Uma Ramaswamy and Sarath Davala
Women in the Indian Textile and Garment Industry

Textiles, one of the oldest industries in India accounts for around 20 per cent of India's total industrial output and gives employment to nearly 15 million workers. Although textiles have a large domestic market, India has always had a share of world trade in textiles. In recent years, with a boom in exports, textiles have also emerged as the largest contributor to India's exports and to foreign exchange earnings. The growth in textile exports has been phenomenal, with the garment industry emerging as the biggest contributor to its growth.

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Mills, Powerlooms and Handlooms

The textile industry is extremely complex and varied in its composition and structure, with the informal handspun and handwoven and even the homebased sector at one end of the spectrum, to the capital intensive, large-scale organized mill sector at the other. The phenomenal growth of the informal small-scale powerloom units during the seventies and eighties has further contributed to the diversity of the industry. More than 80 per cent of the powerlooms are in the informal sector and contribute to more than half of the total production of cloth. Quantitative data on the exact number of units in the handloom and powerloom sector are not available as a large number of units remain unregistered. While the mill sector employs over a million people the powerlooms, and handlooms employ five to seven times as many people. The distribution of production in the industry is equally curious. While much of the yarn production takes place in the mill sector, 78 per cent of the cloth production occurs in the powerlooms and handlooms. The organized mill sector contributes just 13 per cent to the total cloth production. The three sectors have complex linkages and exhibit characteristics of complementarity and mutual competitiveness. The trends of growth in the midst of this diversity and complexity has to be understood in the context of the policy that governed the growth of the industry.

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The Textile Policy and Framework Conditions

The textile policy since the fifties has made efforts to balance the growth of the large-scale organized mill sector with that of the labour-intensive informal traditional handloom sector. Handloom weaving is an important source of earnings and livelihood for a large number of weavers and workers. However, poor capacity utilization, low productivity, dated technology, fluctuating and volatile yarn price, inadequate access to hank yarn and high costs of production, have made the handlooms poor competitors for the mills and powerlooms. To protect the handloom sector with its potential to generate large-scale employment from the onslaught of the fast-growing production in the modern capital intensive mill sector, several policy measures were imposed to restrict expansion of the latter. Amongst others, the salient ones included freezing the loom capacity in the organized mill sector by prescribing the number of looms per mill, and reservation of a range of categories of cloth for production in the handloom sector. Cooperatives were also promoted to enable the weavers to benefit from raw materials, marketing facilities and government subsidies.

The ceiling on loom capacity in the mills has had several consequences. The mill owners began to circumvent the policy by setting up more spinning units, with the result that the number of spinning mills has grown. The mill owners found it simpler to set up more units than expand capacity. Again, to overcome policy restrictions and cut labour costs and the onslaught of trade unions, mill owners resorted to subcontracting much of their production to the powerlooms, contributing substantially to the growth of the latter. Being in the informal and unorganised sector, powerlooms have learnt to function outside the legal framework. Production in this sector takes place under exploitative conditions. Combining family and wage labour, working hours in the powerlooms are as long as 12 hours. It is significant to mention that in times of recession and labour unrest, as for example during the prolonged textile strike in Bombay in 1982, the powerlooms have handheld the mill sector.

Bhiwandi, the single largest powerloom centre in Maharashtra symbolizes this sector: the dismal working conditions, the vulnerability of labour and the inefficacy of trade unions to organize workers. A visit to Bhiwandi reminds one of scenes usually associated with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: thousands of persons sleeping in or next to numberless ramshackle sheds in which the deafening sound of the looms is heard 24 hours a day, with no ventilation, proper light, children doing tedious work for long hours, and dust and dirt everywhere. The exact number of powerlooms is unknown, as is the specification of their production, the ownership of looms, the quantity of work done on behalf of the mills.

The unbridled growth of the powerlooms has indeed been at the cost of production in the mill and even handloom sector. Another significant trend which has had a dramatic impact on the production of cotton yarn is the increasing preference and demand for blended and synthetic cloth. This has further depressed the production of cloth in the mill sector, its current share being just 13 per cent. Policy restrictions, competition from the powerlooms and market conditions have resulted in the incidence of a high degree of chronic sickness in the mills. The continual closure of mills over the decades, affecting the lives of millions of workers reflects the magnitude of the problem. (See table below). The health of cities such as Ahmedabad, Bombay and Kanpur where there is a concentration of "sick units" has, in turn, been seriously affected.

