THE silk-weaving industry in Kancheepuram is able to employ children in large numbers without falling foul of the law because of the very nature of its operation as a cottage industry. Most households keep three to five looms, which are either owned by them, or have been loaned to them by master weavers or manufacturers.
The manufacturers, numbering about 350, fall under three broad categories: tiny (with 10 to 15 looms), small (15 to 50 looms) and big (50 to 250 looms). Actual weavers own only 20 per cent of the looms; the rest belong to the big manufacturers.
Many among the big players are involved in both production and marketing. They operate some looms directly and place the rest with master weavers. The master weavers subcontract the work to families operating from homes with three to five looms. They supply these families silk yarn and zari, and many a time even the design.
The weavers - a group usually comprising one adult and one child - are paid Rs.500 to Rs.700 for a sari, depending on the design, which might take 15 to 20 days to weave. Weavers who do not own looms work as labourers. Children work at every level of the production structure.
The trader who sells the sari to the final buyer profits the most as he sells it at more than double the cost price. According to P. Ramesh Babu, a researcher at the National Labour Institute, traders control every stage of the process - input, design, productivity and sales. While a master weaver attached to a trader earns Rs.1,000 to Rs.2,000 a month, a weaver with the government cooperatives earns Rs.2,500 to Rs.4,000 a month. There are 22 government cooperatives in Kancheepuram with nearly 2,000 members who pay a joining fee of Rs.2,000, and a monthly subscription of Rs.100. They get the yarn and zari from the cooperatives to weave a maximum of three saris at a time. The saris are sold through government outlets.
The present adult wage (the rates are revised every three years) is Rs.1,239.28 for a finished sari with a 6.5 cm-wide one-side border. Wages differ depending on the design, quality of the weave and so on. Members of the cooperatives are entitled to benefits such as provident fund, bonus, loans and festival advance. They also work for private loom owners or manufacturers. Even under the government cooperative system, children work at home with their parents. Some members also hire children, tying them up in bondage with a loan.
But over the past few years, the cooperative sector has performed poorly, chiefly due to the import of cheap yarn under the liberalisation and globalisation processes and the policy of favouring powerlooms. This has led to a sharp fall in sales and mounting stocks of Kancheepuram silk saris. Thus, of the 22 cooperative societies, only six are operating profitably. Not many of these societies are able to give work to the weavers, forcing them to look to the private sector even if the wages are far below the statutory minimum level. Others work as labourers for private owners and send their children to work under master weavers.
The collapse of the cooperative societies is one of the main reasons - apart from the increase in production levels and the low prices at which imitation saris from the powerlooms sell - for the increase in the employment and bondage of children in the silk-weaving industry in Kancheepuram.