Driven to despair

Print edition : October 08, 2010

Trade unions and labour rights activists blame the high suicide rate in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, on the practices of the garment industry.

in Tirupur

Workers coming out of the Tirupur Export Knitwear Industrial Complex.-M. BALAJI

TIRUPUR has carved out a niche for itself in the world of garments. Its phenomenal growth in the highly competitive global scenario, particularly in the past two decades, has been made possible by the entrepreneurial spirit of its manufacturers and exporters and the sweat and labour of thousands of workers, both local and migrants from other parts of the State and from other States.

Of late, however, Tirupur has been in the news for the wrong reasons, particularly in the wake of reports relating to the rising number of cases of suicide and attempts to commit suicide. According to the police, 879 cases of suicide have been reported during the past 20 months 491 cases last year and 388 (including 149 women) until September 11 this year. In July and August this year, 75 persons, including 28 women, committed suicide. According to informed sources, over 20 suicide attempts are made every day in the district, which was formed in February last year.

The State Crime Records Bureau data show that the rate of suicide cases in Tirupur has remained higher than the State average during the past three years. In 2007, a total of 526 cases were recorded in the six subdivisions Tirupur, Avinashi, Palladam, Udumalpet, Dharapuram and Kangeyam that form the newly carved out district, as against the State average of 373. In 2008, 555 cases were reported in these subdivisions, while the State average was 380.

Even last year the number of suicide cases in Tirupur district exceeded the State average by 40. Of the 491 cases reported in 2009, 315 were men and the rest women. Among them, 81 were unemployed persons, 114 were employed in the private sector and 94 of the women were housewives.

Clearly, the dark side of the Dollar City calls for a concerted effort to eliminate the factors that contribute to it.

Medical personnel in the Government General Hospital in Tirupur say men outnumber women in the victim count. They say that every day seven or eight suicide-attempt cases are attended to at the emergency ward of the hospital. The victims consume pesticide, oleander seeds or chemicals such as malachite green.

Informed sources in the district administration and the police department say most of the victims are migrant workers or their kin. Migrants form almost 80 per cent of the over-four-lakh-strong workforce employed in over 6,200 garment units in the Tirupur cluster and several hundreds of ancillary and home-based units.

Tirupur district Superintendent of Police A. Arun said the garment workers, who were mostly from rural backgrounds, faced a culture shock in the new environment. The police were thinking in terms of issuing them identity cards so as to protect them from anti-social and criminal elements.

The district administration has taken a series of efforts to ascertain the facts and remedy what it sees as an alarming situation. The steps initiated by District Collector C. Samayamoorthy include the setting up of a suicide prevention panel, besides a helpline and a counselling centre at the Government General Hospital (interview on page 20). Committees have also been formed at the taluk level to look into the land and property disputes that have the potential to drive people to ending their lives.

A slum along the Noyyal where the garment industry workers reside.-K. ANANTHAN

Tamil Nadu Labour Minister T.M. Anbarasan says the government will look into the issue and take necessary steps. Arrangements will be made for providing counselling to the affected workers, he told Frontline. He made it clear that the government would not tolerate any violation of labour laws by factory managements. The government will not compromise on the workers' welfare, he said and added that even at the last State Labour Advisory Board meeting the issue was not raised by the trade unions.

The rising number of suicide cases among workers in the garment industry has brought to the fore issues pertaining to the work environment and living conditions of workers and how they cope with stress linked to work pressure. On many occasions, say experts, accumulated stress both physical and mental pushes them into a state of depression that can ultimately lead to suicidal tendencies.

Low income

One of the major factors contributing to stress is inadequate income in view of the seasonal nature of the industry. Though family quarrels and illnesses are cited as causes, the underlying fact is non-payment of a living wage to ensure a smooth-sailing for the family in a town known for its high cost of living. Lack of money even for basic needs often results in disharmony in the family and at times leads to psychological problems, say experts.

Said M. Vijayabaskar, Assistant Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies: Cost-cutting measures assumed great importance in the competitive global market, particularly in the post-MFA era. [The multi-fibre agreement imposed quotas on exports by developing countries to developed countries. It was in force from 1974 to 2004 end.]

As manufacturers could not do much about cutting the cost of power or transportation or controlling foreign exchange fluctuations, they tinkered with the wages of workers by adopting methods such as the camp coolie system. Under this, workers were accommodated in hostels and dormitories and did not have to be paid the same salary as those who came under the purview of the wage accord reached with the trade unions, said Vijayabaskar.

There is a lesson to be drawn for Tirupur from the Chinese experience. In China, during the last three-four years, some kind of social security has been introduced across all sections of workers, he said.

Uncertain future

A major reason for the frustration of the migrants is the perennial uncertainty. They are aware that their endeavour in Tirupur cannot be long lasting. The migrants come in the hope of repaying their debts and saving some money to start something on their own, but soon realise that this is not easy. For instance, if you look at Tirupur, it is difficult to find tailors who are over 40 years of age.. The kind of continuous stitching in that speed takes a toll on their hands and fingers. So the migrants always think of going back after some time and do not see the work as a long-term option, said Vijayabaskar.