In the seventies, the government of India nationalized a cluster of ailing "sick units" under the banner of the National Textile Corporation (NTC) with a view to revive and restructure the units. Reeling under heavy losses, the NTC recently drew up a massive exit plan, to restructure some units and close down 14 units which would displace 75,000 workers. Clearly, nationalization has not proved to be an answer to sickness in textiles.

The powerlooms have also posed a threat to the handlooms. Practices such as marketing of their products as handlooms, even subcontracting out work from the handloom sector have taken their toll on handlooms. It has been argued that every new powerloom puts 6 handlooms out of action. Between 1974-1981, that is to say within seven years, 231,000 powerlooms eliminated 1,380,600 handlooms.

The powerloom sector itself has not escaped policy restrictions. Initially, the smaller powerloom units were placed on par with the handlooms. Although the growth of the larger ones was controlled with certain restrictions such as the purchase of looms and registrations, these were never strictly implemented. The response of the powerlooms has been to split the bigger units into small units. This has enabled them to avoid tax payments, application of labour laws and availment of the benefits of the informal sector.

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Development of Export Production

A major policy of the industry which brought in further fragmentation relates to exports. Several factors govern India's exports. Cotton crops, availability of high quality yarn, an ever increasing demand for synthetic fibres and fabrics and most importantly, the protective stand taken by developed countries, restricting imports by way of quotas and tariff barriers have had far reaching implications. While catering for the domestic market, the Indian textile industry was for long not even meeting the stipulated export quotas. To boost exports, the government of India introduced an export promotion sale in 1959, facilitating the import of machinery and embellishments. Again, in 1970, the Export Policy Resolution ensured the expansion of exports by provision of special facilities such as duty drawbacks, cash assistance and import replenishment.

Backed by measures to boost exports, the industry has stepped up its effort to utilize fully the given quotas and even demand that the quota restrictions imposed by MFA be removed and brought under the general GATT agreement. At present, the market share of India in world clothing exports is about 2.7 per cent and that of textiles is 3.7 per cent. India ranks about 6th in MFA in clothing and 17th in textiles. In view of the ceiling on quotas by importing countries, the need to channel and step up exports to non-quota countries is being emphasized.

The sudden boost in exports during the last decade has, in its turn, only further accelerated the growth of the unorganized, informal sector. The emergence of free trade zones is a response and an exemplification where much of the production takes place under most exploitative conditions. The thrust on exports has drawn the mills, powerlooms and handlooms into the international ambit of trade operations, strengthening the interdependence between the sectors, with far-reaching implications for capital, production and labour.

To check distortions and bring in a better balance, the textile policy of 1985 ceased to classify the industry into three sectors - differentiated by technology, production and labour - catering to specific segments of the market. Keeping in mind the state of sickness in the industry, the policy brought in some liberalization in the import and use of fibres and machinery. The policy also made easier the exit of unviable units. Funds for the rehabilitation of the workers were made available. Reservation of products for the handlooms continued to stay. Greater thrust was given to the modernization of handlooms. To check the powerlooms, the policy removed protective measures and introduced compulsory registration.

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Textiles in Bombay: A Case Study

The textile industry in Bombay was the second largest employer in the seventies. The textile mills also generated a great deal of employment in supportive services in trade, food, energy and others and enjoyed considerable presence in the metropolis. Significantly, a large number of the workforce was migrant and provided employment to a number of self employed women caterers (khanawalis). Many migrant workers lived with families as boarders. The textile industry experienced a prolonged eighteen month strike (1982-83) that rocked the Bombay metropolis, bringing into sharp focus, the production, technological and labour problems that beset this industry. Several factors triggered off the strike. The performance of the mills was hampered by obsolete machinery and poor capacity utilization. The textile policy and the reluctance of the mill owners to make investments deeply affected production. The unbridled growth of the powerlooms took its toll on the mill sector. At this time, the exports of textiles came under severe competition from Pakistan and China. Again, internationally, the textile industry was in a state of recession.Against this backdrop, the deeply dissatisfied workers rejected their representative union, RMMS (Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh), chose an outside leader and went on strike. As the sole representative of the textile workforce, the RMMS has dominated the textile industry for decades.

