Even free liquor for the skilled! Tirupur's battle for profit amid slowdown

The textile industry faces a curious conundrum: amid an economic slump, it struggles to find & retain skilled workers to keep businesses going

Published: 09th February 2020 05:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th February 2020 12:06 PM   |  A+A-

Representational Image. (Illustration | Amit Bandre/EPS)

Express News Service

TIRUPUR: Most jobs in the formal sector come with benefits: health insurance, provident fund, paid leave. However, the “benefits” recently promised by one garment unit owner in Tirupur more than raised eyebrows.

Senthil Vel, desperate to fill vacancies for skilled jobs in his garment unit put up posters across the town, promising liquor, twice a day, for the selected male employee.

“I got responses to my ad seeking padlock tailors in just a few hours and hired eight people. Unfortunately, I am continuing to receive calls regarding the job and have been forced to switch off my mobile phone for a better part of the day,” he told Express.

Senthil is not alone in going all out to find workers in Tirupur. The textile town is struggling to cope with a curious combination of problems: high attrition amid an economic slowdown. While the industry is accustomed to seasonal attrition that hits around the festival season at the end of each year, many now believe that the problem has worsened since April 2019.

 Workers at a Tirupur textile unit| Express

The domestic slump
The Tirupur textile industry was worth Rs 45,000 to Rs 50,000 crore in 2018-19. Of this, exporters, with mostly large units, had a turnover of Rs 26,000 crore and domestic sellers, most of which are small and medium scale units, made Rs 20,000 crores.

The last year saw domestic manufacturers hit by a slowdown, with festivals such as Deepavali, seeing a whopping 75 per cent drop in sales, according to industry sources.

Insiders say that demonetisation, the GST rollout and India’s Free Trade Agreement with Bangladesh have all hit domestic units. The end of 2019 saw many such units grappling with unsold stock worth Rs 2000 to Rs 3,000 crore which forced some to scale back on working hours. Some units even struggled to pay salaries. 

The real force

Garment workers are the backbone of the Tirupur textile and garment industry. Over 5 lakh people, of which at least half are other states such as Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, are employed in the industry. Padlock tailors, like the ones Senthil Vel hired, are a part of the Power Table Operators in the stitching section of a garment unit.

The stitching section is a vital part of the industry, so tailors are considered an important resource. However, the industry has been facing a severe scarcity of skilled labourers across the board.

“Padlock tailors, sewing machine operators, overlock tailors, knitting machine operators are all hard to come by these days,” said National Garment owner K Rajendran.

According to Tirupur Exporters’ Association Treasurer P Mohan, the industry has 80,000 vacancies to be filled. 

“Currently, Tirupur’s readymade garment exports are worth around Rs 27,000 crore per annum. We want to achieve a Rs 1 lakh crore turnover in 2022. Though we have the investments and infrastructure required to reach that target, we are short of workers. Even if we filled the 80,000 vacancies, we would still need 1 lakh more workers to meet that target,” Mohan said.

Piece-rate attraction

If the domestic sellers are struggling and their workers are losing out on pay, shouldn’t the export units be able to absorb the workers? Industry sources blame this labour scarcity to the allure of “piece-work”. Both domestic and export units give out work one piece-rate basis when an order requires quick turnaround and they don’t want to add more full-time staff to the payroll.

The piece-rate system allows a skilled worker to make more money each month, as the amount the worker earns depends on how many pieces he is able to finish in a day, which in turn depends on how much he is willing to work in a day. However, the system offers neither the security of guaranteed work and pay, nor any benefits that might be available to a salaried worker. 

Still, many people arrive in Tirupur with no skills and start at salaries of about Rs 12,000 a month, once they acquire the skills — in six to eight months — they are tempted to switch to piece-rate work. A worker could earn up to Rs 25,000 a month this way. Jignesh Yadav, a migrant worker from Bihar, is one of those who made that switch.

“I arrived in Tirupur four years ago and started at a monthly salary of Rs 10,000. I learned the job in six months and, with the help of a friend, I got orders on a piece-rate basis,” he said. Currently, Yadav says that he works up to 11 hours a day and earns Rs 18,000-Rs 22,000 depending on how many pieces he completes. Echoing the experience of others in the gig economy, he says the work is depleting. “Sometimes, I feel exhausted and have to take time off,” he said.

The piece-rate system is also unreliable as Mohammed Shabir, who hails from Jharkhand,  found.

"After working at a garment company for a year, I too tried working on a piece-rate basis four years ago,” he recalled.

At first, everything was perfect.

“I earned around Rs 25,000 a month. For the first six months, I had money to buy jewellery for my wife and children. But then, the orders started drying up. I was totally confused as to whether I should continue or return to a salaried position,” he said. 

“Finally, I joined an export unit. I now earn around Rs 20,000 a month. But the salary comes on time and there are other job benefits, so I am happy to be here,” he said.

Stability, aspirations, monotony

According to K Murali, who owns a knitting unit, the difference of income between working on a piece-rate basis or for a monthly salary is Rs 4,000-7,000 per month.

“A worker who wants job security does not take the risk. But this is a lot of money for a daily wager from a poor background. So they get drawn to piece-rate work. As a result, each knitting or garment unit loses workers every month. When this happens at almost 40 per cent of the units, it becomes an industry crisis,” he said.

There are other factors too that contribute to this attrition, says social activist Ravichandran. For one, the high rents charged by landlords in the town eat into their earnings.

Another reason is the monotonous nature of the work. Ravichandran says that those who move to Tirupur from within the State find the monotony hard to cope with.

“Similarly, some of the people from Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar who come to work here find, after six to eight months, that they dislike their jobs. So they go to their village for some festival and simply don’t return,” he said. 

Trying times:

  • The Tirupur textile industry was worth Rs 45,000 to Rs 50,000 crore in 2018-19. Of this, exporters had a turnover of Rs 26,000 crore and domestic sellers made Rs 20,000 crores

  • The end of 2019 saw units grappling with unsold stock worth Rs 2000- Rs 3,000 crore which forced some to scale back on working hours.

  • According to Tirupur Exporters’ Association treasurer P Mohan, the industry has 80,000 vacancies to be filled. Over that it would still require one lakh workers to meet its 2022 targets

  • Under the piece-rate system, a worker could earn up to Rs 25,000 a month under this system with just six to eight months of training

Booze for jobs? cops probe

A complaint was filed against Senthil Vel for his posters at the Tirupur Police Commissioner Office on January 29. Tirupur Thozil Pathukappu Kuzhu (TTPK), in its complaint, said the offer of liquor to padlock tailors was “highly condemnable”, and created a perception that tailors are addicted to liquor.

It further said that such advertising would force garment unit owners to yield to the personal demands of the workers and sought action against Senthil Vel. Tirupur City - Deputy Police Commissioner Badrinarayanan told Express that as Senthil’s phone was switched off, the police were trying to reach him.

“We are still trying to assess the legal provisions under which to initiate any action on this particular issue,” he said.

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