The Invisible Women Of Vellore
Savitha works on her 15th pair of shoes for the day

The Invisible Women Of Vellore

Off the books and without benefits – a peek into the lives of homeworkers in the leather industry of Tamil Nadu

Setting down her needle and thread on the floor with her swollen fingers, 21-year-old Savitha Sagayam, of Mettupalayam village in Vellore has just begun her work for the day after sending her children to school.

MR Rajendran, a well-built man in a pink shirt, carries a large black bag on his shoulder, dropping it near the petite Savitha. He towers over her while she pulls out a leather sole and straps from the bag and readies her fingers to sew them together. Today her target is to sew 25 pairs of shoes. “I divide my day around stitching these shoes. 10 when my son is in school, and 15 after dinner is over,” she says.

Savitha is a housewife and a homeworker in Vaniyambadi town in Vellore, which houses one of the biggest leather industries in the world. International brands like H&M and Steve Madden, and national brands like Bata and Khadim’s have all their products assembled in the three towns of Ambur, Ranipet and Vaniyambadi for decades now.

According to Ahmed, India’s leather industry accounts for an annual turnover of Rs 3.6 trillion, while Tamil Nadu contributes Rs 1.3 trillion.

Leading German brands like Josef are stitched right here in Vaniyambadi’s hamlets

As per the Union Ministry of Labour, not more than 500 workers can be employed in one factory to assemble and stitch shoes. This has not been sufficient for leather factory owners to deal with the ever-growing demand in the industry. So leather companies outsource their work largely to women who are not officially employed in factories and are primarily housewives. These women are called homeworkers and reduce production costs for the factories significantly.

This is not specific to India. Across Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, homeworkers are essential to the leather industry. Homeworkers, however, have no official status as workers, are not in the books and not recognised by law. They cannot form unions, are not covered for health expenses, cannot receive provident funds, and can be left without a job if even two pairs of shoes are not stitched properly.

Work In Progress

Here’s how the process of employing homeworkers takes place. A contractor attached with each factory hires sub-contractors to outsource this work to homeworkers. The owner of the factory looks the other way, and homeworkers have no bargaining power as a result.

Sub-contractors like Jagadish*(name changed) handle the work directly with the women and fix their quota for the day. “We are not recognised ourselves, and are at the mercy of the contractor. If a homeworker takes a sick leave, it falls on our head and we are scolded for not bringing back the finished product to the contractor,” he says.

Women, young and old, work on pairs of shoes, earning Rs.10 a pair

Jagadish, acknowledges that it is illegal, and merciless to homeworkers, but he also says it is an open secret. “We cannot overly engage, or sit and discuss problems with the homeworkers. They have to do their job, and we don’t care if they have a family to take care of, or if they fall sick,” he says. He wears a terrified look as he is asked further questions and says, “I am afraid about two things – one, that the homeworkers will lose their jobs along with me if the owner finds out about the media getting involved, and two – factories are closing down at a high pace because of regulations laid down by the Pollution Control Board. Almost all of the homeworkers will lose their jobs and have no livelihood to call their own,” he says, fidgeting with the bag of shoes on his desk.

Nirmala K of Mettupalayam village in Vaniyambadi, is unaware of the fact that homeworkers have no rights. “We get 2500-3000 rupees a month. I can buy whatever I want and run the house. What is wrong in that?” she says. She speaks highly of her sub-contractor, but stops when her mother reminds her that when she had jaundice, she was scolded. “Is getting jaundice my fault?” she says, and goes back to sewing.

Sangeetha, a feisty homeworker in Netaji Nagar of Vaniyambadi, opens up about her struggle to bring women together to form a union. “When we told our sub-contractor that we wanted to bring all homeworkers together and create a sense of community, he ignored us and told us to get back to work. We want PF and ESI (Employees’ State Insurance). We want some advance. We want paid leave. We want to ask for steady work timings, because we work through the night. Maybe the young girls can, but I need some sleep,” she says.

MR Rajendran explains his difficulties as a sub-contractor

MR Rajendran is another sub-contractor who handles both women and he agrees with what Sangeetha says. “This is not an artisanal job. It can be done by anyone, but that doesn’t mean that these women should be unprotected and in danger. The owners need to take responsibility, instead of allowing ethics to go out of the window,” he says.

To Homework Or Not To Homework?

Rajendran also feels that to discontinue the process of homework is a bad idea. For Sangeetha, it is a matter of economic independence and running the household on her own terms. It is emancipation for some, but a trap in a larger context. Not only are they unprotected – they are told not to talk about it and deny that they do any such work. “If the government does choose to take any action,” says Jagadish, “they will not help homeworkers. They will instead shut down my business and the factories.”

He refers to the 2017 case of Ranipet, where 5 tanneries were recently shut down owing to environmental concerns and violation of labour laws. “They (the government) will not be sensitive,” he says.

Sangeetha wishes for a Employee State Insurance card (ESI) to take care of her asthma

In a 2016-2017 report by the Ministry of Commerce, there has been a significant drop in leather and leather product exports. Export of Leather and Leather Manufacturers recorded a negative growth of 6.08% during April 2016 to October 2017 as the value of exports decreased to US$ 3157.38 million or Rs 4.9 crore from US$ 3361.63 million or Rs 5.2 crore in the corresponding period of the previous year. All the commodities in this group have reflected a negative growth.

This, says Rajendran, has put significant pressure on owners to hire more homeworkers and increase their quota per day. The Council of Leather Workers in India maintains that only 30% of the employees in India are women. But this figure does not include homeworkers, who remain invisible.

President of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and President of the All India Hides and Skins Tanners and Merchants Association Dr Rafeeque Ahmed bats for homeworkers and says it has worked successfully. “It is beneficial to industries and women earn for themselves,” he says.

The work, he says, is the highest at the months before European winters and the homeworkers are paid regularly. “But after industries did not comply with providing PF and ESI benefits to their own employees, at least 70% of homeworkers have lost their jobs because of lack of material coming in. This was a big mistake,” he says.

Ahmed is also of the opinion that it is time to increase the scope of work for homeworkers and give them year round work. “In that case, ESI and PF can be provided,” he says.

Nirmala wraps up her work for the day at 6 pm. She has worked all of the previous night to make sure that she could help her adolescent son with his examinations. “I think women should get paid for both types of homework,” she says, her friends chuckling along.

(Calculations made using 1 USD = Rs 65)

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