Labour abuse in the garment industry has been widely reported. This qualitative research explores the lived experiences in communities with bonded labour in Tamil Nadu, India. We conducted a qualitative expert-led analysis of 301 life stories of mostly women and girls. We also explore the differences and similarities between qualitative expert-led and participatory narrative analyses of life stories of people living near to and working in the spinning mills. Our findings show that the young female workforce, many of whom entered the workforce as children, are seen and treated as belonging – body, mind and soul – to others. Their stories confirm the need for a feminist approach to gender, race, caste and work that recognises the complexity of power. Oppression and domination have material, psychological and emotional forms that go far beyond the mill. Almost all the girls reported physical and psychological exhaustion from gendered unpaid domestic work, underpaid hazardous labour, little sleep, poor nutrition and being in unhealthy environments.