A dozen employees are busy doing several tasks: some cut ropes of dough into one-inch cubes; others roll out the cubes in tiny circles; one person gathers the small circular appalam and presses them with hand skilfully and the circles grow in diameter.
In another room, a person kneads the dough on a wash stone platform. All through their work, the men and women engage in small talk, which diverts their attention from the oppressive stuffiness in the room. Appalam makers do not have the pleasure of working under the fan as it could dry the appalam and render them useless.
“By the time we are done for the day we are bathed in sweat,” says V.V. Vijayan, who runs a unit for a branded appalam maker.
There are many such units in Perambur, Ambattur, Red Hills and Virugambakkam in the city. Associations working for their welfare say there are about 5,000 appalam workers in the city.
A worker is paid Rs. 8.50 a day for each packet of 100 appalams. The workers stopped protesting for wage hikes three years ago. “Many protestors give up as the hunger pangs are unbearable. How long can we let our family suffer,” Mr. Vijayan asks.
M. Singaravelan works for 12 hours and makes 50 kg of dough every day. He is paid Rs.18 for every five kg of dough. For 28 years he has been preparing dough. His daughter is married and son is working in an electrical wiring unit in Perambur.
Secretary of the Appalam Employees' Association Selvaraj began work at the age of 12. “Now entire families work all day but we earn very little. A handful of big brands control the market and each has 1,000 employees. As we are not employed on contract, there is no proof of employment either,” he says.
The women who echo the sentiments of the men prefer to remain in the background. They not only work alongside the men but also raise families. “Sometimes I leave early as my children will return from school,” says Santhi (name changed) a mother of two. But this causes problems for the unit as others have to do additional work, she concedes.
Mr. Selvaraj and Vijayan are now contractors for well-known brands sold in the city but say it is a challenge to manage the employees and satisfy the company owners. “Most house owners do not want to rent their homes to us. As the rent is very high we have set aside some living space for ourselves,” says Viji, wife of Mr. Vijayan.
Monsoon plays spoilsport, rendering them jobless as appalams cannot be sun-dried. A spell of rain could destroy an entire consignment. Not only is their labour lost but the contractor for whom they work might also lose the contract.