Sussex Sustainability Research Programme

Covid-19 in Tamil Nadu: Textile livelihoods under threat

The Global Covid-19 Pandemic is rapidly exposing the precarity of India’s informal labour forces. Whether as vulnerable inter-state migrants or heavily indebted local Dalits, the resilience of Tamil Nadu’s textile labour force is under severe pressure as factories have closed down and wages dried up. How sustainable is a global production regime that leaves its labour force in the Global South without any form of protection or support at a time of crisis?

On the 24th of March 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete national lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 on the subcontinent. While this brought the movements of more than 1.3 billion people to an almost immediate halt, many of us were alarmed by the images of millions of migrant workers attempting to make their way from the country’s metropoles and large industrial hubs to their home villages. Tragic experiences of suffering and exhaustion followed as thousands of laid-off migrant workers made their way home, often on foot in the absence of public transport and in a race against the clock.

Ten days earlier, on the 14th of March, I returned to the UK from a fieldtrip to the Tiruppur region of Tamil Nadu, a large garment hub that produced for the world market. Just before Covid-19 started impacting people’s lives, I interviewed a range of workers in two study villages who are highly dependent on the textile industry for their livelihoods. While we can only guess the nature of the longer-term damage this global health crisis is likely to produce in textile workers’ lives, the contours of what is to come quickly became visible in our villages. 

At the time of my research, garment workers and powerloom operators’ lives and incomes were already wavering under a series of severe challenges caused by both the state and the market.  The industry was only just recovering from the demonetisation of banknotes in November 2016 and the imposition of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) in July 2017. In addition, enhanced competition from Bangladesh and Vietnam as well as a sluggish global economy had led to garment orders shifting away from the Tiruppur cluster and shrinking domestic demand for powerloom cloth. Workers were complaining that everything was ‘slow’ and many commuters to the city’s garment factories reported having been days or weeks without work. One family, for example, was unable to pay their son’s final term’s college fees due to a complete drop in household income. The son would be unable to sit his final exams and obtain his degree, hence pulling any hopes for upward mobility from under the family’s feet.

Covid-19 is an unprecedented attack on an already vulnerable industry and precarious workforce. The region’s garment factories and rural powerloom units closed down overnight on the 25th of March, leaving rural powerloom workers and urban garment commuters in our villages entirely without work and income. Their only sources of support being employers for cash advances on wages and the state for basic food rations.  Most powerloom workers were already heavily indebted to their employers, typically working under conditions resembling debt bondage. Many were also indebted to self-help groups, private microfinance institutions, moneylenders and shops through consumer loans. Keeping up debt repayments is impossible in the current situation, while debts with employers are set to increase in the short run as powerloom workers ask for further cash advances. One labourer told us he already asked his employer for Rs 500, to be added to his dues. In the long run, these debts risk becoming totally unsustainable, putting people’s wellbeing – if not sheer survival  at risk. 

The Tamil Nadu government almost immediately offered all ration card holders Rs 1000 per household in cash as well as free food rations for the month of April. Yet one informant shrugged this off as inadequate, saying that this money would only cover one week’s expenses. The government’s MGNREGA scheme came to a sudden halt too, at a time that wages under this scheme were already in arrears, and anganwadi (creche) activities and free midday meals ceased too.

One of our villages counts at least 100 long-distance migrant workers, mainly from Bihar, who are employed in its spinning mills, seizing units and advanced Sulzer looms. These workers could not even attempt a return journey to their home villages when the unforeseen lockdown was imposed. For the time being, they remain in their factory dormitories being provided with basic food supplies by their employers. However, it remains impossible to predict what the lack of wages will mean for their families back home or what co-living in densely occupied rooms will entail for their own health. On showing corona-like symptoms in one of the dormitories, some migrant workers were taken to hospital but soon sent back to stay in quarantine in their accommodation.  

Vital social distancing remains a major challenge. Dalits in densely populated neighbourhoods struggle to stay indoors and their youngsters continue to play games on the commons. Dormitories, typically housing 4 to 6 single migrant workers to a room, make physical distancing neigh impossible. Intra-state migrant families, accommodated in ‘line houses,’ share bathroom and toilet facilities with multiple other families. Dire does not even begin to describe the situation.

But what of the longer term? What work will be available for these labour forces and who will be in a position to return to work at all? What will working lives look like when some sort of new routine emerges? It is simply too early to answer such questions. While the crisis caused by Covid-19 is obviously unprecedented as a simultaneous health and economic crisis, in some ways it is just another example of the sorts of shocks, uncertainties and distress that both the market and the state inflict with painful regularity on the lives of the poorest in India’s informal economy.

While the impacts on lives may be far more severe and the effects longer lasting than any other shockwave to date, the crisis exposes the routine precarity of work in India’s industrial economy as well as the ways in which caste and class shape vulnerability at the time of crisis. Moreover, as western companies are rapidly cancelling orders, Covid-19 forces us to ask serious questions about the sustainability of a global production regime that thrives on a footloose and hugely exposed workforce in the Global South.

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Written by Geert De Neve, Professor of Social Anthropology and South Asian Studies in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Geert's research has primarily focused on industrial work and the politics of labour in India's informal economy.