Textile sector distress damps wages, sparks worker exodus

The Textiles Committee says in a study that declining exports, flat wages and increased imports adversely affected as many as 2.14 lakh employment opportunities in the sector between 2015 and 2020, which was the pre-COVID-19 period

Updated - January 01, 2024 01:04 pm IST

Published - December 17, 2023 07:00 am IST - Coimbatore

Workers like these women employed at a textiles exporting unit in Karur, Tamil Nadu say wages have been flat for years now.

Workers like these women employed at a textiles exporting unit in Karur, Tamil Nadu say wages have been flat for years now. | Photo Credit: Siva Saravanan S

The challenges over the past year at India’s textile and apparel sector, the country’s second-largest employer with almost 45 million direct jobs, have exposed the vulnerabilities of its workers and the fragile ecosystem they operate in.

The slowdown in the sector has kept wages flat, deprived workers of traditional incentives, pushing arguably lakhs of them into hunting for jobs elsewhere.

While the degree of the impact varies within the sector based on the unit’s size, the kinds of textiles they deal with (handloom, power loom, manmade fabric, etc), there is no comprehensive study indicating the level of distress in the post COVID-19 years. But factory owners and workers The Hindu spoke to nationwide, unanimously sought urgent governmental intervention.

Ghost towns

Electrical posts, factory gates, or tree trunks that carried “tailors wanted”/“workers wanted” boards at Tiruppur, known as India’s ‘t-shirt town’, stand bare. A sweeper at one of the garment factories in Tiruppur who took home ₹15,000 as bonus last year received less than a third (₹4,500) this year.

In the nearby weaving centre of Palladam, Velusamy, a power loom weaver, paid ₹2.5 lakhs bonus to 16 workers and operated 30 looms in 2022. In the past three months, he sold 20 looms and now employs only one worker to man the remaining 10 looms and paid his employee ₹11,000 as bonus this year. “The workers took ₹7 lakhs advance from me and are ready to work to repay the amount. But, I do not have orders to give them jobs,” he says.

32-year-old Sahajan from West Bengal was working at a weaving unit at Pongalur. Since he did not get a bonus this year, he moved to another weaving unit. “I want to go back home. I get ₹550 a day for 12 hours of work now. I could get that working as security guard in Bengal and be with my family too,” he says.

Vinod, also a power loom weaver, says he used to earn ₹3,000 a week a year ago, working five days a week. Now, he is unable to find work for more than three days a week. “I do not know any other work. I cannot go back to my home town because there will be no work there at all,” he says.

“There is almost 40% job loss in the garment export units in Tiruppur in the last six months. The (business) owners say they get only 60% work,” says P.R. Natarajan, general secretary of Tiruppur District, All India Trade Union Congress.

Garment factories in Bengaluru are short of workers as many have switched to working at shopping malls and metro rail stations. V.P. Rukmini, President of the Garment Workers’ Union, says 90% of workers at garment factories in Karnataka are women. They receive minimum wages and no incentives. They prefer jobs that pay better and “where there is no harassment,” she adds.

“Workers who have lost their jobs have moved to other sectors,” said an exporter in Delhi. “At least 10 workers who were with me moved to jobs in Gujarat and Telangana,” says Pradeep Natarajan, who operates a textile mill in Coimbatore.

Affecting allied sectors

Such tales abound in the textile clusters, especially in southern States, with the distress extends to allied activities. Selvaraj has been operating a mini truck for almost two decades, transporting textile goods at Palladam. His earnings have more than halved from ₹7,000 to ₹3,000 a week.

Arul (name changed), who rents out his godown to textile producers to store their products is unable to get any occupants. He recently disconnected electricity for his unit, unable to pay ₹37,000 fixed monthly charges.

“I took ₹1 crore loan to buy shuttle-less looms. I had pledged my relative’s property. Last month, I moved the loan account to an NBFC (Non-Banking Financial Corporation) pledging my father-in-law’s property, because I cannot risk my relative’s property,” says Easwaramoorthy.

Reasons for this widespread distress in the textile sector range from loss of orders for garment units, slump in rates for fabric weavers and spinners and import of value added products. A study by the Textiles Committee, available on the Ministry of Textiles website, says decline in exports and a rise in imports have affected 2.14 lakh jobs in the sector between 2015 and 2020 - in the pre-COVID-19 years.

The industry stares at multi-dimensional challenges: lack of data on the impact of the slowdown on workers and wages in the post COVID years, including those on the cottage and micro industries; vast differences in labour profiles and systems between organised and unorganised sectors; migration of workers to better paying jobs if prospects do not improve for the textiles sector; and lower labour costs is other textile exporting nations affecting Indian exporters who compete on prices in the global market.

“The industry is so massive that it is difficult to do surveys,” said an industry spokesperson, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “A large part of work is done at home and in rural areas and it is difficult to collect data from these places. The Ministry has a portal where migrant workers’ details can be registered but it has to be linked to other schemes for better data capture. Moreover, as 90% of the production is in the unorganised sector, there cannot be a uniform approach to address labour conditions.”

For instance, in the medium and large-scale textile mills, Human Resource (HR) managers fear absenteeism and are not ready to reduce wages. If the workers move out, and if garment orders revive in January, the immediate challenge will be manpower across the value chain. So mills try to maintain a core workforce. It is a productivity game and HR managers are trying to improve facilities to retain workers, says another industry representative who also did not wish to be identified.

However, in smaller units, where sustaining business has been a challenge, workers have shifted to other sectors.

R. Karumalaiyan, National Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions acknowledges the lack of concrete information on workers in the textile and clothing sector. “Unionisation is very low in this sector. Annual submission of data for the industrial surveys is also poor,” he says. Nevertheless, in a labour intensive sectors like textiles, workers needs, including those of migrants should be addressed for the industry to bounce back, says Mr. Karumalaiyan.

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