Suman, a man in his early 20s from Jeypore in Orissa, has made thousands of T-shirts and pants at the garment manufacturing unit where he works. “I don’t know where the clothes go or who ends up wearing them. If I do the work, I get paid," he said. Suman makes ₹3,800-4,000 a week. Or at least, he did—till 21 March, the day he picked up his last salary.
Two days later, the Tamil Nadu government announced a lockdown to combat covid-19. The curfew was to begin at 6pm on 24 March and last one week. The government order read: “All employers will make payments of wages/salaries to workers/employees including those working on contractual and outsourcing basis during this period." There were 95 recorded cases of covid-19 in Tiruppur that day.
Over a month later, things have only gotten worse. This week, Tamil Nadu enforced a more intense lockdown in several towns, including Tiruppur.
“Though I am employed directly by the factory, I haven’t been paid anything for this month," Suman said. He lives with five men in a room. “I have no money in hand to buy food, and between us, we have 7kg of rice and some aloo-pyaas (potatoes and onions)," he said.
“They said the lockdown will last 15 days. Then it was extended. Now, my friends here say, perhaps, trains won’t run for months," he added. Five years ago, Suman came on the Dhanbad Express and deboarded at Tiruppur. Now, he is sure his money will run out; nobody will help him; and he will walk home one day. “What else to do?"
What is unfolding in Tiruppur matters because it is highly representative of both the present character and future goal of India’s manufacturing ecosystem—a sector dominated by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which has the new task of wresting global supply chains away from China in a post-pandemic world. The textile units in Tiruppur were among the first to try to go up against China, starting many years ago.
Last financial year, Tiruppur shipped out apparel worth ₹26,000 crore, and another ₹20,000 crore worth of clothes went to domestic markets across the country. The cluster with over 1,000 units, many of them SMEs, serves as a giant employment generator. But the road ahead looks bleak.
Over the past 20 days, Viyakula Mary, the executive director of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Save, has been conducting a survey among garment workers in Tiruppur. Roughly 900,000 workers are dependent on the garment industry.
Figures with the Tiruppur district administration peg the current migrant population at 130,000. Of these, 68,000 live inside factories in hostels; another 30,000 like Suman live outside factories but the company takes care of the rent. The remaining 32,000 migrants are a floating population of contract workers switching jobs often. This makes tracing their whereabouts challenging.
“Many of them are starving," said Mary. “Some are staying inside the factories and are looked after by the employer, but those who are outside living in rented rooms have no access to even the free provisions promised by the state government for lack of ration cards."
Take Rakesh Kumar, a 21-year-old from Bihar. He cuts excess thread from freshly stitched clothes and helps iron and pack garments in a factory unit. “The labour contractor I work for has switched off his phone ever since the lockdown commenced," he said.
Tiruppur district collector K. Vijayakarthikeyan said a 24x7 migrant helpline number has been set up with four staffers who speak multiple languages. “We receive over 2,000 distress calls a day often related to food. But a common question is whether they can return home," he added.
On 8 April, the Praxis: Institute for Participatory Practices held a webinar on garment workers in Tamil Nadu. Among those who spoke was 27-year-old Rajeshwari, a welfare officer in a spinning mill in Dindigul which is 130km away from Tiruppur. There are 300 mills in Dindigul district which supplies raw materials to the Tiruppur cluster in what is effectively an intertwined supply chain. If Tiruppur is hit, the subsidiary industries are all affected.
“Employees have not received salary even for the number of days they have worked during the previous month," Rajeshwari said over a Zoom call. Rajeshwari spoke about colleagues who are already seriously debt-ridden because they are taking loans at higher interest rates.
Stanley Joseph from Partners in Change (an NGO) who has worked extensively in bringing reforms to the garment and textile industry across Tiruppur, Dindigul, Erode and Coimbatore said: “The biggest issue is poverty at home and the looming debt-burden. These are workers who come from extremely poor families and if they don’t go to work for one month, they will be in huge trouble. 80% of workers are those who know that only if they show up to work that day, they will get the day’s wages."
On the last day of January, the Italian government declared a state of emergency and cancelled all flights from China. By the first week of March, even though Tiruppur had not seen any cases of covid-19, there was tremendous unease among garment exporters and manufacturers. “When Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom was hit, we knew we were in trouble. We do a lot of business in these countries and everyone got spooked," said M.P. Muthurathinam, the president of the Tiruppur Exporters and Manufacturers Association (Teama), which has 900 manufacturers as members.
In March, several suppliers in Tiruppur received terse statements in their inboxes which called for “support in these trying times", informing them that spring and summer orders were being cancelled. It is estimated that upwards of 25-30% of orders have already been cancelled. As an additional blow, outstanding payments will be delayed, indefinitely.
“Europe constitutes 40% of our market. America, another 20-25%. All our buyers are locked down like we are. It is only when people in those countries start walking freely on the streets, then there is some chance of Tiruppur being revived. Right now, there is no communication from buyers. It is like they are all under house arrest," Muthurathinam said.
