Indian clothes factories in Tamil Nadu were caught giving their female employees illegal painkillers for their period pains that are having serious side-effects on their health, revealed a new investigation conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF). Through interviews with about 100 women working in Tamil Nadu’s billion-dollar garment-making industry, the expose revealed that all of them were given unlabelled drugs at work to help ease their period pains. Except more than half have said that it took a huge toll on their health.
Many of these women had been taking these pills for years before they realised how damaging it was to them. They later found that the side-effects that came with these pills included depression, anxiety, urinary tract infections, irregular periods and even miscarriages.
These pills are administered by a supervisor known as the ‘timekeeper’, whose job also includes keeping tabs on workers’ hours and even their bathroom breaks besides managing a small medical dispensary. The women who were interviewed by TRF, were aged between 15 and 25, and said that they were always instructed to gulp down the pills in front of the overseer, without ever being told what drug it was or what its side-effects were. "The choice was between losing wages and popping more pills to get through the day's production targets," said Kanaga Marimuthu, a 21-year old woman working at one such factory. Marimuthu ingested these pills every month for a year before they began causing her aches, pain and fever and ultimately resulted in her losing her period. While this young worker is now in better shape, having consulted a proper doctor and staying away from the pills, there are many like her who don’t get a say. Sudha, a seamstress, talked about how the pills eventually messed up her menstrual cycle and caused fibroids, a non-cancerous growth in her uterus.
TRF got these unmarked pills examined by experts and found that they were non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, similar to over-the-counter medicines like Ibuprofen and Advil. These provide the workers' relief from period cramps but are also known to have harmful side-effects if taken frequently. In fact, an anonymous time-keeper who hands these pills out told TRF, "During their periods, the medicines help them finish work. I myself would never swallow the pills - and dissuade my close friends working from taking them also."
While India's Factories Act has made it mandatory for medical dispensaries to be run by qualified nurses or doctors, smaller factories were known to flout the law. Dr P Nalina Kumari, who has treated many women working in spinning mills and garment factories said, "The pills they seem to be given are basically causing a hormonal imbalance in their bodies. The visible symptoms are nausea and vomiting. The invisible symptoms are erratic menstrual cycles, depression and in many cases difficulty in conceiving."
Jeeva Balamurugan, general secretary of the all-women Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, claims that the factory bosses were aware of how the pills could affect women's periods yet continued to hand them out freely so they could ensure max productivity.
Government data says that more than 3,00,000 female workers are employed at the 40,000 garment factories and spinning mills across Tamil Nadu, but the number is actually higher considering that many of the workers work in the informal sector and are thus not accounted for.
These are mainly young women from poor, illiterate and marginalised backgrounds who are made to work for long hours at minimum wage to make those cute affordable clothes you probably see on the racks of retailer stores like H&M and Gap. But supplying these clothes at a quicker rate with cheaper prices comes with its own cost. Exploitation is rampant in the industry, with employees not even being given enough bathroom breaks to keep the clothes coming. And this isn’t just restricted to the informal factory setting. It also happens on fields, with women opting to remove their wombs because contractors are often unwilling to hire women who menstruate because "periods hinder work".
An official from Tamil Nadu said the state would launch a project to monitor the health of its garment workers and collect data on how many suffered from work-related health problems in light of this investigation.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.