When I tried to visit KPR Mills, a garment factory, an angry mob emerged from behind the compound gates.
The next day, I see firsthand what he means. On the way back from the village, I tell my translator that I want to stop at a factory owned by KPR Mill Limited, a textile company that the Dutch NGOs found to employ sumangali workers in a 2012 report. KPR Mill denies the allegations and claims to have "done several improvements far ahead of the other industrial fraternity." As recently as December 2012, Quantum Knits, a subsidiary of KPR Mill, exported tens of thousands of clothing items for Jerry Leigh, which sells to Disney, among many other Western brands (though it is impossible to know for sure whether clothes from the factory ever reached Disney, and Debbie Bernstein, a spokeswoman for Jerry Leigh, claims that her company recently stopped buying from Quantum Knits altogether).
When one girl was injured by a machine belt that snapped and hit her eye, the company forced her to pay a quarter of her monthly salary for treatment.
I had already spoken to a mother who said that two of her daughters were recruited to KPR Mill's spinning facility in a village near Coimbatore when they were 16 and 17. The agent promised that they would work mornings and go to school in the afternoons. Instead, the girls allegedly worked between 8 and 12 hours daily, plus overnight shifts. Care-T, which later helped the girls get counseling and job training, told me that the 16-year-old was badly injured by a machine belt that snapped and hit her eye; the company did not grant her any medical leave, instead forcing her to pay a quarter of her monthly salary for treatment. Care-T says that the girls tried to escape but were brought back to the mill and had their phone calls monitored until they were sent home for a holiday break. They never went back, and a KPR Mill spokesman says that the mother's allegations are "far from reality."
The spokesman tells my translator over the phone that I can't visit the grounds unless I know someone who works there, so I decide to ask in person. As we dodge cows and scooters on a dusty road in the outskirts of Coimbatore, my Tamil translator begins to look worried. "This isn't a good idea," she says, smoothing the scarf of her shalwar kameez for the tenth or hundredth time. After an hour of U-turns and badgering bewildered locals for directions, we finally find the plant. And I begin to see why my translator is nervous: The building, a vast compound with tall, guarded gates, could be mistaken for a military base.
We pull up across the street and my photographer snaps some pictures. Within seconds, a man with a thick mustache arrives, knocking on our window. "What are you doing here?" he yells. "Delete that photo!" I apologize and offer to leave immediately—but then I realize that we can't: At least two dozen men have run from the gates and are surrounding our car, putting their hands on the bumper. The man with the mustache, who appears to be the boss, is apoplectic. He says that he won't let us leave if we don't delete the pictures and demands a copy of our IDs. Members of the mob are yelling in Tamil, and my driver throws his hands off the steering wheel, warning us that if he touches the gas, they are likely to break the windows. "We sell to American and European companies!" the boss warns. "What gives you the right to think you can take photos here? Foreigners can't take photos in Coimbatore!"
He lets us go after we apologize profusely and our driver gives him the address of the hotel we checked out of earlier that morning. The company, we later learn, sends representatives straight to the hotel; they end up calling us from the police station, threatening to have us jailed. An officer recommends that our photographer leave her hotel in Coimbatore because he's concerned about her safety. That night, even though we are hundreds of miles away at a hotel in Chennai, I double-bolt the door and don't sleep.
Later, the KPR Mill spokesman tells me over email that the factory only "recruits the workers from the age of 18" and provides "utmost care and safety" for its 10,000 employees, who may end their contracts whenever they see fit. When I ask why the boss wouldn't let me see the factory, he says, "We would like to advise you that you do not do such photography to intimidate us."
Lakshmi, 25, developed burns and boils on her hands from dyeing chemicals. "No man is going to marry me now," she says.
YOU WON'T FIND a Western clothing manufacturer that openly approves of sumangali labor, but cracking down on it is a different matter. That's because textile supply chains are vast and mind-numbingly complex. The average Indian T-shirt begins in a cotton field in western states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, where fluffy, plum-size balls are harvested by workers who generally come from the lower castes. From there, the balls are shipped in trucks to warehouses and sold to spinning mills, where machines (like the kind that cut Aruna's hand) process raw cotton bales into thread. Then workers weave the thread into strips, dye them, and send them to factories that do final processing.
