Blogging from India #6 Cotton mills of Tirupur

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PWW Editor Teresa Albano is blogging from India, where she attended the conventions of the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist). The parties hold seats in the national Parliament and lead the governments in three of India’s states.

TIRUPUR, India — Just a few miles from Coimbatore is the heart of the textile and garment industry in India, the city of Tirupur. The city has gone from the heartbeat of the industry for the country's domestic markets to now a global knitwear giant exporting many ready-made products worldwide.

Tirupur, like many working class industrial centers the world over, has its own proud history of union and working class struggles. Part of those struggles are Indian communists. So as part of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), international fraternal delegates visited this seventh largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Our delegation visited two factories. One processed the raw cotton into thread and then knit fabric. The second took the dyed or bleached fabric and sewed the pieces together for a ready-made garment. That day the workers were making baby T-shirts.

The massive facility that processed the raw cotton is open for three shifts. It processes millions of pounds — maybe tons — of cotton a year. But the German-made and Italian-made machines take the place of thousands of workers. So the factory employs a total of 150 workers — 50 per shift. The mill goes 24 hours a day — three 8-hour shifts.

India is hungry for industry and technology. Despite the energy challenges the country faces to power such enterprises, state and national governments want to get economic activity to their area. In the case of Communist-led state governments, they want jobs for thousands of workers so they can better their lives.

Walking up and down the clean aisles with very little dust in the air, I couldn't help but think of another industrial revolution that took place in the U.S. some 150 years ago. The cotton industry of the U.S. South rose to power on the backs of slave labor. The cotton was shipped to New England where thousands of young women left their towns and villages and farms to get a job in the cotton mills. Haunting photos of children standing next to the machines dot labor museums across our country.

At Tirupur, young women leave their villages from around South India to work in these new factories. At the cotton mill these young women worked for a private company under a two- to three-year contract where they earned some 45,000 rupees (just more than $1,000 U.S.), I was told.

These young women under contract were also part of some 90 percent of the Indian workforce that is not organized.

The sum of 45,000 rupees for two years’ work (8 hours a day/six days a week) may seem incredibly low by U.S. standards, but this is India where 78 percent of the population lives on Rs 20 a day (50 cents). India is a major part of the vast industrially developing world that is looking to grow its economy.

Our delegation then went onto an industrial park where some 160 companies have their production facilities.

It was here that we were greeted by members of the Center of Trade Unions (CITU) and its related political party, the CPI-M. At this industrial park workers are organized into a union.

We went to a large sewing facility where both young men and women were busy at work in front of their machines. At this facility the division of labor between men and women was not as stark as at the other, as both women and men ran the sewing machines.

In such a developing country that contends with the pressures of richer countries to drive down wages and dominate natural resources, at the same time contending with its own class and social struggles, industrial development is not a clear-cut path. At this particular company, management, the owner and the union all work together, they told us, to guarantee that production quotas are kept up. Along the walls are health and safety posters explaining why dust masks should be worn and a series of other measures from adequate lighting to where to go in case first aid is necessary. There is also a poster that says, 'Stop Child Labor.'

Some sewers paid little attention to the newcomers walking up and down the aisles, snapping photos. Some assistant sewers hid from the camera, ducking down behind the desks. But many had eyes twinkling at the attention their work and world was getting.

Read Albano's other posts from India: