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
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.

spinning mills in far away districts like Virudhunagar and Sivaganga follow the
same labour system.
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.
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. 
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.   
It wont be exaggeration at all to say that these enterprises are law unto
The range has now increased 40000-90000 in some mills.
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.
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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