April 13, 2024

Tamil Nadu accounts for over 40% of the entire women workforce in India’s manufacturing sector. It is evident not only from multiple field surveys but also from the shop floors of industries in the State. According to the Annual Survey of Industries in 2019-20, released by the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, of the 15.8 lakh women working in industries in India, 6.79 lakh or 43% are in Tamil Nadu. The State’s rate of women workforce participation is higher than the national average.

The annual report of the Periodic Labour Force Survey for July 2022-June 2023, released by the National Sample Survey Office, showed that the rate of women workforce (aged 15-59), in both urban and rural areas, was 43.9% as against the national average of 39.8%.

With the traditional leather, textile, and automobile sectors and the emerging sectors such as electric vehicles, solar cell manufacturing, electronics, and footwear hiring women, the State’s share is likely to increase further, experts say.

“The reason for the high women workforce in Tamil Nadu is that girls are bold and courageous, and families are supportive so that they can go to work,” says Lakshmi Umapathy, Factory Manager, Caterpillar India Private Limited, Tiruvallur. Before Caterpillar, Ms. Umapathy had worked on the shop floors of Cummins India in Madhya Pradesh, Schneider Electric in Chennai, Kurlon in Bengaluru, and Kirloskar Brothers’s all- women factory in Coimbatore.

“When I started out as a shop floor engineer in 1994, there were no, or even enough, restrooms. But now, there are policies and government initiatives to make sure that companies and even shops and establishments have adequate safety measures for women workers,” she points out.

Trendsetter

One of the early trendsetters in hiring women for the shop floors was Titan Company Limited, a venture that the Tamil Nadu government and the Tata Group established before liberalisation. “In the late 1980s, integrating women into the workforce was a Herculean task. Cultural barriers, early marriages, and safety concerns acted as deterrents,” recalls S. Deenadayalan, former Head of Human Resources, Titan Watches.

Undeterred, Titan connected with school headmasters and parents. It offered the workers comprehensive training that encompassed essential life skills such as menstrual hygiene and personal safety. For its workers, the company started transit houses with foster mothers. It also helped them build houses under the Titan Housing Scheme and buy four-wheelers. The children of many workers are highly educated and employed in India and abroad. In fine, it was not merely about employment but about empowerment, an approach that ensured their safety and fostered their holistic growth, Mr. Deenadayalan adds.

There are 3,000 women working at Ola’s Future Factory. The majority of them have engineering diplomas and science degrees. They are straight out of college, their age averaging out at 22-24, says Anshul Khandelwal, Chief Marketing Officer, Ola. The representation of women has been negligible in manufacturing, especially in automobile. “When we set up Ola’s Future Factory, we made a deliberate decision to bring about this change because we felt that women are not only more productive but are also capable of producing better quality of work in terms of dexterity, flexibility, and learning agility,” he adds.

Studies show that India’s GDP can grow significantly with parity between men and women in the workforce. At Ola’s Future Factory, women work in production (weld shop, paint shop, battery assembly, and general assembly) as well as in production support, Mr. Khandelwal explains. He adds that Ola’s cell manufacturing unit, which would start production early next year, will also be an all-women factory and more women would be hired when the company ramps up its scooter production capacity.

Competitive wages

“We pay industry-competitive wages to our women workers, and our pay scales do not vary on the basis of gender. We also have some well-formulated policies for our women workers, which include free transport, an internal complaints committee, maternity leave in compliance with the ESI Act/the Maternity Benefit Act, and regular medical checks at our occupational health centre,” Mr. Khandelwal adds.

Ashok Leyland, the flagship company of the Hinduja Group, has its first all-women production line at its Hosur facility. It has a dedicated team of 80 skilled women that assembles engines at the P15 Engine Module (Assembly and Testing) for the light commercial vehicles, including the renowned Dost and Bada Dost. This production line has a capacity of 62,000 engines a year. This unit has been established to address the growing demand for light commercial vehicles, says Raja Radhakrishnan, president and head, human resources, Ashok Leyland.

Bosch India has two functional manufacturing facilities in Tamil Nadu: one at Oragadam (Chennai) with 100% women workers and the other at Gangaikondan, with 80% women workers on the shop floor.

At the Gangaikondan plant, which makes automotive products for four-wheelers and two-wheelers, the women shop floor workers form the backbone of the manufacture of Gasoline Systems and Powertrain Solutions. At the Oragadam plant, they make products for Bosch’s Power Tools division. The women workers are doing supervisory as well as operator roles at these plants, contributing to production, quality control, and supply chain management.

Tata Electronics, Tata Power, Ather, Bharat New-energy Company, Greaves Electric Mobility, and i-Phone contract manufacturers Foxconn and Pegatron have also been hiring women.

