Documentary sparks debate on abuse at Indian spinning mills

MUMBAI • The film's main character, Priya, is a bright student who is forced to work in a spinning mill to help her parents pay off a debt.

The movie Call Me Priya is now sparking debate in rural communities at the heart of an industry in south India that campaigners said is plagued by exploitation and abuse.

In Tamil Nadu state, about 400,000 people are employed in more than 1,500 spinning mills to turn cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes for global brands.

Despite laws to protect workers - mainly young women from poor, low-caste communities - they labour 12 hours or more a day, and often face intimidation, sexual remarks and harassment.

Yet, many people remain unaware of the risks they face if they join the industry, campaigners noted, and those who have taken jobs may not know how to push back against abuses.

By screening Call Me Priya in 405 villages in Tamil Nadu, 13 charities aim to give communities an accurate picture of conditions in the industry while building solidarity between the workers.

"The idea is to create resilience among young workers, and empower teenagers who are in the pipeline to join the mills," said Mr Ramamurthy Vidyasagar, a child rights activist who helped develop an outline for discussions at the screenings.

Those goals have taken on added urgency since campaigners earlier this year documented 20 deaths - including suspected suicides - over the course of three months in factories and hostels housing textile workers in Tamil Nadu.

Call Me Priya is based on interviews that the film-makers did with more than 60 factory employees, as well as testimonies collected by campaigners from 308 bonded labourers who work with no salary until a debt is paid.

Through Priya's eyes, the film explores rampant sexual harassment in mills, low wages, false promises made by employers and poverty in their homes.

While the movie delves deeper than labour abuses, discussions at the screenings also explore social conditions that drive young women to take jobs in the textile industry.

At a recent screening in the village of Kurumpatti, workers discussed Priya's struggles and the number of hours a 15-year-old girl is able to work, as well as issues like alcohol addiction and gender discrimination.

"The film really resonates with them," said Mr Sivaranjani Chinnamuniyadi, a facilitator with Serene Secular Social Service Society, a charity that assists garment workers in Tamil Nadu's Dindigul district.

"Girls open up and talk about why they took up these factory jobs, how tiring it is and how they wish they could give it up."

The film's ending tends to stir especially intense discussion, according to those organising the screenings.

Priya triumphs over her social and employment challenges and ends up becoming a doctor - a happy ending that many textile workers argue is impossible for them to achieve.

"A debate is good. We want them to question the exploitation and support each other to improve their conditions," Mr Vidyasagar said.

"The idea is also to create hope."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2018, with the headline 'Documentary sparks debate on abuse at Indian spinning mills'. Print Edition | Subscribe