The textile mills of Tamil Nadu and that weird employment offer – ActionAid India
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The textile mills of Tamil Nadu and that weird employment offer

Author: Gomathi Palanikumar
Posted on: Friday, 26th April 2013

A few days ago, I met up with a friend and a colleague who has been involved with various labour rights movements in Tamil Nadu. Among the many things we discussed, we were also debating and discussing about the much touted ‘growth model’ of India.

Given that India is in the middle of many election debates, where ‘good governance’ feature frequently as a topic, we were asking ourselves few, very basic, questions. 

Has the new form of development (often called the neo-liberal growth model) opened up economic opportunities for Dalit, Adivasi women? Do global markets recognise women’s contribution to the economy & their working hours? Has the new model been reduced to a point where if a woman’s work does not bring back money or monetary income into her house, her efforts go unheeded and unrecognised? 

Closer home [to where we work and live]; the discussion sooner strayed into the territory of women working in factories and garment industries. Here, questions raised were more specific.   

Do the employment opportunities raised by garment companies, really empower women? How gender sensitive are these employers? 

In the event of a spate of violent incidents being reported against women across the length and breadth of this country, it is important to understand the socio-economic model in which this violence is placed. The everyday life of a woman garment worker in Chennai, provide us that much needed analysis of this model. 

The starting point

The economic liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, gave much thrust to our textile industries. Today, the textile industry plays a significant role in the country’s economy and contributes to 14 per cent of industrial production. This also means that it forms 4% of country’s GDP and 17% of the India’s Export Earnings [Source: Wage ages, Working Hours and Child Labor in India, by Level works limited, January 2009].   

Reports suggest that, India has the potential to increase its textile and apparel share in the world trade from the current level of 4.5 per cent to 8 per cent and reach US $80 billion by 2020. Big numbers. Aren’t they? 

In the post-liberalization era, Tamil Nadu has emerged as a front-runner in attracting a large amount of domestic and foreign investments. It is one of the major recipients of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). It is from the cities of Coimbatore, Erode, Gobichettipalayam, Perundurai and Tirupur, in Tamil Nadu, often called the Textile valley of India, that we export these garments in large numbers. Data suggests that two thirds of India’s textile exports occur from Erode & more than a half of India’s Knit-wear are exported out of Tirupur. Coimbatore, Karur and Erode together raises $1000 Million every year in foreign exchange. In short, over the past one decade textile and garment industries of Tamil Nadu have grown – grown exponentially. Today, there are no proper estimates of the number of industries and mills in TamilNadu that are engaged in Garment production. 

So who works here?

When we talk about garment production, it is not only the garment industries; it begins from spinning to final clothing. There are thousands of companies involved in spinning textiles and garment production. In the competitive global market, to keep the production high, pressure is high on the labour.

This means a lot of them are required to work round the clock in a full day week to meet the demands of a voracious global consumer economy. Since profit is the ultimate guiding philosophy of this market- model, labour has to be cheap; so young girls and women end up as ‘garment workers’.

Employers go a step further indeed –by hiring unmarried women (mostly), who can whole-heartedly dedicate their life and sweat to the shop floor. Since working conditions are intolerable and inhuman, they often look to recruit the submissive kinds – who would not resist the long working hours and cheap irregular wages.  

In the ‘Marketing Boardrooms’ of these firms, these women have a name – flexible labour force.

In the late 80’s, the increasing demand for living wages and workers benefits combined with the pressure enforced by Unions to employ workers as per National and State laws, resulted in employers coming up with innovative schemes to attract the labour force using the socio-economic vulnerability of the marginalized. One way was to recruit more women.

It is estimated that more than 200,000 young girls (aged 12 to 25) are being employed as temporary work force in these industries in Tamil Nadu alone. Essentially, the thrust on profit has ‘feminised’ labour i.e. more women or all women.

Given India’s socio-cultural context, young women workers and adolescent girls, are strategically recruited to bypass the core issues of unionisation, right to freedom of association and to curtail the strength of collective bargaining within the textile sector. This is not to say that women and girls are not capable of forming unions. It is an employer’s wise thinking that they are less likely to.

It is also a good way to deny legally entitled benefits and to increase the profit margin by employing an adolescent workforce for lesser wage. These young girls are recruited as “Apprentices” for labour, under Apprenticeship Act. 

How do they get these girls to work for them?

 “Marriage and Dowry” is a cultural phenomenon, which is constructed and safe guarded by the Indian caste/ class system. It is (in it’s various forms) an unavoidable expense for many families. Though a punishable offence under the Dowry Prohibition ACT of 1961, it is an exercise conducted in open secrecy. No matter how rich or poor, young or old, educated or non-educated, dominant or oppressed caste, every girl born in this system has to pay for her birth.

