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Chill winds of change for mill workers

G. Gurumurthy

COIMBATORE, Nov. 1

TILL three years ago, 48-year old Mr Dandapani, a senior spinner employed in a well-known textile unit situated in the Peelamedu area of the city took home a neat Rs 9,000 as bonus to celebrate `Deepavali'.

He could afford to add new household goods every year and spend a portion of the bonus to meet his daughters' schooling. But in the past two years his bonus receipt has shrunk to almost half and this year, his take-home bonus was Rs 5,700.

His wards in their crucial stages of higher studies are in need of higher financial back-up if their academic career is to be kept on track.

Mr Sivanmalai, a winder, was working in a large textile mill in Singanallur, a suburban textile hub that went bankrupt in 1998 and the unit's revival under a new management did not last beyond another two years. He was finally out on the street, accepting his erstwhile management's final distress settlement of dues.

He and his erstwhile colleague in the same unit, Mr Ramachandran, (the latter heading a family of four) who were on permanent pay rolls drawing Rs 250 per day before being displaced are now reemployed as daily wage earners drawing Rs 75 per day in two different spinning mills.

With their monthly income dwindling to one-third of their previous levels, they could have no grouse about bonus which is just non-existent for a daily wage earner - except the paltry `attendance' bonus of 2 per cent the new employers would give them.

Mr Sivanmalai and Mr Ramachandran in their late forties just represent the hundreds of displaced textile workers who roam around this industrial town units getting re-employed at just half or even one-third of their previous wage levels.

With mill managements in the region vying with each other to cut costs including pruning the wage bill by way of shedding the `high-cost' labour, one of the direct impacts of these on the workforce is obviously the steady fall in the number of permanent workers on the rolls.

"A 25,000-spindle capacity textile unit would require an average 250 workers, but many spinning units of this capacity have successfully brought down the permanent workers strength to almost one third in recent time. The remaining two-thirds of the workers required to run the plant are `casual' workers at just half the wages paid to the permanent workers," Mr Ramachandran says.

Mr Sivanmalai and Mr Ramachandran have been re-employed in their respective textile units under the work category called `industrial trainees',

What is more, the `casual' workers who are replacing the permanent workers are the ones in the 15-20 year age group and are the `camp coolies' who are engaged in droves to bring down the labour cost. The young labour force mostly hailing from the southern Tamil Nadu districts of Tirunelveli, Ramanathapuram and Madurai are sheltered in the mill premises. Their wages will normally be in the Rs 35-Rs 40 band per day and their requirements such as food are met by the management.

With no regular wages being fixed, these young workers, most of them girls, are retained for next three or four years on an unwritten contract basis. At the end of the third or fourth year, the batch is sent home by terminating the contract and each one is paid off a lump sum of Rs 30,000- 40,000 depending on the contract terms.

It is felt that the deployment of the `camp coolies', on the rise in the last one year, has blunted the bargaining powers of the organised trade unions in issues like wages or bonus and at the same time reduced the statutory wage/bonus commitments for the managements too.

For Mr Dandapani getting a lower bonus these days is quite frustrating, but he can do nothing about it. Seeking trade unions' support too is seen as a bitter pill. "Most of us seek to remain only with the `majority' unions fearing isolation and workers know well that the selfish among these majority unions go the management way quietly," he added

The fall in the number of permanent workers has direct fallout on the unions. "We'll have to wait for the clock to come a full circle before we can rekindle the workers' zeal on unionism," say leaders in the left-wing trade unions.

Right now, these trade unions seem to be mute spectators to the clear apathy of the textile workers who are in the grip of fear about losing jobs.

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