Tiruppur: The unbearable weight of the repeated lockdowns of the past year sits heavy on Mazair Hussain, a Tiruppur hosiery factory worker from Bihar, part of the two lakh migrant worker population that fuels Tamil Nadu’s apparel exports engine. If there is one thing that workers like him and factory owners now agree on after a year of pandemic shutdowns, order cancellations and losses, it is that migrant workers should stop migrating.
As fears of a third wave engulf public conversations, owners and workers shudder at the possibility of another disruption.
“I have moved up and down thrice due to these lockdowns. How many times will I move back and forth?” asked Hussain, the 38-year-old tailor. “I can’t stay in my village forever, but I can’t be here either if there is no work and constant shutdowns.”
In neither of these lockdowns, Hussain or any of his companions from Bihar received their salaries. Ahead of the M.K. Stalin government’s first budget, Raja M. Shanmugham, president of the Tiruppur Exporters Association, wants special assistance that can end migrant workers’ desperate return home.
According to him, approximately one lakh houses for labourers should be constructed within Tiruppur district for migrant workers, so that each time there is a shutdown, migrant workers don’t pack up and head to their villages.
“If they have a home here, they will get their families back to Tiruppur. This is a win-win situation for both,” Shanmugham said. “They will have their families with them and a home. While we will have a larger labour force to train.”
Tamil Nadu Industries Minister Thangam Thennarasu told ThePrint Wednesday that the government was willing to consider any proposal that was a “win-win situation” for the workers and the industry.
“In the unlikely event of a third wave, our main focus will be to contain the spread of the virus to ensure people are safe. However, at the same time, we will also focus on safeguarding the industry,” Thennarasu said.
The minister also explained that throughout the second wave the government was in constant touch with all stakeholders and ensured that work did not come to a complete halt. It had also allowed factories to operate at 20 per cent capacity, which gradually was increased as the severity of the Covid wave decreased, he added.
Thennarasu also said the government had given special permission to factory owners to conduct vaccination drives for workers.
‘Second wave more detrimental’
In the stitching section of the Warsaw International garments factory, workers are seated in a neat row, intent on their work. The room was fairly full when ThePrint visited the premises Monday.
Just a month back, however, the factory had been struggling to meet its target with only 10 per cent of the labour force reporting for work, after the second Covid wave in the country that started in March-April, and saw lockdowns imposed in many places. In Tiruppur, businesses were closed for nearly six weeks between end-April and mid-June. The after-effects of that closure continue to be felt even now.
Known as the textile hub of India, Tiruppur, located at a distance of more than 450 kilometres from the state capital of Chennai, accounts for the maximum export of knitwear from India to the rest of the world. The industry, referred to as the Tiruppur cluster, employs roughly six lakh workers, of which two lakh comprise migrants mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, said Shanmugham.
Rumours of an approaching lockdown and a second Covid wave around mid-April drove nearly 90 per cent of this two lakh workforce back to their villages, he added. Only 60 to 70 per cent of them have returned since the factories have reopened in mid-May.
“The second wave was a lot more detrimental than the first. We manufacture seasonal products and so if we miss the season then the shipment becomes worthless,” said Shanmugham.
“During the first lockdown, the entire world was undergoing a similar situation, therefore resumption happened with a mutual understanding and mutual handholding across the globe. However, during the second Covid wave India was isolated, while the rest of the world was functioning properly.”
The Tiruppur garments industry recorded a total business of approximately Rs 25,000 crore in the 2020-21 financial year, just short of the Rs 27,000 crore it had recorded in 2019-20.
“This was quite good, considering we had a near-three month shutdown. However the second wave will hit business a lot more,” said Shanmugham.
Now, talk of a possible third wave has both workers and factory owners worried.
‘Moved back when I had no money left’
Back in Tiruppur after a month, Hussain is struggling to find a job. He is a casual worker and lost his job when he returned home. The 5 pm Covid deadline on businesses is making the hunt even more difficult for him.
Workers are apprehensive about which company to join as they look for a place that will support them in case of another lockdown. Meanwhile, many factory owners are making do with existing permanent employees, and not taking in any more workers, to make up for losses incurred during the lockdown.
“I did not even get my bonus, which I was due to receive around the time the first lockdown happened. I moved from one hostel to another and then went back home when I had no money left. Rich people don’t face any issue with lockdown, it is us migrant workers who have to bear the brunt of it,” he said.
A fellow worker, 22-year old Raju Kumar from Bihar’s Sitamarhi district, is worried about a third lockdown with talks of a third wave doing the rounds. With daily wages down to about to Rs 200-300 a day (wages have been impacted by the constant travel in the past year, he said), he does not know how he will survive if there is a third wave.
The situation is less critical for those with permanent jobs.
Kamal Ahmed, originally from Lucknow has been working in Tiruppur for the past eight years. A tailor at one of the factories in the Netaji Apparel Park, Ahmed has just returned after the second lockdown. During the first lockdown his wife and kids stayed in Tiruppur with him. But with money being scarce, the family struggled to ensure that there was food on the table. When the second closure happened, Ahmed, unwilling to risk destitution, moved back to Lucknow with his family.
The factory owner supported him both while he was away and on his return, he said. “I had a funds crunch during the second wave, but the factory helped me. When I came back, I immediately rejoined work,” he says, adding that he has received both vaccine doses.
But with depleted funds, the tailor says he has been unable to send any money home since his return to Tiruppur a month back.
‘Closure not an option any more’
Terming this a struggling phase, Shanmugham said that many brands were cancelling orders, while many deliveries had to be shifted from sea to air mode, “which is 10 times more expensive”, because of a container shortage at ports.
Vinitha Ramesh, 29, who is among those who head Gomatha International which exports kidswear, explained that due to the six weeks lost during the second wave, they were struggling to deliver orders on time.
“During this shutdown, many of our regular clients turned to Vietnam and China. There is also an added pressure of fabrics not reaching on time and congestion in ports due to lack of containers” she explained.
In the current situation, the very idea of another closure is unacceptable to both business owners and workers – fear of third wave notwithstanding.
“Closure is not an option anymore. Resuming work is very hard work, which takes a minimum of five-six weeks,” said Shanmugham.
Rather, the focus for the government should be on vaccinating as many people as possible. With the pandemic making work-from-home the “new normal”, Shanmugham said there was an increasing demand for more casual wear than formal wear. The industry should capitalise on this to revive business, he said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)