In his paper presented at the International Labour Organisation-sponsored subregional meeting on Garment Industry in South Asia in September 2001, Vijayabaskar cautioned thus: The need for a more flexible workforce portends a serious threat to the working conditions of the garment workers.

Workers were found to work intensively for long durations, sometimes for over 90 hours a week, with short tea breaks, particularly during the peak season so as to meet delivery schedules, said union leaders. While the major exporters gave money for the overtime work, others did not, they alleged.

Gita Menon, a clinical psychologist in Chennai, said long working hours could produce physical exhaustion and stress, more particularly in the absence of any recreational facility (interview on page 16).

How far manufacturers have fulfilled their corporate social responsibility (CSR), besides maintaining labour standards, has become a contentious issue between trade unions and factory managements.

Trade unions and labour rights activists express satisfaction over the progress achieved in terms of containment of child labour in the industry and the compliance with statutory benefits such as Provident Fund and the Employees State Insurance Scheme and the adherence to international standards such as ISO 9000 and Social Accountability 8000 in the large export units because of the conditions imposed by the buyers.

On the flip side are the acts of union busting, the practices of employing more women than men and attracting migrants from the rural areas of Tamil Nadu and other States, restrictions on their movement in the hostels or dormitories, and putting in place a labour market that is conducive to flexible accumulation.

Camp labour system

The issue that evoked outright condemnation from trade union functionaries and labour rights activists is the camp coolie or camp labour system adopted by managements under a hostel scheme. This is akin to the Sumangali Scheme implemented in the textile sector. The Sumangali Scheme promised each girl taking up a job in the textile industry a lump sum amount, varying from Rs.20,000 to Rs.50,000, at the end of three years of employment ( Frontline, October 19, 2007).

A. Aloysius, convener of the Tirupur People's Forum for Protection of Environment and Labour Rights, said the situation in the garment industry betrayed the fact that in the economically globalised situation, securing social security, freedom of association and the abolition of all modern forms of slavery of workers in the informal sector had become increasingly difficult.

Trade unions face several hurdles in bargaining for the rights of unionised workers and for enrolling the large number of non-unionised workers. In the post-MFA situation, the unionist's task is turning out to be tougher than before because employers adopt diverse strategies with the single objective of creating textile mills and garment factories without trade unions, Aloysius said.

S.M. Prithiviraj, executive director of the Community Awareness Research Education Trust, who headed a team that studied in detail the Sumangali Scheme, recalled the stiff opposition put up by NGOs and trade unions to the scheme on the grounds that it violated labour laws. The struggle culminated in a public hearing held in October last year by the Tamil Nadu Commission for Women. Court orders also protected the rights of these workers. All this forced the State government to take action against erring managements in the textile sector.

In a residential school run by Social Awareness and Voluntary Education, an NGO, for children of garment industry workers in Tirupur.-K. ANANTHAN

However, the same scheme found its way into the garment sector in 2002-03, in the name of the hostel scheme, said Prithiviraj. The managements have accommodated a large number of young women in the 15-21 age group in hostels located within the factories or at a place that is under their control. The movement of the women is restricted and some of the managements allow them to go on a guided tour of the town for purchases, he said. Almost 90 per cent of the residents of these hostels are migrants. They are promised around Rs.50,000 at the end of the three-year contract period.

Hurdles for unions

A survey that Prithiviraj conducted for the Tirupur People's Forum for Protection of Environment and Labour Rights in 2007 revealed that 32,545 women were employed under the camp coolie system by 191 garment factories. The study covered 1,702 companies.

He said: Until recently, the male-female worker ratio was 80:20. But now we can safely say that women workers outnumber men in the garment industry. Though none can oppose the empowerment of women, the hostel scheme is a retrograde step as it has taken away the trade union's strength. It effectively prevents the unions from reaching out to those staying in the hostels and organising them. Though there are seven major trade unions in the garment industry, only 10 per cent of the 4,00,000 workers have been brought under their fold, he claimed.

C. Murthy, leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and general secretary of the Banian and General Workers' Union, criticised the managements for curtailing the rights of the workers.

The managements, which hitherto employed migrants from other districts of Tamil Nadu, now recruit young men in the 18-25 age group from other States, including Orissa, Bihar, Rajasthan and Jharkhand. As many as 40,000 of them have come here to work for different garment units. As a concomitant development, a sizable number of migrants from other districts of Tamil Nadu have begun moving to their native villages. This is evident from the fact that as many as 5,000 schoolchildren obtained their transfer certificates and left the school last year, he said.

The migrants from North India are subjected to all sorts of humiliation. They are paid less than others on the grounds that they are provided board and lodging, he said.

A strange situation has arisen in the town where holding gate meetings is no longer in vogue and union activists cannot meet workers at the factories. The game plan seems to be aimed at pushing the workers into total alienation and keeping them inaccessible, said a labour rights activist.

