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DINDIGUL, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of a man who fought for worker rights in Indian spinning mills has prompted sympathy protests and opened questions about work conditions in an industry that supplies yarn to top international brands.
The suicide of Sebastin Inbaraj, 24, who died on May 15 after factory managers accused him of theft, has underlined the harsh work environment in India's mills and lack of protection for poorly paid labourers, activists said on Thursday.
"He has paid a price for helping young women working in these mills to voice the everyday exploitation they face at work," said Thivyarakhini Sesuraj, advisor to the Tamilnadu Textile and Common Labour Union, an all-women's union fighting for the rights of textile workers.
"He encouraged women to fight for their wages and demand their rights. The mill management turned around and accused him of theft, humiliating him in public and resulting in his suicide."
The mill denies any wrongdoing.
On Wednesday, women from many of the 188 spinning mills in and around Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu, staged a sit-in protest outside the factory where Inbaraj worked.
Inbaraj worked as an assistant fitter, ensuring machines worked around the clock. The factory is owned by a conglomerate that exports high-quality yarn to 60 countries and activists say it employs the largest workforce in the region.
In the nine months that he worked at the factory, Inbaraj's colleagues credit him with helping four workers get their wage dues. He also encouraged young women facing harassment to contact the union, often putting them in touch with activists.
The company, Prabhu Spinning Mills (Open End Division), denies any wrongdoing or role in his suicide, saying there is no police complaint or investigation to this effect.
According to the management, during routine checks at the end of his shift on May 14, Inbaraj was caught with "some machine part". He was questioned, then asked to come back the next day to meet the manager.
His family and co-workers allege he was abused and beaten in front of his colleagues. Embarrassed to go home, he met friends and the next morning consumed pesticide.
"If he had stolen, they should have filed a police complaint and called me," said Benjamin Paulraj, Inbaraj's father told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Instead they humiliated him for something he didn't do and now he is dead."
A senior mill official told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that there was no harassment and his activism was irrelevant.
"The boy's death is a humanitarian issue, not about labour rights," he said, refusing to give his name.
India is one of the world's largest textile and garment manufacturers and Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 mills that employ up to 400,000 workers, drawing on village labourers to turn cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes.
The workers are mainly young women from poor, illiterate and low-caste communities, who work up to 12 hours a day and say they face intimidation, sexual remarks and harassment.
Savari Ammal, Inbaraj's aunt and guardian after his mother's death, sat quietly through Wednesday's protests.
"His father and I worked very, very hard to bring him up and he would never steal," said the 81-year-old.
"So many people are here for him. Looks like he helped many people. But our future is not secure and they have no explanation for his death."
Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org