The impact of the strike was traumatic. Besides the loss in man-days, wages and production, the most dramatic was the job loss and reduction in employment potential. The mill owners used the strike to modernize the units. Thousands of workers were not reinstated. Workers who retired or were forced to resign did not even receive their legal dues.

This massive displacement reduced the textile workforce to a mere 135,000. Women bore the brunt of the strike. They took up whatever employment came their way as casual, temporary and self-employed to run the household and enable their menfolk to continue with the strike. The institution of khanawalis which provided meals to workers was deeply affected. Many khanawalis lost their major source of livelihood and returned to their villages. Studies reveal that contrary to popular perceptions, women gave tremendous back-up support, participated in meetings, dharnas and morchas. However, their efforts did not consolidate into a force to be taken seriously by the unions.

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Production Processes and Sexual Division of Labour

To understand the presence and nature of employment of women in the textile industry, it is important to briefly describe the production processes and locate women's work therein. If we take the mill sector, the production processes include mixing of bales of cotton; blowing and cleaning the cotton of impurities; carding which ropes the cotton and spinning which prepares the yarn. The yarn is then wound into cone yarn (cone winding) or into bundles of hank yarn (reeling), which is then packed and sent for weaving. The composite mills combine spinning with weaving.

Women are employed as cotton pickers in the field. Within the mill, however, they are employed at the back end production processes, predominantly as reelers and packers and have a minor presence as cone winders. Women are also found in small numbers as sweepers in some mills. The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1975) states that out of about 200 operations in the textile industry, women are employed in not more than four or five.

Reeling consists of putting doffs of yarn to be reeled, tying the knots when yarn breaks, twisting the finished bundles into shape and getting them weighed. The expertise here is in tying the yarn when it breaks and women constantly complain of poor quality of yarn which affects their workload. In winding both men and women are employed. Over the decades, women winders have been gradually replaced by men in most of the mills. The decline of women's employment has been gradual but quite steep in the textile sector. There are, however, regional variations. They are found in larger numbers in South India than in the textile centres of Ahmedabad or Bombay. In Bombay, for example, it is reported that their numbers have come down to 2.1 per cent between 1974 and 1981. According to the National Sample Survey, the overall presence of women in all textiles is a mere 2.87 per cent. (See table below).

Women have as good as disappeared from the mill sector. Several reasons have contributed to their declining employment. The upgrading of technology has not worked in favour of women. Successive attempts at rationalisation and modernisation by the mills have only depressed the number of women employed. Paradoxically, protective legislation such as a ban on women's night shift, maternity and child care benefits have not worked in their favour. Mill owners have looked at these benefits as costly and bothersome and have resorted to ways of circumventing welfare measures such as the provision of creches and other benefits. An indirect consequence of protective legislation has been casualization of women's work. While this may be true for industrial employment in general, even the few women who are employed, work as temporary, and casual workers.

The production processes in powerlooms are not substantially different. It is argued however, that the scope for women's employment is greater here as production takes place in the informal sector. Furthermore, the powerlooms in many instances combine family labour with wage labour. A study of Coimbatore, which is a major centre of textiles, reveals that the participation rate of women in powerlooms is almost 33 per cent. They also form a larger part of the workforce per unit - between 21 and 50 per cent of the employees. Women are less segregated by function in this sector in comparison with the mill sector. The substantial presence of women in powerlooms and handlooms may well be due to the homebased nature of production and technology that is labour-intensive. However, even here, weaving, with some exceptions, does not come under the purview of women.

The division of work in the handloom sector is similar to that of powerlooms. The considerable presence of women in powerlooms and handlooms is largely due to lower forms of technology which permits labour-intensive production processes. There is substantial empirical evidence that women's labour is inexpensive and it works to the advantage of employers and contractors to employ them. Where production accesses to family labour, women seldom get paid for their labour.

