Monday, May 4, 2015

Sumangalilabour: A Tale of Caste, Class and Gender

Rahul N.


The phenomenon of female factory labourers in the textile industries in Tamil Nadu have received sacnt attention academically. This is startling as much attention had been focused on the dynamics of caste, class and labour in the north-western industrial zone of Tamil Nadu symbolized by Tiruppur and Coimbatore but comprising Erode, Dindigul, Karur districts.  This is more so startling not only because between 2,50,000 and 4,00,000 girls are estimated to be employed in this industry but also as this form of labour to a considerable extent overlap with labour recruitment in garment sector which had received much of academic interest. Rather a growing literature on the topic could be found within the corporate social responsibility literature emanating from Europe.The reasons for this lack of attention could be varied and could only be speculated; a) the inaccessibility to workers at the factory/hostel site; b) the wide dispersion of recruitment of workers spread across the state.

The phenomenon however should attract attention not only in terms of its scale and contradicting obscurity but also because it deserves attention with its relation to the larger questions about Tamil Nadu’s character of industrial growth. Recent studies about conditions of labour brought out in the works of Geert De Neve, Grace Carswell, Isabelle Guerin will show that the many a segments of labour and laboring conditions in Tamil Nadu are characterized by one or another form of wage bondedness and unfreedom. In this essay I will attempt to draw broad picture of the Sumangalilabour system while adding certain points on the interventions and agency of these factory girls.

The evolution of sumangalilabour system follows two interconnected developments. Firstevolution of Tiruppur as a major textiles and garment export processing zone and second the dynamics in the global textile industry shifting its location to South Asia. The industry which employs this form of labour majorly is the spinning industry spread across the north-western industrial region also called Kongu region. But the major centres of this industry are Coimbatore, Dindigul and Erode districts. But the system is not restricted to this region[1].Half of the yarn produced in the industry is consumed for production within India and the rest is exported to countries like Bangladesh, China and Pakistan. The deplorable situations faced by the labourers came out in the open with the recurring incidents of deaths of young mill girls in these districts especially in Dindigul.  The phenomenon caught the international attention as considerable amount of the production finds its way into the big garment manufacturing firms up in the value chain situated in Tiruppurand retailers abroad.

The industry is characterized by diverse arrangements in the sizes of the mills. At the top is the composite mills owned either by Gounders and Naikers of the Kongu region. There are around 1700 registered spinning mills in Tamil Nadu. Earlier the mills were concentrated only in Coimbatore. As trade union actions intensified in  Coimbatore, the industry shifted to hinterlands of Dindigul and other adjacent districts.Typically these industries are situated mostly as enclosed factory forts in the rural areas of these districts not giving rise to any major urban agglomeration but scattered towns.Thus the repositioning of the industry resulted not only in avoiding trade union influence but also creating a newer workforce. These workforcefrom the beginning showed increasing feminisation in its composition.

The beginning of the feminization of the spinning industry dates back to early 90s mostly with the Premier Mills when all the workers provided VRS with the offer of providing 4 lakh rupees to each worker and alternate work for women in their families. All the workers agreed to the offer except the secretary of the mill union under CITU. Thisis considered the institutionalized  beginning of the feminization of a sector historically associated with the gendered division of labour. The work of spinning had long been associated with female labourers for the work is considered less to do with physical strength and more with ‘nimble fingers’ and perseverance.[2][3] But as the history of labour in the post-liberalisation period proves the feminization of spinning labour was more a result of the defeat of the trade union movement in Coimbatore and other regions of Tamil Nadu. This development in spinning sector should be read along with the evolution of the garment sector which grew exponentially in this period devoid of any collective union action. Both the repositioning and later feminization led to increased flexibility in production and accumulation. 

