Employee hostels in India are often like prisons, but young garment workers don’t always see it that way.

Kavitha, 18, makes a living in a garment 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 few home comforts (no fans or air conditioning) and the women sleep on simple mats on the floor. Life revolves around work in the factory, where Kavitha sews up to 80 T-shirts an hour, eight hours a day, six days a week, for around £60 a month.

Back at the shelter, Kavitha’s life is isolated from the world behind closed doors and the high perimeter fences of a permanently guarded complex. In addition to being transported to and from the factory, the women go out about once a week for a few hours, but always accompanied by guardians or guards. Never alone.

To many, this may sound like a prison. But these conditions are a daily reality for many thousands of young single workers who have moved from rural areas to work in factories. They produce clothes for brands like Gap, H&M, Hugo Boss, Next and Tesco.

These hostels have become ubiquitous in India (and elsewhere). They are usually owned and operated by the factory, and payments for food and lodging are usually deducted from the workers’ wages. Residents provide a ready workforce where workers, sometimes on long-term contracts, are readily available for even the most undesirable shifts.

All of this leaves workers with little control over their lives, which has drawn widespread criticism of the shelter system. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that most 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 an “extremely high” risk of forced labor practices.

But research on hostels in South India by a team from the University of Bath, Royal Holloway University in London and Simon Fraser University revealed a different view: that of the women who live in them. We spoke to more than 50 workers and their families (as well as employers and guards) about the realities of life in shelters. We found that the women’s parents in particular seemed to welcome the restrictions experienced by their daughters.

a security issue

Rather than being perceived as a prison, shelters 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 feelings may be the result of fears for the safety of young women in a country that is no stranger to gender-based violence. A high-security shelter is considered a safe destination for women who leave rural villages to work under the “protection” of urban factory owners.

Another benefit perceived by these women and their families is that their reputation will not be questioned when they return to the village to marry, given the few opportunities they have to meet men in the strict regimen of hostel life.

Such interpretations of hostel life clearly stem from the highly gendered and patriarchal environment into which many women in South India are born. Male workers face few or none of the same restrictions in their own more liberal accommodation.

But still, for young women who have faced extensive restrictions even at home, the shelter can feel like a kind of liberation. As one mother explained to us: “If [my daughter] comes home, she has to stay inside the house, [and] we don’t let her leave the village at all.” At the hostel, however, the young women have the opportunity to socialize with their peers.

In some of the best hostels, entertainment is offered on the weekends, along with courses on topics including computers, yoga and swimming. Some even offer nutrition and hygiene training, as well as financial education and women’s empowerment.

Overview of many factory workers.
Workers produce T-shirts at a factory in Tamil Nadu, southern India.
Edward Jonkler/Alamy Stock Photo

When we talked to the workers themselves (at home or in community centers outside the hostel), one said that he preferred life in factory accommodation. “I like the shelter better because we can have fun there,” he confided to us out of earshot of his family. Another said: “We can have fun with our friends and we can be happy.”

Cultural change

The reality of hostel life, then, seems far more complex than we might at first think. There is no denying that these are deeply troubled places where low pay and exploitation can be rife. But any attempt to address these problems must recognize the important, if limited, freedoms they provide.

Activists, and even the brands themselves, have long pushed for a change in hostel practices. For example, the Ethical Trading Initiative, an organization dedicated to improving the sourcing practices of companies that counts Next, Primark, Superdry and Tesco among its members, has said: “We recognize that there are poor conditions and restrictions on the freedom of movement in the factories owned by hostels, and there is still a lot to do.”

While our research suggests this has led to improved conditions in many shelters and curbed some of the worst forms of exploitation, freedom of movement remains a sticking point. We also found that many factories prefer to dodge scrutiny from outsiders rather than risk a steady supply of low-cost labor.

What is needed is not more strident demands to simply end restrictions on freedom of movement, but the development and implementation of a long-term vision for change in and around the industry. This could involve setting up shelters run by the government or by NGOs employing more humane practices.

It could also include efforts to increase the supply and reduce the cost of private rental accommodation around workplaces, and increase family accommodation to reduce dependency on single female migrant workers. Efforts to better align wages with the cost of living outside of shelters should also be a priority.

However, the longer-term goal has to be broader political, social and cultural change. Change that addresses the deep-seated gender discrimination and patriarchal relationships faced by young Indian girls like Kavitha wherever they are: at home, in a shelter or elsewhere.

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