Many moons back, Saranya was a Computer Science teacher in a private school in Tiruppur. Her children were toddlers and she recalls her usual workdays which began at eight in the morning. She says that she used to be quite worn out by the end of the day and the meagre salary she earned did not make things better. That was when she took a call to quit her teaching job and join a textile factory nearby. Saranya’s work hours remain similar, but she says that it is less laborious and pays better. “The work hours are flexible and I feel the work is something that makes me happier,” she says.

About 300 kms away from Saranya, in Tirunelveli’s Gangaikondan, lives Rageena. Rageena is 33 and has been working as a machine operator in Bosch India since 2015. “At that time, I had two young children and to run a family, we needed more income. That’s how I joined the plant. Though my family was initially hesitant to let me work, they were convinced once they saw a huge cohort of women on the shop floor,” she recalls, saying how that was one of the best decisions she made, which significantly improved her family’s financial condition. In the shopfloor where she works, 80 per cent of the workforce is female.

Saranya and Rageena form a minuscule proportion of Tamil Nadu’s 6.26 lakh-strong women factory workforce. The Central Government’s Annual Survey of Industries 2021-22, released a month back shows that 42 per cent of the country’s total women factory workforce was employed in Tamil Nadu. Karnataka secured the second position, albeit with a considerable gap, hosting 14 per cent of female workers in factories.

In Tamil Nadu, 37.5 per cent of the total factory workforce is female. businessline also accessed the archived data from the last two decades, analysed by Jaganth, a former policy consultant with the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission, which shows that more than 35 per cent of the country’s factory workforce came from the State every financial year since 2000-2001.

Policy changes, safety

“In terms of providing a conducive policy environment, Tamil Nadu was the first state in India to introduce the third shift for women in the manufacturing sector. Many other Indian States followed suit. We executed third shift for women with utmost care for safety, where women will be picked from and dropped back to their residences. This pioneering move by the Tamil Nadu government helped in opening up the avenue for women to participate in manufacturing activities and we can expect to see women’s participation go up in the coming years,” said Anil Kumar MR, President and MD, SEG Automative India. He added that the company’s plant in Hosur has more than 70 per cent women workforce.

“Our (Tamil Nadu’s) emphasis on education and skill development, particularly among women, has been instrumental. By ensuring access to quality education and vocational training, especially for rural women, we’ve enabled women to excel in various manufacturing roles traditionally dominated by men,” TRB Rajaa, Minister for Industries, Investment Promotion and Commerce, Government of Tamil Nadu, told businessline. The Minister also said the State has been proactive in ensuring safe and conducive work environments for women. The latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that the State has one of the lowest crime rates against women.

In the bustling industrial landscape of Tiruppur, where Krishnan operates, the substantial presence of female workers in the factory workforce may not strike him as particularly surprising. It has been nearly a decade since he took over his family-owned elastic manufacturing unit. He spent the whole of his three decades of existence in central Tamil Nadu city and says throughout growing up, he has always seen many women working in the unit.

“Currently, around half of our blue-collar workforce comprises of women,” he says, adding, “This is the case in the neighbouring factories too.” However, Krishnan, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity admits that the women workforce are paid less than men. He says that is a norm followed throughout the sector. Saranya agrees to this, but she seems to have made peace with that fact. “They do get paid more than us for sure. But many times, I have observed that my male colleagues pick up extra shifts. Unfortunately, this is something that most women cannot afford to do,” she says.