How This Young Dalit Union Leader Found Her Place In The Union

Gender based violence, caste discrimination and forced labour practices are rife in Indian garment factories. In Tamil Nadu, Theivanai Maruthai, a young Dalit woman trade union leader is trying to change this

At 27, Theivanai Maruthai is one of the youngest Dalit leaders of the women-led Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), a Dalit-majority independent trade union representing over 12,000 women textile workers in the state.  

As a garment worker, paralegal, divorcee, and a union leader, she has questioned societal norms in her fight for economic and social justice. For instance, she not only fought against wage theft in garment factories but also walked out of an unhappy marriage last year in the patriarchal and caste-bound village of Sanarpatti in Dindigul. 

“Everyone – be it at homes or in factories – wants us Dalit women to be obedient, submissive, and quiet,” she says. “They want us to accept unhappy marriages and exploitative working conditions in the name of ‘maintaining peace’. But it is our work that runs homes and factories. Should we also not enjoy the benefits of it ? If we do not choose our dreams, desires, and our own humanity over societal pressure and norms, we will cease to live. And I refuse to stop living.”

That pretty much sums up Theivanai’s attitude to work and life. She became known among the working class women in Dindigul when she helped her sister and a migrant woman worker from Odisha escape from forced labour in a garment factory in Erode. Women in her neighbourhood were stunned when Theivanai, then just 22 and educated only up to till class 10, spoke with the confidence and knowledge of a lawyer.  

This year, she completed three years as the Dindigul district secretary of the TTCU, helping more than 20 Dalit women escape forced labour, leading multiple efforts to address caste-based discrimination and gender-based violence in Dindigul’s textile factories. In addition to this, she led community initiatives to demand roads, rations, and toilets for Dindigul’s Dalit pockets. 

How Theivanai Found Her Place In the Union

It was circumstances that brought Theivanai to the labour movement. As a child, she had wanted to be a doctor because she had seen how hard it was for the women of her community to access hospitals. Long hours of physical work and limited resources meant that they did not even have enough money to travel to a hospital. 

“I thought how wonderful it would be if I were a doctor and lived with my community. But like many other Dalit women, I soon realised I did not have the luxury to learn and spend time in school, especially as both my parents were daily wage earners who made less than Rs 7000 per month to support a family of five. So I ended up joining a garment factory at the age of 15, like many other Dalit women in our villages,” she says. 

Despite the disappointment of having to drop out of school, the labour leader says she finds great joy in being a labour organiser and in working with the women of her community. “Before TTCU was started [in 2013], Dalit working class women did not have a collective voice in our community to raise our issues,” she says.  

When Theivanai joined TTCU, Dalit women’s demands were hardly addressed by trade unions or even Dalit-led political parties in her region. Most unions, she says, were led by upper-caste men and their focus was only on issues of wage and hours. They did not address the issue of rampant sexual harassment and assault in garment factories, especially against Dalit women workers.

“Even today, major trade unions do not want to raise their voices against the forced termination of women during their pregnancy, the lack of toilet breaks, or the need for a well-functioning creche,” she says.

Local Dalit political parties, also led by men, are not much better, she says. They do not want to discuss Dalit women’s issues in accessing healthcare, education, or the domestic violence they endure. “This is what we wanted to change. Through TTCU, we could finally build a voice for Dalit women, while being in solidarity with women across other castes and classes,” she says.

But in her own family, it was her father who pushed her to chase her dreams. “My father loved me dearly and was my greatest support system until he passed away recently. He always told me to stand by my principles, be independent, and never bow down as long as I was on the path of truth and justice. His words still guide and inspire me every day,” she says.

Fighting Workplace Harassment

Theivanai’s campaign was sparked by her own experience of sexual harassment soon after she took on her first first job in a garment factory. She recalls that she was struggling to meet production targets due to painful periods and had to suffer her supervisor’s sexual innuendos. “He suggested that my hands weren’t suited for tailoring but only in bed. I endured a lot of this kind of abuse, including being constantly addressed disrespectfully as ‘edi‘ or ‘podi‘ by supervisors and managers. I would often cry at home because of it,” she says. 

The sexual innuendos were however the last straw. “I rose from my seat and told the supervisor in a loud and clear voice that if he ever spoke to me like that again, I would file a complaint through my union and go to any extent, even involve the media and the government if need be, to ensure he was punished and never spoke to a woman like that again,” says Theivanai.

She recollects how shocked her colleagues by her reaction – this was the first time a Dalit woman confronted a dominant caste supervisor in the factory. Theivanai says she felt no anger when she reprimanded the supervisor. “If I didn’t fight for myself, no one else would,” she says. 

It was also the moment when she realised the need for Dalit working-class women to build trade unions and join them so they could speak up against workplace injustices without the fear of retaliation.

Theivanai (in a red saree) leading a TTCU protest to highlight how even as factories celebrate May Day, workers continue to struggle with poor working conditions/ Theivanai Maruthai

Since 2015, Theivanai has been a part of many campaigns led by TTCU. Her association with TTCU campaigns started when the union was trying to address the rampant child labour in textile factories. She also was at the helm of the struggle against the government-backed Sumangali Scheme, under which young girls from marginalised communities were forced to work to pay for their own dowry (promised as a lump sum payment at the end of a three-year work contract). This was nothing short of bonded labour and illegal because dowry had been declared illegal in 1961.

In 2019, Theivanai and TTCU drew attention to how garment factories were forcing women workers to have pills to delay their periods to improve productivity and through public campaigns managed to get the government to ban the practice. 

“We were also at the forefront of the Justice for Jeyasre campaign in 2021, after the death of our union member Jeyasre Kathiravel. This led to the historic Dindigul Agreement to Eliminate Gender-based Violence, the first legally binding multi-party agreement to address gender-based violence and caste discrimination in Asian garment supply chains,” she notes with pride. 

Jeyasre, a 21-year-old Dalit garment worker was murdered by her supervisor in January 2021. After this incident, more than 25 women garment workers came forward to describe the culture of gender-based violence in the garment factory where she worked. The TTCU campaign had been joined by more than 100 organisations globally, and resulted in the Dindigul Agreement in April, 2022.

Theivanai also told me that TTCU brought national and international attention to the issues of poor working class Dalit women in the textile production hubs of Tamil Nadu, which produce clothes for the high streets of Europe and the US. While garment export factories are often described as institutions for empowering Dalit women, they also often kept them in a cycle of poverty, making them more vulnerable to sexual harassment, says the union leader.

Worker First

Theivanai and her union are particular that the women who reach out to them for help are never put in harm’s way. There was a difficult case five years ago of a young woman worker who stayed with the Sumangali Scheme even after it was banned by the government. The worker was poor and feared that complaining to government agencies would endanger her life and her family’s. 

“We had to respect her wishes. So, to make sure she was safe, I constantly checked in with her and her family to ensure their well-being, and was ready to inform the police or the government if there was an immediate danger to her life. After a year of constant monitoring, the worker was able to leave the scheme, and TTCU helped her become self-employed, as she wished,” Theivanai says. 

All these cases helped the activist frame strategies to fight for Dalit rights in her village, which is a much harder task than demanding justice at the workplace, she says. 

“I live in a caste-segregated village, where Dalits live in thatched houses near the wastelands. There are not even proper roads to reach our area even though more than 100 families live there. Many use the wastelands to defecate because the government schemes to support the construction of toilets never reached most of us. The solutions for these problems seem simple, but the struggle to achieve these basic rights that give dignity to our people takes years,” she says. 

Becoming A Paralegal

In 2018, TTCU started a programme to train union members to become paralegals. It was through this that Theivanai became a paralegal herself, and this has helped support women on both labour rights and domestic violence. 

She says that one of the first major cases she handled after becoming a paralegal was supporting her own sister and her friends to escape forced labour in a garment factory in Erode. 

Around 2019, her sister had taken a job in a garment factory where she had been promised 8 days of leave after working continuously for 6 months. But the factory supervisor insisted that she continue for another 2 months before he was willing to grant her leave. 

