Every year, hundreds of young girls from low-income families seek employment in the women-dominated spinning industry in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district. Most of the girls are either school dropouts or have finished school but do not have the resources for higher education.

This was the case with T Dhanalakhsmi, whose parents are daily wagers. She started working in a yarn-making unit in 2014. Today, she sends almost her entire salary of ₹10,000 every month to her parents back home in Amachiyapuram. She is studying for BA Tamil through distance education, has gained a working knowledge of computers and is also getting skilled in tailoring and catering.

Dhanalakhsmi has managed this, thanks to the ‘learn while you earn’ policy to empower women, pursued by the Sree Meenakshi Mill run by GHCL Ltd at Paravai in Samayanallur town panchayat of the district. She is among over 350 women staying in the hostel provided by the mill. Here, besides boarding, they get toiletries free of charge along with 24-hour medical facility and proper security. That is why some of them are able to send almost their entire earnings to their parents.

This is the advantage of working at Sree Meenakshi, say Dhanalakshmi and the other girls as they are encouraged to pursue their studies after their shift. They are also provided vocational training in over half a dozen disciplines. Nearly 1,600 girls have benefited in terms of acquiring new skills and continuing their education in the last three years. To gain exposure, the girls working in the mill are sent for Quality Circle competitions in India and abroad and a few have also won gold medals at international events.

Once a girl joins the mill, she is provided up to one month of training in cleaning or carding to enable her to work in different units of the yarn division.

Out of the 1,300 employees at the mill, 900 are women, with most drawn from 40 villages around the town panchayat.

Women who cannot stay in the hostel are picked up from their homes and dropped back. This facility is provided for those living within a 40-45 km radius from the mill. Anandi is a case in point. She is from Salachipuram village 24 km away and joined the mill seven years ago after completing Class XII. She has been able to complete her graduation. “My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college so I began working here,” says Anandi, who is now looking forward to her marriage in July. “I have saved enough for my marriage, even bought gold jewellery worth ₹6 lakh and have been able to graduate.”

Win-win proposition

The ‘learn while you earn’ scheme is a win-win for both employer and employee. M Sivabalasubramanian, CEO of GHCL’s yarn division, admits that the company benefits from the services of the girls working with them, but he says that in return their endeavour is to make them financially independent once they stop working at the mill. Hence, certificate courses under the All India Council for Technical Education are offered in vocations like computer programming, mushroom cultivation, soap making, catering, beauty, yoga and tailoring.

While 16 girls were able to complete their school education after joining the mill, 58 became graduates through distance education during 2017-2019. The management pays 75 per cent of the fee and the rest is borne by the girls. “The idea is to ensure that they are able to start their own work or able to take up a job on the basis of the training we provide so that they are not financially dependent on any one once they leave this job,” says the CEO.

Take the case of Divyabharathi who joined the mill five years ago. She is hopeful she will land a good job in Chennai where she will be relocating this year after getting married. She has learned computers while working at the mill. For now, she sends ₹15.000 a month to her parents in Viraganur. Through this she has helped with the marriage of her two sisters, one older and the other younger, and has the responsibility of paying for the education of her college-going brother. A confident Divyabharathi is determined to help her parents, who work as daily wagers, even after her marriage.

J Pandiselvi has a different dream. From Sathiyamurtinagar, she started working at the mill seven years ago after she dropped out of school in Class VIII. Married, with two sons, she hopes to provide her children proper education. “I wanted to continue my education but could not do so. Now, I want to ensure quality education for my sons and save money to build my own house.” Her husband is employed in the milk industry.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi