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A silent revolution at Sowripalayam
R Binki Kumari and her friends hail from a remote village in Jharkhand. They are educated up to Class X, but had little opportunity for gainful employment in their state. The tradition–bound, male-dominated rural India is replete with instances of early marriage, early child-bearing and little freedom for women. See how Coimbatore attracted these and changed their lives for the better!

Lack of economic development in several states in northern and eastern India hardly provides them with opportunities for employment.

Binki Kumari and her friends heard of the prospect for employment in distant Coimbatore. The rich concentration of textile mills, hosiery units, processing and finishing industries offered vast scope for the employment of women. Binki Kumari and her friends accessed the K G group of companies (these include Sri Kannapiran Mills, K G Denim, K G Fabriks) through friends and NGOs and got recruited.

In a chat with these, I was fascinated to hear of a spectacular social change that has been silently taking place. The NIT-Tiruchi and Cornell educated Srihari Balakrishnan, President, K G Fabriks, explained: “traditionally Coimbatore has been known for its textile mills that account for a large share of yarn, cloth and garments produced in the country. In the last couple of decades, there has been an impressive growth of the knitwear sector and, in more recent times, of the processing sector. These need, large labour force. Women are ideally suited for many of the jobs. In its evolution, there has been an increasing number of local women getting employed in the textile industry; but with better education and higher employment opportunities. There is a severe shortage of these from the district and the state. Today, we bring labour from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.  We employ in our mills over 4000 workers. Of these 40 per cent are women. Almost 100 per cent of these are from outside, mostly from the North.”

Srihari pointed to women in large numbers in the North finding shelter in social organisations due to unhealthy familial environments (eg: dowry harassment and drunken husbands). Such women finding relief and livelihood opportunities, migrate to South.

An estimate puts around 8000 of these now working in the Coimbatore-Tirupur-Erode belt. Srihari’s companies have set up training centres in Odisha and Madhya Pradesh and get the recruits trained. They also sound local NGOs for such recruitment.

“Is language not an issue?” I ask. Srihari explained that his forefathers migrated from Andhra Pradesh a couple of centuries ago and got assimilated with the locals! “In the induction and training programmes we employ trainers proficient in Hindi and other languages. In 30 to 60 days we have been able to position the recruits in production jobs,” said Srihari.

 

Employees get full value for work...

The companies have placed sound systems to ensure high comfort levels for these migrants. Srihari outlined different schemes designed to ensure the employees getting the full value for their work:

•    Provident Fund, ESI and Aadhar cards are provided for all.

•    Salary directly credited to the employee’s bank account.

•    No intermediaries for recruitment.

•    Medical insurance cover to all employees in addition to ESI.  

 

An integration of various linguistic groups!

Equally interesting are the steps taken to settle these employees safely and comfortably. Construction of large number of hostels is expensive and is not also suitable where employees prefer to live in houses of their own. Srihari found TN villages becoming empty: with education and marriage, youth in villages migrate to cities; only the very old stay in villages. Thus lots of houses are available: “we have a resettlement scheme; we help our employees get houses on rent in nearby villages. We pay the rentals directly,” said Srihari. He provided the instance of Periyaveettupalayam village where the

company has settled around 200. The company also helps get workers’ children admission in the school  nearby. Some prefer to send their wards to government schools teaching in Tamil medium. What an assimilation of cultures!

“Was there not resistance for large scale settlements of North Indians in tradition-bound villages?” I ask. Srihari explained that the little resistance experienced in the early stages vanished quickly.

Women employment in factories is not much prevalent in northern states. G Gurunathan, Group Head (HR) of

K G Fabriks, explained the pioneering social innovation of employing women in mills,  made by K G Balakrishnan, father of Srihari and Chairman of the K G Group of Mills three decades ago. His mills at Annur trained women to work on automated spinning machines also.

Taking care of overall hygiene- Smart HR

The companies don’t stop with providing employment and resettlement. Srihari explained the concept of Smart HR that takes care of the overall hygiene and cleanliness of the employees. The company logs daily the several chores of workers; these include brushing teeth, bathing, dressing well, sleeping full eight hours and also details such as overtime work done and wages credited for such work.

To ensure total compliance, the company has entrusted the task of checking the data logged by HR specialists to a NGO. Srihari explained: “the NGO team sits with our employees without any company representative present, and asks about any grievances they have. eg: is there any sexual harassment or misbehaviour by supervisors?  Are the restrooms clean? Are payments for overtime made correctly and on time? The NGO reports to our HRD.”

The workers are happy and contented and also act as ‘working agents.’ Most of them today bring in new recruits from their villages and they are incentivised: they get an additional Rs. 10 per day for a new recruit. The women have thus become multilevel marketers!

 

No free lunch! no free transport!

Srihari referred to two other practices that are different: no free lunch, no free transport! These practices are common in Chennai metro and elsewhere forcing corporates to handle more of non-core activities: “employees come on their own. We offer finance to buy vehicles. Food is brought by the employees,” he said.

KG group started with a modern spinning unit in 1982 and earned a reputation for quality cotton and synthetic yarn. The denim plant was set up in 1988 and is south India’s first and only unit producing denims. K G Fabriks, set up in 2006, has emerged a leader in a vast range of fine, finished fabrics.

In 2009, the company took charge of managing the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) at Paramakudi. There has been a remarkable change ever since. Earlier more than a third of the trainees at the ITI regularly failed to complete the course. Today the pass rate is over 85 per cent.  Spinning technology course attracts good numbers. The ITI also runs a driving school and also imparts soft skills. Demand has increased and placement is 100 per cent. Srihari said that the demand from big automobile companies is so large, his own companies are not able to recruit from the ITI!

The founder of the group, K Govindaswamy Naidu, started with the cotton and spinning business. The family business expanded manifold into textiles, healthcare, education and information technology to a value of around Rs 6500 crore and is in the vanguard of engineering a social change.

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