From Migrants To Settlers — How A Textile Group Is Changing The 'Migrant Labour' Paradigm

From Migrants To Settlers — How A Textile Group Is Changing The 'Migrant Labour' Paradigm

by Harsha Bhat - Thursday, December 29, 2022 05:14 PM IST
From Migrants To Settlers — How A Textile Group Is Changing The 'Migrant Labour' ParadigmManmina Khatoon from Bihar who has carved a life for herself working at KG Fabriks, Coimbatore.
  • A textile group in Tamil Nadu's Coimbatore is changing lives of North Indian migrants and giving them new hopes.

The story of the Indian migrant labour in the South Indian textile sector has almost always been a slightly sad one.

Brought to factories by hiring agents from northern states and housed in labour hostels, they live separated from society at large in Tamil Nadu, where most of the south Indian textile industry operates.

Many large industrial houses try to do their best to provide good living conditions but the labour force continues to be housed in 'hostels' — removed from the outer world and the local environment.

Life in hostels can be difficult despite the best efforts of everyone involved. Ingress and egress are controlled, individual kitchens are a rarity, raising families and children might not be possible. There is always a dependency on the employer be it for healthcare or newer opportunities.

But not all is grim and gory in this sector as one industrial house has been making efforts to provide better living conditions for migrant labour and even get them settled in surrounding villages.

Labour is not left to fend for themselves as vulnerable migrants nor are they held in access-controlled hostels. Instead a whole different approach of ‘resettlement’ is changing how migrants are treated by their new employers.

All of 18, Khushbu Khatoon from Sitamarhi district in Bihar wears a denim shirt over her salwar kameez and is all smiles as she takes me to her home to meet her mother. Khushbhu along with her sister-in-law Ruksar Khatoon have just joined their mother Manmina Khatoon at the Kannapiran Mills, the spinning division of KG Fabriks.

Senior Khatoon and her husband were among the first workers who migrated for work back in 2019, and today has her entire family of two sons and a daughter and a grandchild living together here.

At a walking distance from the factory, Manmina says, "Tamil Nadu gave me life and livelihood at a time when I had almost given up in life. Today, I am proud and independent, have educated my sons and even gotten them married, bought land back home."

“Bihar se accha ihaan lagta hai humko,” she says getting teary eyed remembering the circumstances in which she had to leave her two young children with her parents and come to work here.

“We were denied our own land by my in-laws. With no penny in hand, we came to Tamil Nadu. It is because I came here and worked that I could make a life for myself. Today, three of us work at Kannapiran Mills, sons work out and we are able to save around Rs 20,000 a month,” says Manmina.

The Khatoons are just one of the many ‘north Indian’ families who have made this village, 30 km away from Coimbatore, their home.

What they once thought would be a land with a language, culture and landscape as distinctly different, geographically distant and culturally alien from their own in Odisha, Bihar, UP and Assam is now home for many who work at the textile unit and many more who come here to train at the ITI institute of the KG Group.

The factory units of the KG Group has been home and workplace for numerous batches of poor families and youngsters, who have migrated from economically-backward area across various northern and north-eastern states.

Hailing from Bihar Ram Babu who has been working with KG Fabriks and sourcing human resource from various rural regions says it is a win-win situation for both.

“We train, they earn. We employ whoever wishes to stay back, which gives us human resource and them a source of life and livelihood,” he explains.

Babu goes on to share the various efforts they have made over the years to make the "migrant labour feel at home" while ensuring the locals too are glad that the villages that were being deserted owing to urban migration are bustling with life again.

So, what happens to a 'new migrant' family?

The new-comer families are all first housed in company quarters inside the factory premise for an initial six months to one year until they are acquainted with the people, the language and the region around.

“We feel at home, since there are so many of us here. We don’t feel we are in south India as most of our fellow workers are from Hindi speaking states, which also gives us a sense of community,” share a bunch of youngsters from Begusarai.

Once settled, boys and girls from such families receive access to integrated Flexi-ITI operated by the company.

More than 200 youngsters have been trained since 2018 at this institute which is India’s only work integrated Flexi-ITI in textiles.

Among those who train here, those who can be absorbed by the various mills are employed upon course completion, and their families too encouraged to move in with them.

“If we keep them away from their loved ones they will seek to return but if we resettle them along with their families, they start life afresh here and it works well for both, as they are productive as well as feel at home,” says Ram Babu, who has also been the point of contact for hundreds of these trainees and workers who have made Coimbatore their new home.

Of the total migrant labour so far at the seven mills of the KG Group 20 per cent are from Jharkhand, 19 per cent from Odisha, 9 per cent from Bihar, and around 2-4 per cent each from UP, West Bengal, Assam and Madhya Pradesh.

Those who train at the ITI join as fitters and electricians, and those who show interest to learn further or grow are also encouraged to take on roles of supervisors and trainers.