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Working Conditions in the Garment Industry

The garment industry, especially in the export sector typifies the dehumanized conditions of work in the informal and unorganized sector. The manufacture of garments for export is spread all over the country but mostly concentrated in urban centres. Delhi alone accounts for 60 per cent of all Indian exports. The garment industry consists of independent, small proprietary units at one end, and subcontracting units at the other. A great deal of end jobs are also farmed out to homebased workers. Characteristically, the methods of production and work organization in this industry remain heterogeneous. The production process is split into separate functions undertaken in different locations and managed by different parties such as export agents, contractors and subcontractors. Essentially, the production of garments consists of dyeing of fabrics, design, cutting, stitching, embroidery and packing. By and large, core processes such as design, cutting and sampling are centralized and other jobs such as sewing, button stitching, thread cutting embroidery and washing are subcontracted. The extensive subcontracting has deeply fragmented the industry, leaving the workers with no enduring linkages. Most of the fabricators (workshops) are small units and remain unregistered and function with no legal backing. Since work is seasonal, it is quite common to see production units being dismantled when there is no work. Located in crowded areas, the working conditions are poor, with little lighting and inadequate ventilation. The profile of women's work in the garment industry is quite heterogeneous. Those who work in large fabricators are either technically trained and literate, employed in specialized jobs (a negligible minority) or unskilled, working as checkers and helpers. A study of the garment industry in Bombay reveals that out of about 2,000 units listed in the economic survey, only 300 employed women. A large number of women in the garment industry are invisible as homebased workers, getting work from the contractors and subcontractors, often having little interaction with the principal agent. Much of their work consists of sewing, button stitching and embroidery. With the exception of large units, wages are piece-rated. Although policy prescribes that all garment units be registered and conform to legislative prescriptions, there is large-scale evasion. The worrisome feature is the constant fear of closure of units. Any attempt to organize the workers results in the units being closed down and relocated elsewhere. Frequent closures also result in worker mobility that is horizontal and not vertical. Women's work, therefore contains a large component of piece-rated work and pockets of skilled work within a framework of employment which itself is casual and informal. Studies reveal that women also get lower wages than men even when they do similar work. A sequel to home-based work is the high incidence of child labour in this industry.

While women languish in low skill, poorly paid work, casualized and marginalized in production processes, what is of greater concern are the perceptions and perspectives that management and even unions bring to women's work. The general perception is that apart from their nimble fingers, women's expertise does not lie in skilled operations in spinning, carding, weaving or designing and cutting in the garment industry. The division of labour continues to be circumscribed by custom and tradition. The fact that technology has brought much work within the reach of women does not manifest itself in the distribution of work.

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Trade Unions and Women

It is common place that trade unions have not been forthcoming in taking up the question of women's employment or their rights. Over the decades, their preoccupation has been with issues relating to wage and production agreements and fringe benefits. Issues relating to women workers and their employment levels have not been serious concerns of trade unions. Women themselves have waged several struggles at individual, departmental and even plant level to protect their employment. While leaders have been active in their respective departments, few have been part of the wider trade union movement and decision-making processes. Those who held executive positions seldom took up issues relating to employment and gender with the top leadership. The performance of women workers in the trade unions, however, has been awfully inadequate. The burden of household responsibilities, and the culture of the wider society do not encourage women to be active in trade unions. Part of the reason for this is, of course, their negligible numbers. More importantly women as reelers and cone winders do not have the clout that spinners or weavers have either with the management or trade unions.

Most union leaders admit that the task of organizing workers in powerlooms is arduous and are even fearful of taking on the muscle power of the vested interests. Women's employment levels figure, occasionally, in the charter of demands that trade unions put up to employers, but are seldom discussed in the bargaining forums. While trade unions have given little focus to the dwindling numbers of women workers, a few organisations such as SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association) in Ahmedabad and Annapurna Mahila Mandal in Bombay have organized women who have been displaced and turned into homebased and self-employed. Unionizing women workers in the garments, handlooms and powerlooms sector is fraught with issues. Combining the ideologies of trade unions and co-operatives, SEWA, Ahmedabad has organised women in several trades and has been lobbying for appropriate legislation for self-employed and homebased women workers. Recently, SEWA has affiliated itself to ITGLWF. SEWA has also given considerable thrust to worker education programmes to educate their members on their rights. Such efforts, however, continue to remain innovative experiments and too few in number to meet the challenges of numerous workers. Not many experiments appear to combine the organizing principles and ideology of trade unionism and cooperativism to bring about a change of scale.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek

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