Going up the ladder

Anitha L. joined Titan’s Hosur factory in 1987. “I am a bold woman. My father was a farmer. After completing Class X in 1986, I registered myself at an employment exchange. Then Titan happened. Ever since I started my career with the watches division at Titan, there has been no looking back. My starting salary was ₹240 a month, and it has now gone up to over ₹1 lakh, including bonus,” she says.

“I later completed my MA to move up the ladder in the company. Titan is everything for me. Besides the family support, the good training and facilities provided by the company have helped my journey in manufacturing,” says Ms. Anitha, who is now a senior skilled technician. Her request to the government is to improve roads in Hosur as she commutes to work on a two-wheeler.

L. Chitra, 33, who works at BNC Motors Pvt. Ltd. in Coimbatore, is the first woman from her family to step out and work. “I’m a technician at the vehicle production unit and I have been working here for the last three years. There are 19 women in my team and we assemble the vehicle and take it down from the conveyor. The entire process is done by us. I am proud that I am contributing to the making of an electric vehicle,” she says. “I did my Bachelor’s in Commerce. After I joined the company, I was given formal training. And today, I drive my own vehicle,” she says.

Saraswathi (name changed), who works on a shop floor, says skill upgrade is something that the government should insist on. Women want the companies to help them with distance education or weekend classes to ensure that they have formal education. Many of them also note that hostels where they stay should be constantly monitored and should have spacious rooms.

Key drivers

What makes Chennai and other cities of Tamil Nadu a hub for women’s employment is their ability to provide a support framework: well-networked urban infrastructure, safe transport, good education facilities and crèches/child care support, safe accommodation, and access to health care, says Saundarya Rajesh, founder–president, Avtar Group.

The State government has taken several measures to narrow the gender gap. They include residential schooling for the poor girl children, protection of girl children, financial assistance to families with multiple girl children, and monthly assistance to girls pursuing higher education. Hostels have been developed, with modern amenities, across Tamil Nadu to provide working women with safe and affordable living spaces, she adds.

Vishnu Venugopal, Managing Director and CEO of Guidance, the nodal agency for investments in the State, cites the availability of skilled women workforce, especially in rural areas, along with strong work ethics and commitment as the key reason. He further adds that as the State is moving up the value chain, women are getting bigger roles at factories.

Tamil Nadu, a predominantly manufacturing State, provides more opportunities to women and there is a consistent increase in women workers from villages since the factories are set up near villages, says Madhri Guruswamy, advocate, Madras High Court. “We advised a French company on the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and found that the company encouraged women to do welding and soldering in manufacturing. This used to be a man’s job. Since this work requires more precision, the company gave specialised training to women in the villages,” she adds.

“Tamil Nadu stands testament to the power of women in the workforce. The State boasts a Gross Enrolment Ratio in which women outnumber men, proving that involving women in operational roles is not the challenge that it once seemed,” says Mr. Deenadayalan, who now works as chairperson, CEO Skill Academy, Bengaluru. The success stories of women workers of Titan in the 1980s and those of the Ola Electric have debunked the myth that women’s participation in the workforce dwindles, he adds.

In March this year, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin highlighted measures like the free bus travel scheme for women, an increase in paid maternity leave from 9 months to 12 months, and the financial assistance of ₹1,000 per month to girl students who have enrolled in higher education after studying in government schools from Classes VI to XII. He also said the State’s new policy for women would be finalised and released soon. Under it, coaching will be provided to women to prepare for competitive exams. It will also ensure the safety of women and deal with the other aspects of empowerment.

Scope for improvement

One of the challenges is acceptance of women as a leader or a manager. Some industries are empowering women, but a lot more needs to be done in equal treatment of women, Ms. Umapathy says.

To further bolster the role of women in the industry, collaborative efforts are imperative between industrial clusters and local educational institutions. These partnerships can provide women with internship and part-time work to help them gain work experience, support their education, and curtail migration, Mr. Deenadayalan says.

Under the 2013 Act, every employer needs to establish an internal committee in the company. Every State has to notify a district officer who shall set up a local committee, which will handle complaints of sexual harassment, if there are less than 10 employees or the complaint is against the employer. Whether or not local committees have been established in all districts is an issue, Ms. Guruswamy says.

While there is constitutional protection against discrimination based on gender, there is difficulty in implementing the provision against a private employer. Even though India is a signatory to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, there is no protection for women against discrimination at workplace. In countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, sex discrimination is treated as sexual harassment. But there is no such law in India, she adds.

The laws protecting women are sometimes seen as a deterrent to employing women. While most of the companies want to adhere to the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is still a long road ahead, Ms. Guruswamy says.

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