Durga Puja celebrations at the ITI-run by KG Fabriks.
Durga Puja celebrations at the ITI-run by KG Fabriks.
Students celebrate birthdays at the ITI hostel at KG Fabriks.
Students celebrate birthdays at the ITI hostel at KG Fabriks.
Ajey Ram from Bihar who alongwith his wife Lalitha works at Kannapiran Mills.
Ajey Ram from Bihar who alongwith his wife Lalitha works at Kannapiran Mills.

The next stage in their migrant journey is resettlement where they rent a house in a neighbouring village and slowly integrate with the local population.

For the villagers, this is mostly a welcome development. New settlers bring better rents and commercial activity at their shops — a change from the continuing population depletion seen across villages in Tamil Nadu.

Then there is education for migrants' children. The kids are given help to admit in local government schools — such help involves getting Aadhaar cards for the children and other government certificates.

Elementary schools in these rural pockets that had dwindling numbers are very glad at the new lease of life as children of these rural migrants take admission here.

The company also managed to depute a special Hindi teacher to help the older children cope with learning difficulties, inform officials.

And the teachers take pride that one of their earliest ‘north Indian’ student has completed high school and has now joined a college.

"He is one of our best students," they opine, given that the rate of absenteeism and dropping out is high among children of the rural migrants.

“Basic Hindi we know. But the students who join us right from Class I take to Tamil with as much ease as their mother tongue and they then help bridge any communication issues with students who join later and may encounter difficulties with language acquisition or learning,” share the teachers at the school that is at a walking distance from the mill.

The students who converse in Hindi, Bangla, Odia and Maithili back home are fluent in Tamil as one of them even recites the Thirukkural, while another group of ‘north Indian’ students gives a glimpse of its proficiency by reciting various Tamil poems in chorus, while also singing out "machli jal ki rani hai".

The school too is supported by KG Fabriks as part of their CSR activities to ensure the little wards of their workers are being taken care of.

Migrant ITI students on excursion.
Migrant ITI students on excursion.
Hailing from Orissa, Haribandhu and his wife  in front of their new home on the campus of KG Fabriks mills.
Hailing from Orissa, Haribandhu and his wife in front of their new home on the campus of KG Fabriks mills.
Khushbhu Khatoon whose mother Manmina Khatoon was among the first migrant  employees from Bihar.
Khushbhu Khatoon whose mother Manmina Khatoon was among the first migrant employees from Bihar.
Children of migrants from North India have all taken to Tamil with as much proficiency as their mother tongues at this village elementary school.
Children of migrants from North India have all taken to Tamil with as much proficiency as their mother tongues at this village elementary school.

Does doing any of this help the company? Turns out it did.

During the Covid-19 crisis that saw migrant labour often take to streets and wander back home in panic, none of the workers here left for home. Counselling sessions were held to ensure the workers could be relieved of the anxiety given the uncertainty that the pandemic generated.

"Fortunately we didn't lose a single one of our employees across any of our units as their vaccination and safety was made priority,” explain officials.

And when the labourers insisted on going home, buses were arranged for them to be dropped at their respective villages.

Those that stayed were vaccinated on priority, medical checkup undertaken regularly and food kits and supplies provided for the entire term, with yoga classes and other activities conducted to ensure their health and well-being during the entire pandemic period.

Sushant has been working for the Kannapiran Mill for the last two years and lives at the quarters on the premise.

“It was difficulty back home that brought us here. But after me a lot of people have migrated. At least 40-50 of my own friends from Kolkata are working in different mills of Coimbatore,” he says.

His next door neighbour Haribandhu from Odisha echoes his sentiments, “kaam karne ke liye badhiya lagta hai. Jab bhi chutti maango toh milta hai. isiliye toh do saal se yahin hai. ghar gaya toh bhi jaldi wapas aaya,” he says, adding that he has started his new life out here, with fellow Odia ‘friends from the hostel’.

They go on excursions, temple visits and hold celebrations at the unit as a family away from family while they are also provided training in English, employability skills and computers to enable them to work elsewhere if they seek to do so in the future.

Ajay and Lalitha who migrated from Bihar work in the loading and spinning departments respectively.

“It was under dire circumstances that we moved here. But after working here, I could repair my house back home,” they say, adding that the lockdown too was spent without any difficulty, unlike what other migrant workers were said to be complaining of.

Shatrughan Ram who works at the mill says that with his children receiving education and support, they can even aspire to become supervisors or diploma holders with specialisation in textiles.

"The idea came to me after reading about Chinese factories with their vast hostels, and in particular when one company tried experimenting by allowing their labour force to live in adjacent villages," Srihari Balakrishnan, managing director of KG Fabriks says.

"The idea is to treat your labour force better, give them a more open environment to work and learn. We don't want to be running jail-like hostels where people feel restricted," he adds.

“We want to use the existing social infrastructure such as village schools, library and the village temple to the betterment of the village and also for the labour force. Five such villages have been resettled by Kannapiran Mills and 250 such families have been resettled,” he adds.

The mandate to their human resources team is to settle all their labour force in neighbouring villages and give them the resources to thrive.

And then there will be no more 'hostels'.

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