The CITU has redefined its strategy to organise the workers by launching a campaign to reach out to them at their dwelling places located in congested slums and in the tiny row houses constructed in thickly populated areas, said M. Chandran, district secretary of the union. Several hundreds of pamphlets had been printed in Tamil and Hindi so that the activists would be able to inform workers belonging to the State and the Hindi-speaking migrants about the importance of joining the trade union, he added.

The Labour Minister categorically said that the garment industries had been told that they should not force workers to work for more than 48 hours a week as stipulated by the Indian Factories Act, 1948. Action had been taken against factory managements for violating the labour laws in the current year. A total of 218 cases were registered and Rs.15 lakh was collected as fine from erring managements, he added. However, official sources said the managements were allowed to extend working hours during the peak season with assured overtime payment after getting permission from the Deputy Inspector of Factories.

On the camp coolie system, Anbarasan said the Tamil Nadu government had already brought an amendment that only 20 per cent of the workforce could be apprentices in a firm and that they should not be made to work for more than six months continuously. The Bill had been sent to the President for her assent, he added.

But the manufacturers are not satisfied with such arrangements. They have launched a sustained campaign for flexibility in working hours in the form of more overtime per calendar quarter in view of the seasonal nature of the industry and the high dependence on export orders. Claiming that the labour laws in India are quite inflexible and rigid, they have asked the Central government to liberalise labour laws since the existing rules and regulations are constraints to the overall growth of the textile industry. They raised the issue forcefully at the meeting of the Industrial Tripartite Committee on Cotton Textile Industry held in New Delhi on July 15. However, the proposal was shot down by the trade unions.

Unions have come out strongly against the exporters' demand to legalise the contract labour system in the garment industry and extend the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to it. Union leaders have dubbed as ridiculous the manufacturers' offer of employment for six million people in the garment sector under the scheme. At a time when labour unions have demanded a ban on the camp coolie system the idea of the employers should not be entertained, Chandran said.

The exporters deny that the suicides have anything to do with the garment industry. A. Sakthivel, president of the Tirupur Exporters' Association, said CSR was built-in in the garment-manufacturing sector. Compared with the situation that prevailed 10-15 years ago, now our factories have undergone a sea change in providing facilities to workers, he claimed (interview on page 19).

This is because we have found that unless we change, buyers will not come to us. The realisation that we have to fulfil our responsibilities has paved the way for our voluntarily effecting necessary changes in the factories, besides meeting the compliance requirements of the buyers and the government, he said

Sakthivel said the exporters paid wages as per the accord reached with the trade unions for a period of four years. In the existing situation where there was a shortage of labour, if a management paid less workers would not stay with the factory, he added. Sometimes we pay wages higher than the agreed rates, he said. He also refuted the charge that the camp coolie scheme had been implemented in the garment industry.

However, he admitted that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the freebies announced by the Tamil Nadu government had made a dent in the so-called flexibility of the workforce. Facilities had been provided to migrants from other States, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal, he said.

Another issue that causes much concern to labour rights activists and trade unions is the health of the workers. Vijayabaskar in his paper referred to a study finding that the high work intensity and the cotton dust permeating the town had led to serious ailments such as mouth ulcers, respiratory problems, stomach pain and giddiness among workers, including children.

The unions criticised the government for the inordinate delay in setting up a 100-bed multi-specialty ESI hospital in Tirupur though the Central government had announced the project five years ago. Delaying the project on the grounds of non-availability of a suitable site amounted to a case of denial of free health care for garment workers, particularly the over one lakh employees insured under the ESI scheme, they said.

As experts have pointed out, intense working hours alternate with long periods of unemployment. During the latter period, the workers have to depend on private moneylenders. According to K. Subbarayan, leader of the All India Trade Union Congress, prevalence of usury, or kanduvatti in Tamil, is common in the town. He called for steps to curb the activities of those who indulged in the practice.

When we put forward the demands of workers, we also keep in mind the health of the industry. Expressing concern at the upward trend of yarn prices, which will adversely affect the garment units, we have held demonstrations urging the Central government to impose a ban on the online trading of cotton and thus bring down the yarn prices in the domestic market, said CITU leaders.

Just as the population of Tirupur town has risen steadily (Census 2001 puts it at 3.44 lakh), providing quality housing to workers continues to be a nagging problem. According to labour rights activists, over 60 per cent of the migrant workers live in slums. According to official sources, over one-third of the population lives in 87 slums.

Even as the exporters and manufacturers claim that they are unable to extend statutory and other benefits, including quality housing, to the migrant labour, as they frequently shift from one factory to another, trade unions describe it as a lame excuse. They point to the several instances where managements have not extended the benefits even to workers who have been in service in the same firm for over 10 years.

Labour rights activists, trade union leaders and experts feel that sincere efforts must be made to rescue the migrant workers from the quagmire of depression, which drives them to commit suicide.

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