The situation of Dalit girls are still worse. When their parents figure that dowry is beyond their reach, these young girls are often sent to work at a very young age.

Poor living conditions, low wages, desperate search for a livelihood, constant exploitation and harassment by moneylenders and upper caste landlords are part of the day-to-day life of Dalits. They are compelled to do the most menial and low dignified jobs as manual scavenging, removal of dead cattle, and burying dead bodies. They are almost always indebted and very often bonded labourers tied to their employers by a debt they can hardly repay. Agents that recruit the girls play into this situation with promises of a good income and decent working conditions.

Almost 60% of the garment workers belong to Dalit community, the lowest group in the Indian caste hierarchy. They are around six million in number and densely concentrated in western districts like Coimbatore, Tirupur and Dindigul where the textile and garment industry is mainly located.

Dalit girls are lured with false promises made by the companies. If the victim belongs to a comparatively lower caste or a low income group, the firms’ management side exploits that helplessness by paying her lower compensation.

An employment offer that celebrates dowry? Looks Like

To meet the marriage expenses and pay dowry, families need money.Most textile companies in the area see this as an opportunity to attract young girls (aged 12 to 25) from the rural areas. They have introduced the scheme called ‘Sumangali thittam’ (wedding scheme). The scheme is nothing but a form of camp coolie system or forced labour, which operates across Tamil Nadu in most of the small and larger companies involved in garment production.

Decent wage, comfortable accommodation and lump-sum money after 3 years! These are the commitments companies make to attract the girls.

This is an idea that has certainly taken a leaf out of the ‘mill girls’ concept in 19th century Lowell. Those long working hours, irregular and cheap wages, lack of holidays, abuses – the story is strikingly similar.

So, is our new economic model, taking us back in time? One wonders.

Working conditions of garment workers in Tamil Nadu

In reality, these girls contracted under this scheme have to stay in a curtailed environment where their mobility is highly restricted.   Even parents are not allowed to visit their daughter’s in the workplace. Increased working hours, high pressure on output, restricted mobility, limited holidays, no proper nutritious food, and sexual harassment by the supervisors, verbal abuse, threat of accidents, prone to huge health complications, highly impacts the girl’s physical and mental health.

They are permitted to go to their home towns for 4 or 5 days during festival seasons only with labour brokers and these labour brokers must bring back the girls after the holidays. Else their part-commissions are held back.

The middle man.

A labour broker (Middle man) plays a very critical role in the whole supply chain. It is he who identifies the massive workforce in the rural areas.  In certain context, he acts as a recruiter, supervisor and worker in the same industry.

Most of the times, he is known to the girl; a family friend/ distant relative or such like, thus finding it easier to convince the family. His commission is based on number of girls he can get. The ‘running rate’ is INR 2000 to INR 3000 per girl/ employee.

If the girl returns within the first 6 months, he should immediately find a replacement. So these chaps are on a constant look out for vulnerable women (divorced, widowed or poor). 

Three years of labour later…

The situation of girls after they come out of these factories is pathetic to say the least. Acute health problems like skin disease, respiratory problems, asthma, infertility problems of women make them even more vulnerable; [or how a middle man once told me unsuitable for marriage].

The money they end up spending on health care is much more what they earned from this work. The vulnerability of families is much higher – increase of debt bondage, no alternatives for the girls, no alternative livelihood and psychological pressure on parents.

Are we looking at a neo-liberal growth story or a glossier version of slavery and bondage?

While India is often quoted as this power house with progressive legal systems, who is actively lobbying for a permanent membership in UN and unabatedly investing in nuclear energy and infrastructure, it is a lived reality that people are still going hungry.

Hunger, poverty, starvation, discrimination, atrocities, caste based employment, sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and children and that list of misery has only grown leap and bounds.

When you run a country based on a market-centred approach, where profits are always put over people and their welfare, this disparity is bound to occur. It is occurring. The questions I posed at the beginning need to find an answer in this reality around us.


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  1. “Wage ages, Working Hours and Child Labor in India”, by Level works limited, January 2009.
  2. “Textile manufacturing in India”, www.india-industry/textile.html
  3. A brief report of textile industry in India, March 2012
  4. “Investment Climate in Tamil Nadu,” by the India Brand Equity Foundation, October 2008.
  6. “Wage ages, Working Hours and Child Labor in India”, by Level works limited, January 2009.
  7. N. Neetha, ‘Gender and technology: Impact of flexible organization and production on female labour in the Tirupur knitwear industry’, mimeo, V. V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh, 2001.
  9. “Captured by Cotton”, Published by ICN and SOMO, May 2011. 
  10. “The Mill girls”, Lowell National Historical Park, National Park service, date of publication is not mentioned.

Edited by: Abhilash