Marijn Peepercamp, a researcher who contributed to the 2012 Dutch watchdog report, estimates that 80 percent of spinning mills in Tamil Nadu employ sumangali workers. She tells me that when US companies find out they're supporting sumangali, they often increase inspections in garment factories—but not necessarily the mills, which can be located several villages away. Andrea Roos, a spokeswoman for H&M, told me that when inspectors find safety or labor problems at a garment factory, the company does three unannounced audits over the next 18 to 24 months. But of the spinning mills, she says, "We normally do not have direct contractual influence."
Elizabeth Cline, the author of the 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, says that's a cop-out. "Western brands call the shots, and these factories will meet whatever standards the major brands require to keep the work," she tells me. Still, there are some hopeful signs. Last year, three NGOs partnered with KPR Mill to set up a hotline for workers to report problems to the NGOs. One anti-sumangali program called Social Awareness and Voluntary Education has been able to inspect wage slips and age certifications at some factories. SAVE director Aloysius (who, like many Tamils, goes by only one name) says he is pleased with the progress so far, but there is still more to do. "I am not saying that every issue is tackled by us," he says. "But there is an opening."
Indeed, some Western companies have taken measures to discourage their suppliers from using sumangali labor. Levi Strauss & Co. provides financial support to SAVE, while Gap helped establish the Tirupur Stakeholders Forum, which sets detailed ethical guidelines for factories. More than 80 companies, including Gap, H&M, and Walmart, have joined an industry group called the Ethical Trading Initiative, which works with NGOs to educate workers about recruiting schemes and is trying to reduce the sumangali contract terms from three years to six months. But Peter McAllister, the director of ETI, would not speak specifically about any of the Indian companies whose factories I investigated, nor their Western buyers, because the group is concerned about the delicate relationship it has with the companies. Care-T's Prithiviraj has similar concerns; he doesn't want contractors to drop Indian factories because, he says, then mills simply would work harder to hide sumangali workers and fire girls who desperately need the income.
In response to pressure from ETI and other labor groups, each of Tamil Nadu's three key garment industry associations developed its own set of guidelines for recruiting women to work in textile factories, as well as a code of conduct for the hostels where the factory girls live. But in 2012, the Fair Labor Association determined that while many of the recommendations—giving employees actual wage slips, capping work at eight hours a day, and banning sexual harassment—were steps in the right direction, they didn't include any instructions for enforcing these policies. And some of the new guidelines spoke volumes about the companies' attitudes toward workers: The Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association, for example, suggested replacing ceiling fans with wall fans, since ceiling fans "give access for person to commit suicide by hanging."
Supervisors offered Lakshmi vacations in return for sex, and when she declined, she says they denied her lunch breaks.
A FEW MONTHS after I return from India, I go out to drinks with some friends, one of whom is wearing a rad pair of black tights with stripes up the sides. When I ask her where they came from, she proudly tells me that they cost just $20 at H&M. I don't push for details, because who am I to judge? I'm wearing a made-in-India Urban Outfitters shirt I bought before my trip. I looked at the label when I returned home, for the very first time. This is a thing I do now, even though it won't tell me what I want to know: Somewhere down the supply chain, did Aruna or Selvi make parts of my shirt?
Or maybe it was made by Lakshmi, one of the oldest sumangali workers I met. At 25, she was a year older than me, all of 4-foot-10, and wearing a beautiful orange dress covered with flowers that she had embroidered herself. Beginning at age 16, she worked at a spinning mill for five years, in conditions she called "torture." Supervisors offered her vacations in return for sex, and when she declined, she says they denied her lunch breaks. She was dyeing yarn with chemicals that burned her hands and gave her boils. Supervisors would only give girls gloves occasionally, deducting the cost from their pay. Her hands would go numb for days. After five years, she left with about $620—half of one month's rent on my studio apartment—and crippling ulcers. She has since spent her wages on doctors' bills, and there is nothing left for a dowry.
I interviewed her in her room, which was filled with embroidered blankets. It was night, and the stars were as numerous as they are in the big sky of Montana, where I grew up. Through the open windows we could hear a chorus of insects. We took a photograph together, sitting on her cot, and she put her arm around me and grinned. A calico cat jumped from the dirt floor onto the bed. For that second, we were just two young women—unmarried, drinking tea, tired from a long day. But after we stood up, I knew that I would soon get on a plane to Washington, DC, where stores selling cheap leopard-print pumps and skinny jeans line the streets and no one expects me to give my entire salary to my parents for a dowry. And Lakshmi would still be here in this room, knowing—as she told me right after the photo was taken—that "no man is going to marry me now."
This story was completed with financial assistance from the Social Justice Reporting for a Global America Program, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the International Center for Journalists.