“Think of Tiruppur as a giant factory! Within a 20km radius, every job that is needed to run this factory is in place" he said. “There are about 10 back end processes that lead up to garment manufacturing. To develop a sample for 2021, we need the whole of Tiruppur to show up to work."
And even if they do show up to work, export-reliant firms may need more than fond hopes about manufacturing demand suddenly shifting away from China.
The current lockdown will have a major impact on the industry, said Geert De Neve, a social anthropologist at the University of Sussex who researches Tiruppur’s linkages with global value chains. Even before the covid-19 outbreak, De Neve said he sensed competition from Bangladesh and Vietnam was already getting tighter and affecting some exporters, as did the collapse of global retailers like Mothercare in the UK.
“When I was there in late-February and early-March this year, people definitely said that things were very ‘slow’, meaning that orders were fewer and smaller in size, with many labourers complaining of irregular work. On the other hand, Tiruppur has been able to offset at least some of such losses due to global shifts by refocusing on the domestic market, including through the development of local brands," he said.
In the pre-covid-19 world, Coimbatore-based KPR Mill, which is south India’s largest apparel manufacturing company, produced 250,000kg of yarn and 310,000 pieces of garments daily. The company employs 25,000 workers, the majority of them women, and operates spinning mills and garment factories in the state. All of these came to a grinding halt on 23 March, said vice-president of KPR Mill K. Somasundaram. “Imagine workers engaged in various activities around the factory floor and then all of a sudden, the work came to a grinding halt and people walked away from their work stations," he said. The virus had caught up with Tiruppur.
With covid-19 cases rising in India, KPR Mill, like many others in the region, temporarily shifted focus from making waterproof sportswear to virus-proof outerwear.
District collector Vijaykarthikeyan said the current supply of masks and personal protective equipments (PPE) for the entire state is coming from Tiruppur. This, he said, is an effective way of keeping the industry afloat. “The suppliers have been given large orders. Roughly, they produce 1.2 lakh masks per day," he said.
At KPR Mill, 5,000 of its employees are currently engaged in making PPEs. “Right now, the raw materials are not from our own factories. It is sourced from outside. What we manufacture is knitted garments for inner and outer garments which is made out of yarn but PPEs are made out of non-woven materials, so this is coming in from other states," said Somasundaram.
Recently, KPR Mill was in the news for its admirable human resource (HR) policy for housing nearly 18,000 employees on campus and providing them with food and education through the lockdown. The company also saves costs on retraining employees in the event of a swift opening up, said the higher management. “Also, many of the women employees are studying and among them 5,000 women are pursuing higher education. This time off from work can help them focus on their studies," said Somasundaram.
For now, the women on campus have the time to watch two movies a day. “We have played Bahubali, Rajini [Rajinikanth] and Kamal [Kamal Haasan] movies. Vijay’s Sivakasi. In the garment units, since it is a mixed crowd, we also show Hindi films," said warden Krishnaveni in the Coimbatore hostel.
While workers attempt to wrap their heads around a long-drawn lockdown period, the Tiruppur Exporters’ Association (TEA) on 18 April appealed to the state government requesting partial opening up of the textile cluster. “We wish to note that some buyers, small stores in EU, UK and USA, have been asking our exporters to send Spring/Summer samples to give approval and then place the orders for shipment," wrote TEA head Raja M. Shanmugham. Further, he warned: “We would like to drive home the point that our competing nations like China, Bangaldesh, Vietnam, Pakistan have already started functioning and on track in supplying garments to the needy buyers."
However, there is a large red question mark over the fate of the densely populated garment cluster, with Tiruppur continuing to be a covid-19 hotspot. Last week, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K.Palaniswami ruled out reopening of the industrial cluster saying it was crucial to prevent community transmission of the virus.
While there is talk of opening factories outside the city limits in a phased manner, Tiruppur’s manufacturers acknowledge that maintaining social distancing on the factory floor will be a nightmare to enforce. Nobody knows when or if things will get better.
Prof. De Neve feels it is difficult to ascertain the time it will take for the industry to adapt and adjust to a new post-covid-19 situation. “My main concern is the sustainability of global supply chains that pay little attention to producers and workers in the Global South, who tend to bear the brunt of any crisis, including the one induced by the current virus," he said.
Amid all the nervousness about an uncertain future, Tiruppur still has somehow managed to find time for small joys—a movie, hopes of higher education. “I am even finding time to exercise. Tiruppur people never exercise," said Muthurathinam from the exporters association. He likens daily life to a 30-day long Bharat bandh.
“Tiruppur is known as ‘kutti (small) Japan’ where people are always active and ready to work. It is the garment industry that has put us on the map," he said. In the months ahead, Tiruppur’s place on that map, as well as India’s, will be seriously tested.
Sowmiya Ashok is a freelance journalist based in Chennai