The role of the state is absolutely essential in these developments. The growth of all the industries of textile sector – spinning, weaving, dyeing all can be ascribed to the specific state policy of promoting Small Manufacturing Enterprises providing themwith various concessions. Thus unlike textile industry in Ahmedabad of yesteryears, very few composite mills could be identified in post-liberalisation textile growth.[4] This national policy should be read along with the specific role of the local state, the state government of Tamil Nadu which had been in the forefront of trade liberalization and crushing trade union activity. The most overt form of its intervention is the extension of apprenticeship period to three years in spinning industry. Thus all the workers recruited in the spinning sector will fall under the category of apprentices if at all law is evoked.[5]

The various names – SumangaliThittam, ThirumanaMangalyaThittametc initially given for the labour system exposes the social rationale adopted behind the labour process. The girls and their families mostly from the rural poor prefer the mill-work for various and in many cases contradictory reasons. Simply bracketing the reasons for this specific migrant labour under poverty will only sweep the complex factors working behind the choices the women and their families have made.This is not to deny the role of absolute poverty. In fact one of the primary criteria of recruitment by the agents and the factory recruiters is to identifyhouseholds with single parents, sick family members etc. But this will not explain the complex interplay of decisions negotiated between the girls and their families.  While the prospect of wage labour under roofed factories and the prospect of meeting and living with girls of similar age group is a common attraction for girls, the promise of a better marriage or savings animate the decisions of much elder workers. For the parents the reasons are also varied. Apart from the prospect of receiving lumpsum for marriage expenses which is highly impossible if employed in works providing daily wage payment, there are other reasons that qualify their decision. In a largely informal labour situation, the rural poor for most of the days either have to leave their teenage daughters back home or get her employed in the local rural labour market. However several works in the rural labour market are strictly not only gendered but age-wise gendered for these girls to get employed.

The  emergence and the expansion of the system has to be closely read with the increasing demands on the bride’s family in the changing marriage patterns among the working sections of Tamil Nadu especially among the dalit communities.The families of the prospective labourers i.e. girls between the age group of 15 to 22 approximately were lured to send their children to the mills for a contract period of three years at the end of which the family will be paid the withheld wage as a lumpsum of 30,000 to 50,000 rupees apart from the subsistence wage paid everymonth varying according to the size of the mill.[6]
The major recruitment area initially used to be the backward districts of southern Tamil Nadu viz. Theni, Virudhunagar, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli etc. Later as saturation was reached due to various reasons, the area shifted to central and eastern districts of Pudukottai, Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam.As more activist research uncovers the northern region adjoining the Kongu belt including backward districts of Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri and other districts like Thiruvannamalai were part of the recruitment area for a long time. Bu the latest addition to the list are districts like Villupuram and Cuddalore which are adjacent to the largest urban agglomeration, Chennai. The recruitment areas actually shifted with larger changes in the labour economy. Thus the shift to agrarian delta districts can largely be ascribed to the declining agriculture in those districts. In fact the whole phenomenon can be explained partly and substantially by the decline and changes in agriculture across the state.

The girls are recruited through wide variety of methods. I would rather restrict my discussion on this topic to only one large mill. Let us call it X mill. There are two Human Relations managers in this mill. Both are graduates. Each HR manager is accompanied by a driver in an SUV in their recruitment drive. The team of two visits the far away districts of Tamil Nadu. Their major point of interaction at the village level would be the local petty shop owners. It is from them that information is collected about possible recruits filling their criteria. Agents are also involved in recruiting the girls. There are various kinds of agents. Agents who are employed by the factory; family member of the girls becoming agents. Irrespective of their origin, there are agents who cover entire tehsils as their recruitment area. But the most common recruiters to the mills are the girls themselves. Girls already employed in the mills inform their friends and relatives and enjoin them. There are differentiations within this worker-recruiters, for example there are workers who directly recruit and there are workers who inform the major agent who in turn go and bring the new recruits to the factory. The recruiters are paid between rupees 1000 and 2000.  Its been reported in the early phase that owners of the mills used to send large steel plates called ‘thambulathattu’ or stainless steel vessels considered valuable customary gifts with large stickers displaying the name of the mill in the weddings of the ex-employees so to attract the rest of the villagers.
In most cases, the women have to work around 12 hours a day with one weekly holiday. There are cases where the workers have to work additional hours per month to gain holiday. For example in one mill, a worker has to perform 8-10 hours work daily and if she needs a weekly holiday she has to perform overtime on the day before to compensate for the holiday.

