Tirupur knitwears' operational compliance has improved workers' lives

Topics knitwear Sector | Tirupur

Tirupur textile and knitwear exporting units
The textile and knitwear exporting units of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu have become role models of sorts by complying with international, social, behavioural, and safety standards in their operations. However, when it comes to implementing these norms, they continue to face several challenges, not least the fact that different buyers demand different standards, which add to their costs. 

Though the compliance has taken place largely because international buyers demand it, the results are heartening. For example, the use of child labour, which was allegedly rampant in Tirupur not too long ago, has been completely eradicated. Moreover, wages are now based on the nature of the work and the skill sets of workers, rather than on gender.

Workers are paid above the norm set by the state government and given a five per cent increment every year. They also get bonus, employees’ state insurance, provident fund, health insurance, and so on. Regular audits are conducted to check if the wages meet the basic minimum needs or what is termed ‘Food Basket Survival’. In fact, Tirupur has thrown up good results in the Market Surveillance Visits or surprise visits of firms conducted by Social Accountability Accreditation Services (SAAS), an organisation that carries out social audits of companies. With follow-up actions, there will be even better compliance next year, says DKS Moorthy, client manager and accreditation auditor, SAAS.

Since health and safety standards are considered paramount, units with more than 200 workers now have a nurse on their premises. Working hours are mandated to be 48 hours a week, and workers can do only 24 hours’ overtime in  a quarter. During audits, workers are interviewed to ascertain whether they are being made to put in longer hours than they are supposed to.

S Priya, a worker at one unit, was surprised when an auditor asked her questions regarding a Tamil television serial which aired at 9.30pm. She realised later that the auditor was trying to find out if she reached home early enough to be able to watch the serial.

Apart from the use of child labour, in the past Tirupur also faced flak for the alleged exploitation of women workers in the yarn-making units. There were reports that women were being given pills during their menstruation to make them work during that time (The Tirupur Exporters Association and industry units have vehemently denied the allegation). 

Pollution caused by the dyeing units, which are an important part of the supply chain of the exporting firms, also came in for severe criticism. These issues took a toll on the industry. In fact, in 2010-11, the courts ordered the dyeing units to be shut down.   Today, Tirupur has witnessed a complete turnaround in the way it treats women workers in the textile units. T Thirukumaran, managing director, Estee Exports, says that many of the units are now managed by women. At Estee, for example, Thirukumaran’s wife manages the production line along with other women managers. As for the dyeing units, they have adopted the system of zero liquid discharge — the first in the world to do so. Now nearly 100 million litres of water is treated and reused every day, which constitutes 85 per cent of the water demand of these units. 

In addition, there are now 314 common effluent treatment plants (ETP) and around 60 individual ETPs in the cluster. And the entire cluster has got 1875 Mw of installed green energy, although the consumption is only 225 Mw.

However, the industry continues to face challenges with regard to compliance.  Different standards by different buyers/countries, and inspection by government agencies add to costs, especially for the MSMEs.  Raja Shanmugham, president, Tirupur Exporters Association (TEA), says that there should be a uniform code of standards globally, which should be implemented by all manufacturing nations. 

Moorthy says that training and capacity building of the Social Performance Team of the units also needs to be toned up. Manufacturers also face a major challenge in making the suppliers comply with the standards (they need to be compliant, but not certified).  Moreover, says Moorthy, instead of depending on consultants, the units should empower their own staff to implement the standards.

There are challenges when it comes to auditing as well. According to Moorthy, these include: detecting double book keeping with regard to hours of work and payment of wages; interviewing workers to determine cases of discrimination and disciplinary practices; meeting and educating the top management to seek more attention; monitoring of the implementation process; and improving the competence of the auditors of the certification bodies so that the standard of auditing is enhanced and compliance ensured.
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