Kavitha, 18, earns a living at a clothing factory in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like many of her colleagues, she lives in accommodation provided by the factory, where she shares a dimly lit hostel room with 16 other women.
The rooms in these hostels have little in the way of home comforts – there are no fans or air conditioning – and the women sleep on simple mats on the floor. Life revolves around work at the factory, where Kavitha stitches up to 80 T-shirts an hour, eight hours a day, six days a week, for around $75 per month.
Back at the hostel, Kavitha’s life is shut off from the world behind locked doors and the high perimeter fences of a permanently guarded compound. Apart from being shuttled to the factory and back, the women are let out roughly once a week for a few hours – but always accompanied by wardens or guards. Never alone.
To many, this might sound a lot like a prison. But these conditions are a daily reality for many thousands of young, single, female workers who have moved from rural areas to work in factories. They produce clothes for brands such as Gap, H&M, Hugo Boss, Next and Tesco.
Such hostels have become ubiquitous in India (and elsewhere). They are typically owned and operated by the factory, with payments for food and accommodation usually deducted from workers’ pay. The residents provide an on-tap workforce where workers – sometimes locked into long-term contracts – are readily available, even for the most undesirable shifts.
All of this leaves workers with little control over their lives, which has led to widespread criticism of the hostel system. Indeed, there is some evidence suggesting that the majority of garment industry hostels in India are “illegally restricting the free movement of resident workers.” And a recent report identified what it described as “large-scale violations of human rights” and a “sky-high” risk of forced-labor practices.
But research on southern Indian hostels by a team from the University of Bath, Royal Holloway University of London and Simon Fraser University revealed a different view – from the women who live in them. We spoke to more than 50 workers and their families (as well as employers and wardens) about the realities of hostel life. We found that the women’s parents in particular appeared to welcome the restrictions experienced by their daughters.
A matter of safety
Rather than being perceived as prison-like, the hostels are seen as places where young women are protected and even liberated. As one mother told us: “They are not safe here [in the village], so we are sending them [to the hostel] – they will take good care of the girls.”
Such sentiments may result from fears for young women’s safety in a country that is no stranger to gender-based violence. A high-security hostel is seen as a safe destination for women leaving rural villages to work under the “protection” of urban factory owners.
Another perceived benefit for these women and their families is that their reputations will not be questioned when they return to the village for marriage, given how little opportunity they have to meet men in the strict regime of hostel life.
Such interpretations of hostel living clearly stem from the highly gendered and patriarchal environment into which many women in southern India are born. Male workers face few if any of the same restrictions in their own more liberal accommodation.
But even so, for young women who have faced extensive restrictions even at home, the hostel can actually feel like liberation of a sort. As one mother explained to us, “If [my daughter] comes home, she has to stay inside the house, [and] we don’t let her out of the village at all.” In the hostel, though, young women have opportunities to socialize with their peers.
At some of the better hostels, entertainment is provided on the weekends, along with courses on subjects including computing, yoga and swimming. Some offer training in nutrition and hygiene, financial literacy and women’s empowerment.
When we spoke to workers themselves (at home or in community centers away from the hostel), one said that she preferred life in the factory accommodation. “I like the hostel more because we can have fun over there,” she confided to us out of earshot of her family. Another said: “We can have fun with our friends and can be happy.”
The reality of hostel life, then, seems rather more complex than we might first think. There is no denying that they are deeply problematic places where low wages and exploitation can be rife. But any attempts to tackle these issues should acknowledge the important, if limited, freedoms they provide.
Activists, and even brands themselves, have long pressed for change in hostel practices. For example, the Ethical Trading Initiative, an organization dedicated to improving companies’ sourcing practices that counts Next, Primark, Superdry and Tesco among its members, has said, “We recognize that poor conditions and restrictions on freedom of movement exist in mill-owned hostels, and a lot still needs to be done.”
While our research suggests this has led to better conditions in many hostels and the curbing of some of the worst forms of exploitation, freedom of movement remains a sticking point. We also found that many factories prefer to dodge the scrutiny of outsiders rather than risk a steady supply of low-cost labor.
What is needed is not more strident demands to simply cease restrictions on freedom of movement, but the development and implementation of a longer-term vision for change in and around the industry. This might involve establishing government or NGO-run hostels employing more humane practices.
It might also include efforts to increase the supply and reduce the cost of private rental accommodation around worksites, and increase family accommodation to reduce the reliance on single-women migrant workers. Efforts to better align wages with the cost of living outside of hostels should also be a priority.
The longer-term aim, though, has to be broader political, social and cultural change. Change that tackles the deep-seated gender discrimination and patriarchal relations that young Indian women like Kavitha face wherever they are – at home, in a hostel, or anywhere else.