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India: Behind the glitter of Tirupur garments hub is precarious labour

9 October 2012

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The Times of India, 7 October 2012

Tirupur survives odds, but workforce feels the pinch

Rukmini Shrinivasan, TNN | Oct 7, 2012, 02.27AM IST

TIRUPUR: Four years after an unprecedented recession first hit the western world, India’s garment export hub, its business-owners say, is firmly on the road to recovery. But the changes in the lives of Tirupur’s workers seem to show that the worst of the recession was absorbed by the weakest link in the global supply chain.

Tirupur, a city of six lakh people an hour’s drive from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, produces 90% of India’s hosiery and exports hosiery and cotton garments worth Rs 12,000 crore annually. Hosiery is almost exclusively what this city does: from a tea-shop sized unit with three men on sewing machines to factories employing thousands of women, the overwhelming majority of all economic activity in Tirupur centres around the garment trade.

"Over the last three years or so, Tirupur’s exporters have had to face four main challenges: the recession in the US, volatility in the price of cotton yarn, environmental restrictions on dyeing units, and the Euro crisis. Of these, the Euro crisis affected us the most as half our exports go to Europe," says A Sakthivel, chairman of the ministry of textiles-sponsored Apparel Export Promotion Council, and president of the Tirupur Exporters’ Association. Tirupur’s exports, which had been growing at 10-15% annually, plateaued, says Sakthivel, and 35-40,000 workers lost their jobs. But the sector is now back on its feet and looking at Israel, Africa and Scandinavian countries, he says.

Half of Tirupur’s 3-4 lakh workers are migrants and many, says C Murthy, general secretary of the CITU-affiliated Tirupur Banian Central Workers’ Union, returned to their villages when they could not find work that would support the high cost of living in a city. For those still with jobs, three processes are clearly evident: contractualisation, sub-contracting and outsourcing.

Selvan, a 35-year-old man who came to the city 15 years ago from Dharapuram, 50 kilometres from Tirupur, typifies the many steps backwards that thousands of workers in the garment export sector have had to take. Until three years ago, Selvan worked on a fixed contract with garment exporters as a "cutting master", cutting pieces from cotton by hand or by machine for them to be stitched into cotton garments. He worked for two years with Cotton Blossom, a company that supplies to, among others, global giants Diesel, Diadora and Yonex. But for the last three years, Selvan has not been able to get even a one-year contract with any factory and, as a result, works for a labour contractor who contacts him when a factory needs extra hands for a rush job or for the pre-Christmas busy season.

"When I get work, I work 12-14 hours a day with no day off," he says. Most "contracts" are for four or five days. Besides shorter job contracts, Selvan has also slid down the ladder from a fixed daily wage to a piece rate: he is paid between Re 1 to Rs 1.50 per piece and he cuts a maximum of 300-400 pieces per day. On average, says Selvan, he makes Rs 7,000 per month on which he rents a room, raises and educates his daughter, supports himself and his wife and saves money to give his parents when he visits them once a month.

"A substantial portion of the work is now done through sub-contractors who cannot be monitored for labour violations the way large manufacturers can be," says J Jeyaranjan, a social scientist who has studied labour in the Tirupur region and is director of the Chennai Institute for Development Alternatives. "While jobs exist for workers and they seem to be collectively secure in Tirupur, individually they are insecure," he says.

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The Times of India, 8 October 2012

The piecemeal life of Tirupur’s female workers

Rukmini Shrinivasan, TNN | Oct 8, 2012, 03.19AM IST

TIRUPUR: On the factory shop-floors, homes and streets of south India’s garment export hub, labour dynamics are changing. As jobs are becoming increasingly atomized and insecure, local labour is looking for better options allowing migrants from the north to fill the void.

Thirty kilometers from Tirupur, 850 women are at work in the Thingallur factory of Maxwell Industries, which produces underwear for its VIP brand.

Industrial towns in Tamil Nadu gained notoriety for their use of a scheme that union leaders say is essentially bonded labour — the "Sumangali Scheme" that kept unmarried women on a three-year contract during which they were housed in hostel on the factory and paid a fraction of their wages, ostensibly to give them a lump-sum at the end of their contracts with which they could pay for their own weddings.

At many other factories like this one, women are not employed on long contracts; in fact, they have no fixed contract at all, and none of the worker benefits like a Provident Fund that goes with a fixed job.

"We provide subsidized food, free accommodation with security for unmarried girls within the factory compound and free transport for those living outside," says M K Ganesh Bapu, president of the company’s spinning and hosiery operations.

Thilakavathi, who joined the factory four years ago as a tailor, has risen to be in charge of the entire shop floor. Her biggest challenge, she says, is labour management — getting workers to give the required production and talking them through health problems.

Across Tirupur, the standard wage for a 12-hour, six-day shift for a skilled worker in a factory is Rs 6,000, with no benefits. Yet a job in a factory, tough as it is with long hours on their feet, is one that many women in Tirupur deeply covet.

In Laxmi Nagar in the heart of the city, women sit on the doorstep of almost every home, stitching or cutting a stack of fabric that has been outsourced to them as "job work".

A Indrani (40) gets Rs 1.50 per dozen frilly cotton baby frocks that she snips the loose ends from. Every day, she does 30-60 dozens of this type of dress, and gets another Rs 2 per dozen for a slightly more complex job for another type of dress.

"This last year, there’s been a big drop in the orders coming to us," she says. Years ago, Indrani worked for a factory with all the benefits that came with it; now she works from home because she can’t stand for long hours any more. "The advantage is that I can work from home, but the downside is that I get no benefits. If I’m sick, I don’t earn anything that day," she says.

But there are signs that the labour dynamics may be changing in Tirupur. "Squeezing labour has always been the case in Tirupur but now there is a point beyond which the worker cannot be squeezed any further," says J Jeyaranjan, a social scientist who has studied labour in the Tirupur region and is director of the Chennai-based Institute for Development Alternatives. "This is partly because the NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] has raised the reserve price of labour, and also because there is a huge boom in rural non-farm employment in the region," he says. Business owners across the board told TOI that they fact a shortage of skilled labour.

For locals from the region, it is no longer a case of all roads leading to Tirupur alone, says Jeyaranjan. Unsurprisingly, half of Tirupur’s workers are now migrants from India’s north and east, in addition to Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Hirendra Pushti (22) came to Tirupur from his native Baleswar in Odisha with four male relatives four years ago.

"One of them had got a job and then the rest of us followed," he says, while inspecting sheets of cotton for defects at the Maxwell Industries factory.

"The jobs with least benefits and job security are now increasingly becoming being occupied by workers from the north," says C Murthy, general secretary of the CITU-affiliated Tirupur Banian Central Workers’ Union. This, he adds, makes it more difficult for the local unions to organize them.


The above articles from The Times of India are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use