Largely there are no legal contracts signed. Even where contracts were signed they were mostly done to instill a sense of obligation and fear of the management among the worker. In some cases the promised lump-sum is also subject to deductions of various order depending on the individual illegal rules of the mills.   No amount will be paid if the girls decide to leave the mill before the period of three years. In some cases girls were forced out of the mills on false grounds just before the end of the tenure so that they can be denied the payment. In many cases accusations on sexual morality or character of the girl is raised as this gave a reason which parents cannot meet and argue about.

But the accusations on improper sexual behavior cannot be considered a mere technique of the mills to cost-cut. In fact this policing and securing of the sexual integrity of girls lie at the heart of the production process. The situation is comparable to those in the Shenzhen export processing zone of China where even women in several factories have to undergo periodical checks of their used sanitary napkins by the management. But theuniqueness lies in the fact that in the Indian case, the possibility of pregnancy is ruled out largely with the way lives of women are monitored and controlled in the factory/hostel space.[7]The continuous flow of labour depends on the social pact the mills engage with the families to secure their moral and sexual protection as conditions of labour.[8]In this case the factory replicates the socially determined duties of the family.

As mills came under the scrutiny of civil society organisations certain improvements have occurred with respect to relaxing controls over labourers. Certain bigger mills have come under minimum scrutiny following interventions by civil society organisations abroad who have put pressure on the brand retailers high up in the value chain. But the literature and the idea these interventions have produced a voiceless workforce in the sense that almost no agency is accorded to the workers.

But these depictions should not be construed as workers lacking complete agency.While mobile phone were strictly not allowed in almost all the mills earlier, there are improvements on this front. In one case the access to mobile phone was collectively bargained by the girls themselves. A mill had to be closed down in Virudhunagar following workers desertion en masse following death of a worker.  The factory girls, their labour condition and their resulting agency, individual and collective are fundamentally the creation of the gendered construction of women’s labour as secondary labour of temporary importance. And this construction is not one of baggage of rural hinterland rather one intrinsic to the specific development of contemporary capitalism in Tamil Nadu.Sumangalilabour hinders development of collective bargaining not only by reinforcing the image of women’s labour as secondary and temporary labour but also as one of familial obligation. The image of sumagalilabour has larger implications in the sense it provides a glaring instance of how worker, women and dalit identities get intertwined giving rise to a particular social construct that helps the process of accumulation.


The author is Research Scholar at JNU.





[1]Even spinning mills in far away districts like Virudhunagar and Sivaganga follow the same labour system.
[2] The process of spinning is completely done by machine while the work of the labourers in the spinning deparment is to tie the threads that get ripped. There are other jobs within spinning mills namely carding, combing, autoconer etc. But labour in spinning demands the most intensive and extensive work.

[3]In fact the association of women and spinning dates back to pre-colonial times when women largely from lower castes spun yarn for the weaving community. And it was the yarn produced by ‘paraiah’ women (also men) that was considered as the best quality yarn in the trade. 
[4] Composite mill refers to mills which carry out both yarn production and fabric production thus incorporating both spinning and weaving operations. In Tamil Nadu weaving is carried out largely in labour intensive powerlooms situated in the same Kongu region.   
[5] It wont be exaggeration at all to say that these enterprises are law unto themselves.
[6] The range has now increased 40000-90000 in some mills.
[7] This is not to deny such happenings and specifically not to deny occurences of female workers getting married to male workers mostly supervisors. Such cases however can be found more among the garment workers than the spinning mill workers for in most spinning mills the floor labour is exclusively women unlike garment sector were a considerable number of non-supervisory can be found.
[8] It is highly impossible to discuss the different choices and experiences of the actors in a piece intended to provide larger picture. For this reason I would rather stop.

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