Months ago, as Tamil Nadu, like many other states, closed its borders to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus, thousands of migrant labourers took to the road barefoot to reach their homes. Today, as the country attempts to regain a tiny semblance of normalcy amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases everyday, many guest workers are returning to Tamil Nadu, one of the most industrialised states in the country, hoping to resume their livelihood.
For those familiar with the regional economy of Tamil Nadu, it is a known fact that different regions of the state are homes for different industries. The western belt of Tamil Nadu consisting of Coimbatore, Tiruppur and Erode districts are prominent in the countryâ€™s textile industry. The region specialises in cotton and knitwear fabrics and garments and contributes significantly to Indiaâ€™s exports. Thus the region also employs lakhs of migrant workers majorly from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
While Coimbatore is famous for its spinning mills, Tiruppur is a leader in knitwear apparel and exports. Tiruppur and Erode districts also have significant presence of powerlooms in the country.
Reverse migration slowly picking up
Tamil Nadu was under a lockdown with severe restrictions in inter-district and inter-state movements till as late as September 7. While e-passes are still required to enter the state, the state government eased the e-pass restrictions for inter-district travel within Tamil Nadu from September 1.
Speaking to TNM, Velusamy, the Secretary General of Tamil Nadu Powerloom Federation, which is a collective of around 45 separate powerloom workers association said that the state has around 6 lakh power looms across sizes that employ around 10 lakh people directly. â€śMost are from the southern districts of the state. Only 10% are from other states. Those from the southern districts did not really go back to their towns and villages during the lockdown. Since now the restrictions have been eased, they will probably go and spend some time and come back after Deepavali,â€ť he said.
Adding that the power looms in and around Palladam in Tiruppur district are running at 70-75% of their full capacity, Velusamy said that the loom owners and workers are hoping that the demand will pick up as the number of COVID-19 cases decrease. â€śIf the cases keep rising, the demand will stagnate. Usually this is a busy period for us till Christmas. But this year, due to COVID-19, the plans have derailed,â€ť he pointed out.
The story is not different in Tiruppur either. Home to around 10,000 knitwear units, employing around 6 lakh workers in total, Tiruppur is a major contributor to textile exports from India.
"Of these around 1 lakh are from outside Tamil Nadu. They have slowly started coming back. Some are arranging buses from their own states and coming here in groups, while some companies are paying for the transportation too. I think once railways open up, more people will return to resume work," Raja Shanmugam, the President of the Tiruppur Exporters Association (TEA) told TNM.
Kumaran, who owns a knitwear unit in Tiruppur attributed the trickle of guest workers coming back to resume work to the fear of getting infected by the virus. â€śOrders are coming in, but not as much as we had before. At this level, I think we can accommodate the migrant workers even if they all decide to return,â€ť he added.
Around 40 kilometres away, the spinning mills in and around Coimbatore city are running at lesser than normal workload due to the fall in demand. Home to at least 1000 spinning mills, Coimbatore employs around 2 lakh workers in these mills, over 50% come from other districts and states.
â€śSome have started to return to Coimbatore, but mills are not running at full capacity. On an average, the spinning mills are running around 60% capacity right now due to the economy. The economy has not revived. Hence we are not running the mills at full capacity,â€ť K Selvaraju, Secretary General, Southern India Mills Association (SIMA) told TNM.
According to data accessed by TNM, Tiruppur district authorities have issued e-passes to 274 companies to bring their guest workers back to the district from September 1 to 15. Meanwhile, around 2700 workers, mostly from Odisha, Bihar and West Bengal have returned to Erode as of September 1 and the numbers are reportedly moving upwards. At least 14,000 workers have reached Chennai after the lockdown restrictions were lifted as per the data available with the Greater Chennai Corporation, with a majority of them from West Bengal and Bihar. Sources told TNM that it is possible that many of those workers might have proceeded to their destinations inside Tamil Nadu from Chennai, since the government eased the lockdown restrictions.
Demand and supply
On one side are the powerloom weavers of Palladam staring at a possible loss of revenue due to decrease in the demand for fabric. On the other hand, the knitwear industry is bracing for a potential spike in the number of orders they could get in the coming days, as the busy season for the industry begins in September every year and lasts till April the next year.
â€śSomehow, the COVID-19 related lockdown coincided with our off-season. So we are not in panic-mode now. We have been getting decent orders since September 1 and it looks promising,â€ť Raja Shanmugam explained. He also said that the prevalence of anti-China sentiment across the globe also could help Tiruppur amp up its exports.
â€śAs an industry here, we should be strict about honouring the trade commitments. That will help us leverage the anti-China sentiments here,â€ť he added. When asked about the usual competitive industries in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh, Raja Shanmugam said that there are high chances that they are booked to capacity and business is coming Tiruppurâ€™s way.
Fear of layoffs
The apparent lack of demand for production has also prompted fears of job losses in the industry. With looms and knitwear units running at less than capacity for a long time now, TNM questioned if the industry leaders anticipated job losses in the near future.
â€śWe have not yet been pushed to a situation where we have to let go of people, but the work is not busy now. Hence they can go home and come back when they want to. Usually in this period, the workers will be very busy due to the demand,â€ť Velusamy said.
It is also to be noted that many units in the region rarely let go of their workforce easily amid the ups and downs of the economy since they feel that it is difficult to get the labourers back when the economy picks up.
Raja Shanmugam, meanwhile, expressed confidence that more labourers will be in demand in the knitwear industry in the coming days. â€śWe are in need of labour actually. We are anticipating more orders in the coming days because here the season is usually from September till the summer and this year the lockdown and the slump coincided with our off-season time. Since September 1, we are seeing a slow increase in orders, which we hope will pick up soon. So we need labourers to deliver it on time to the customers," he said.