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Journey to nowhere

Print edition : Oct 08, 2010 T+T-

It is an out of the frying pan, into the fire experience for many who flock to Tirupur from across Tamil Nadu.

in Tirupur and Usilampatti

K. SUBRAMANIA PILLAI was at the end of his tether. Around 32 years have rolled by since I came to Tirupur. But I can't see any progress in my life. The unpaid debt has accumulated to Rs.21,660 as on July 5, 2010. I have been under severe stress for the past four months as I find no way to clear the debt. I do not want to live any more either, as I am unable to bear the humiliation. All my efforts to find a way out have failed. I am just commencing my journey without a destination in mind. I have no problem with my children. My humble request is to find a good bridegroom for my youngest daughter, wrote the 75-year-old man in a note he posted to his son, S. Kaliappan, who lived at S. Periyapalayam on the outskirts of Tirupur. His body was found two kilometres away from S. Periyapalayam a couple of days later.

Pillai, a native of Tuticorin district, had migrated to Tirupur in 1978 seeking a job in the garment industry. With his Secondary School Leaving Certificate qualification, he got a kanakkupillai (accountant) job in a garment factory with a starting pay of Rs.500. The last monthly salary he drew was Rs.3,000.

The father of four daughters and a son, Pillai mentioned in his suicide note that he had realised that he could not continue in the job for long, particularly in a world where man competed with machines. With his meagre earnings he was not even able to buy a house of his own despite serving the factory for over three decades.

Sitting at his gloomy, rented single-room row house, a grief-stricken Kaliappan, who is a cutting master in a garment factory, said, We were living here with my father. I moved out with my wife and daughters only recently as landlords don't want joint families.

Shortly after receiving Pillai's suicide note, Kaliappan launched a frantic search for his father in Tuticorin, Kovilpatti and Tirunelveli, thinking that he might have gone to see some of his relatives living there. But he got a terrible shock as he came to know that the unidentified body in the mortuary of the government hospital, about which a newspaper had reported on July 9, was his father's. He did not have the nerve to see his father's body lying there in a highly decomposed state.

Pillai's case is also the typical example of how insensitive and hostile the bureaucracy can be to the sufferings of people working in the informal sector. Two months later, 44-year-old Kaliappan is Kaliappan's plea to the police and the hospital authorities is to find a way out of the dispute and issue the death certificate to him. He has another appeal to the authorities: Please upgrade the facilities such as air-conditioning in the mortuary so as to at least ensure a proper burial to the victims.

The story of Muthiah (name changed), 25, a resident of Chellam Nagar, shows how garment factory workers are driven to the edge, particularly given the seasonal nature of the industry, which mainly depends on export orders. It is difficult to find employment during the off-season, which may last for weeks together between July and December.

Muthiah's father, a farm worker from Theni district, settled in Tirupur 15 years ago and became a construction worker. All the family members in the joint family had to work to supplement the family income. Muthiah's brother works as a tailor in a garment unit.

One day, his father scolded the unemployed Muthiah for not trying to find a job in the garment units. Already under tremendous stress, he consumed pesticide. He was rushed to hospital, where he died the next day.

Another case of poverty-driven suicide is that of Suganthi (name changed), the mother of two daughters. Suganthi, 27, was residing at Kumarananthapuram in Tirupur. A native of Vriddachalam, she married a garment worker, who had migrated to the hosiery town from the industrially backward Tiruvannamalai district a few years earlier. One day, a fight broke out between the couple as they did not have money to buy milk powder to feed their eight-month-old daughter. Cursing her fate, she drank malachite green (a dye) mixed in water and ended her life.

Another example of impulsive behaviour among the garment factory workers due to lack of counselling, as the police say, is the suicide of Ilango, a native of Tiruvannamalai, who was staying at Avinasilingampalayam village, 12 km from Tirupur. He immolated himself following a quarrel with his wife over the purchase of a new mobile phone when the family was already reeling under debt. The young widow has left for her native place not knowing what the future holds for her.

Crime records maintained by the police mention the cause of suicide or attempts to commit suicide as illness or family problems. But experts say only a detailed study will bring out the real reasons. For instance, to a large number of the unemployed who flock to the hosiery town which is still a hot destination from across 20 districts of Tamil Nadu, it is an out of the frying pan, into the fire experience.

A lot of young men and women from several villages in Madurai district, including Usilampatti, Keeripatti, Pothampatti, Kalyanipatti, Pannaipatti, Veppampatti, Nalliveeranpatti, Thadayampatti and Athipatti, have migrated to Tirupur to work in the garment factories. Several others work in spinning mills, an allied industry, in Dindigul and Coimbatore districts.

Interaction with a cross-section of the migrants who have returned to their villages in and around Usilampatti in Madurai district reveals their bitter experience in the fast-growing industrial town. Originally farmhands or small peasants, mostly Dalits or members of the most backward communities, they migrated to Tirupur to earn some money which they needed badly to clear debts or to meet wedding expenses. This was necessary for them as agriculture in the rain-fed area was no longer sustainable and remunerative, said M. Vasudevan, Assistant Director of the Society for Integrated Rural Development, a non-governmental organisation.

The migrants were generally recruited by labour contractors who had clear instructions from the managements that they should catch them young. The garment industry by and large does not want to employ persons above 30 years. Teams from garment units descend on the villages and present video shows on the facilities available at workplaces and hostels, and promise good payment.

A. Veeran, a resident of Nalliveeranpatti, who went to Tirupur in 1997 to work in the garment factories, returned to his village after eight years. He said the company paid him no overtime benefits though he worked long hours. When he insisted that he be given the benefits for the extra hours he put in, the management asked him to opt for piece-rate jobs.

Only those who are mentally prepared to adjust to the whims and fancies of the management can survive in the industry, he said. Neither he nor his colleagues in the factory where he worked as an expert tailor has got any statutory benefits such as Employees' State Insurance or Provident Fund.

Veeran earned Rs.125 for an eight-hour shift. He had to pay Rs.900 towards rent for a single-room house, Rs.25 for drinking water and Rs.15 for electricity every month.

Meanwhile, his marriage broke down. He was ousted by the management for raising his voice against it for not providing the statutory benefits. It took a long time for him to recover from the stress. However, I feel immensely relieved now. My wife [he married again] works in a bakery in Usilampatti and I am earning a small amount by stitching, and repairing old clothes. My daughter is studying in Standard III in a government school, he said, adding that he ignored the feelers sent by the management to return to Tirupur.

P. Asaithambi, a resident of the same village, migrated to Tirupur in 2000 to become a load man in a garment factory for a wage of Rs.100 for a 12-hour day. A couple of years later, his wife died. His 22-year-old son, who was also a garment factory worker, died in a road accident in 2008.

I went there with the fond hope of helping my family to wriggle out of financial problems. But I returned to my village with all my dreams shattered, he lamented. He now lives with his 80-year-old mother in the village.

Mallika (name changed), the 19-year-old daughter of a farm worker of Athipatti village, said she would never return to the spinning mill at Sulur in Coimbatore where she had worked under the Sumangali Scheme for three years from June 2007. She said girls were forced to work for 12 hours and if they refused to do so, it was taken as an act of defiance. Many times she was woken up rudely even past midnight to attend to some work such as the maintenance of the machine.

I have seen some of my co-workers attempting to commit suicide by slashing their wrists or consuming whatever poisonous material was available to them, including nail polish, she said.

Mallika says she was lucky to get Rs.55,000 at the end of the three-year contract period against the promised amount of Rs.60,000, but some of the girls who could not complete two years in the factory have not been paid any amount at all.