By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Aug 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Trainee workers in India's garment manufacturing hub in south India can no longer be trapped in apprenticeships for years after changes to a 56-year-old law that must be implemented immediately, campaigners and trade unions said on Wednesday.
After a decade of lobbying, the state government of Tamil Nadu has amended a 1961 apprenticeship law that restricts the time a worker can be kept in training and only allows 10 percent of a workforce to be trainees.
Campaigners had voiced concerns that tens of thousands of girls were trapped in trainee jobs in spinning mills and garment factories for three years or more, working long hours for below minimum wages with no welfare benefits or job security.
The new rules will limit apprenticeships to six months to a year and give workers the opportunity to join the permanent workforce. Campaigners called for the amended law to be implemented immediately.
"Exploitation had become epidemic in the industry," said Anantharaman Sivakumar of the All India Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), who has been campaigning for changes in the law for over a decade now.
"It has been a long road for these changes in the law and once implemented, it will give workers medical benefits, social security, proper holiday schedules and a more dignified existence."
Campaigners said the revised rules will bring an end to schemes where young girls were employed as trainees but put on regular production within a week with the promise of a lump sum after three years.
The girls will now have formal contracts, limited training periods, and the possibility of a permanent job.
"In many instances, workers are not even given a pay slip telling them what they have earned and what has been deducted," said Thivya Sesuraj, advisor to the all women Tamilnadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU).
Tamil Nadu is the largest hub in India's $40 billion-a-year textile and garment industry with about 400,000 people working in spinning mills and garment factories there to produce garments exported to Europe and the United States.
The industry draws its largely female workforce from poor families.
In a detailed presentation in 2016, the state labour department said apprentices outnumbered permanent workers in most textile mills, were paid less and most were fired at the end of a "three year apprenticeship period".
"The industry can no longer suppress women workers' rights by restricting their opportunities to grow. Now, they will have to make them a part of the formal workforce and pay them their dues," Sivakumar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The changes, approved by the president of India in 2016, are awaiting the final go-ahead from the Tamil Nadu government.
"There has been a sea of change in the sector since the time we sent the bill for approval to the President of India in 2008," said P Amudha, former head of the state labour department.
"The department is in the final stages of consultations with employees and managements to ensure that everyone is in agreement and there is no hitch in the implementation."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)
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