A women-led trade union, which represent female garment workers in the state, said the girls were found unconscious on Sunday on a highway near the mill where they scaled a 14-foot wall before falling on to thorny bushes.
“But because of excessive bleeding they became unconscious and were found two hours later by residents from nearby villagers,” the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union said in a report.
It said the girls were forced to work overtime, banned from contacting family or studying. They were also pushed and shoved as they worked, the report said.
A senior local official said an investigation had been ordered into the incident with the state labour department initiating a drive to check working conditions in mills across western Tamil Nadu, a hub for India’s $42 billion-a-year textile and clothing export industry.
“The district administration will inspect all mills to ensure that the girls are being paid directly and there is no exploitation,” the official from the state labour department, said requesting anonymity.
Officials at the spinning mill did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Activists said the incident highlights the poor working conditions of textile workers, particularly those trapped in bonded labour – forced to work for little or no money to pay off loans, advances on their salary or recruitment fees.
Mills mainly hire young girls, offering 30,000 rupees to 60,000 rupees ($450 to $900) to their families for three years’ work under so-called “Sumangali” schemes with the money paid at the end of the fixed term.
But former workers say they often do not receive the full amount because of deductions for their food and lodging.
A 2014 study into Tamil Nadu’s textile industry found workers were also often subjected to low wages, excessive and sometimes forced overtime requirements, lack of freedom of movement as well as verbal and sexual abuse.
“Different studies and numerous documented case studies reveal repeated stories of exploitation of the adolescents in various forms in textile sector,” said R Paritha, president of the textile union, said in a statement.
S James Victor, advisor with the textile union, criticised a lack of progress over working conditions for textile workers.
“Nothing is changing,” Victor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Last week, six children were rescued from a mill in Coimbatore and produced before the child welfare committee.
“These cases are making it to the public domain, many more are not.”
($1 = 67.1760 Indian rupees)