work under the “protection” of urban factory owners.
Another perceived advantage for these women and their families is that their reputation will not be in question when they return to the village to marry, given the few opportunities they have to meet men under the strict regime of hostel life.
Such interpretations of home life clearly flow from the strongly gendered and patriarchal environment in which many South Indian women are born. Male workers face few if any of the same restrictions in their own more liberal housing.
But even so, for young women who have faced many restrictions even at home, the hostel can actually feel like a kind of liberation. As one mother explained to us: “If [my daughter] come home, she must stay inside the house, [and] we don’t let her out of the village at all. In the hostel, however, young women have the opportunity to socialize with their peers.
In some of the best hostels, entertainment is offered on the weekends, as well as lessons in subjects such as computers, yoga and swimming. Some even offer training in nutrition and hygiene, as well as financial education and women’s empowerment.
When we spoke to the workers themselves (at home or in community centers away from the hostel), one said he preferred living in factory accommodation. “I like the hostel more because you can have fun there,” she told us in the shelter of her family. Another said: “We can have fun with our friends and be happy.”
The reality of hostel life therefore seems more complex than one might think at first sight. There is no denying that these are deeply problematic places where low wages and exploitation can run rampant. But any attempt to tackle these issues should recognize the important, albeit limited, freedoms they provide.
Activists, and even the brands themselves, have long called for a change in hostel practices. For example, the Ethical Trade Initiativean organization dedicated to improving business sourcing practices which counts Next, Primark, Superdry and Tesco among its members, said“We recognize that poor conditions and restrictions on freedom of movement exist in factory-owned hostels, and much more needs to be done.”
While our research suggests this has led to better conditions in many hostels and a reduction in some of the worst forms of exploitation, freedom of movement remains a sticking point. We also found that many factories would rather dodge the scrutiny of strangers than risk a steady supply of low-cost labor.
What is needed are not more strident demands to simply end restrictions on freedom of movement, but the development and implementation of a longer-term vision for change in and around the industry. This could involve the establishment of government or NGO run hostels employing more humane practices.
This could also include efforts to increase the supply and reduce the cost of private rental accommodation around construction sites, and increase married quarters to reduce reliance on single female migrant workers. Efforts to better align wages with the cost of living outside the home should also be a priority.
The longer term goal, however, must be broader political, social and cultural change. Change that tackles the deep gender discrimination and patriarchal relationships that young Indian women like Kavitha face wherever they are – at home, in a hostel or elsewhere.