“My sister asked the supervisor for her signed contract, which clearly stated the start date and the terms and benefits. She then called me to explain the situation and handed the phone to the supervisor,” she says. Thevanai told the manager that his response constituted forced labour under the Indian labour laws and that she would alert the local police if they did not relieve her sister. Within two hours, Thevanai’s sister was allowed to leave the factory. 

In the following days, the factory management would behave in the same way to other women, including a migrant woman from Odisha. The migrant worker even threatened to commit suicide if she wasn’t allowed to leave. “Not only did I help her leave the factory and ensure she received her wages, but I comforted her family, who were in deep distress, especially since they couldn’t understand Tamil well,” says Theivanai. 

Building Collective Power

Theivanai says her learning has applications for all oppressed people who should lead the way in developing pathways to end their own oppression. But broader solidarity and opportunities are important for social transformation.

“One of the first key lessons I learned after becoming a labour organiser was that women from different castes and communities experience oppression and violence in very different ways, in their own communities and workplaces and homes. Additionally, all categories of oppression cannot be seen as equal. Despite this, it is essential to build solidarity among us, treating each other with mutual understanding and respect,” she says. 

Theivanai leads a village-level meeting of TTCU/ Theivanai Maruthai

One of the biggest challenges she faced was in bringing together Dalit and non-Dalit working women even when they faced the same issues under the same supervisors. 

“Many dominant caste women were reluctant to attend union meetings led by Dalit women. They appreciated the benefits of a union but did not want to be seen with Dalit women because they thought they would be disowned by their families. These were very troubling moments: I have spoken harshly to women who discriminate against their Dalit sisters because if they can’t even treat women like them with respect solely due to their caste, they will behave in the same oppressive way if they become supervisors in the factory,” she says. 

Theivanai is candid that her strong opinions have cost the union some women members from the dominant caste but mutual respect and dignity is not negotiable for her or her union. Without this, she says, the union will end up repeating the mistakes of many other trade unions and political organisations.

Thevanai has now spent more than five years in handling caste-related tensions among women workers and she is aware of how complex these are. “Being Dalit is not a homogeneous experience. Very often, Dalits also discriminate against other Dalits, who are below them in the caste ladder.  I have personally handled a case where a Dalit woman was thrown out of her family for marrying a Dalit man who was considered below her family’s caste status,” she says. The union leader stresses the importance of bringing Dalits together and dismantling their own casteist notions as well.

Over the last three years, especially during the pandemic, she says that she was able to organise some successful community campaigns through the formation of village level committees. This included bringing together women from various Dalit and OBC communities to demand  better Anganwadis, improved nurses at the local public health centre, and to prevent liquor sales to young boys — issues that affect all groups of women.  

She says: “These village-level efforts were largely successful and helped reduce caste tensions among women. We even held a feast at TTCU where non-Dalit women cooked and served food to their Dalit sisters. This was unheard of and upset many upper-caste men. However, it also demonstrated a newfound collective power among women.”

She says building such solidarity among Dalits, and also between Dalit and non-Dalit women – which is very difficult in rural Tamil Nadu – is also what made it possible for the TTCU to win the Dindigul Agreement. “During the fight for Jeyasre, we faced a lot of threats from the industry and its allies. Most men from her villages were put in jail under false charges and TTCU leaders were being watched and followed by informants of the management. Despite all this harassment, they could not break the will of the women of the union to demand justice for our sister. This is why we could stay united through the one-year struggle for the agreement and win it.”

Theivanai is emphatic that TTCU’s journey is about addressing a whole range of oppressions with far fewer resources and clout than other unions and political groups – from gender and caste to poverty in homes, communities, and workplaces. 

Despite the many challenges, Theivanai is immensely proud of how far TTCU has come in transforming the possibilities and aspirations of working-class women in the Tamil Nadu textile industry. “My dream is for a just world, where wealth and natural resources are shared by all and where equality and freedom are the norms, not aspirations.”

(With inputs from Ranjana Sundaresan)

  • Nandita Shivakumar is a Business and Human Rights Consultant and advisor to the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU). She has written extensively on the garment industry and works with multiple garment workers’ unions in developing their campaigns and communication strategies.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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