With 1,5 million inhabitants the city of Coimbatore in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu ranks as ‘midsized’ and its airport, which has just one landing strip, isn’t exactly an international hub. But while you are waiting for your bags at the luggage carousel in an arrival building that seems to have its temperature settings fixed on ‘permafrost’ you may notice an unusual number of Westerners: Men in business suits and women in pant suits or tailored skirts and (moderate) heels. They are likely to have an attaché case next to them and are probably trawling through their emails and text messages. As they are leaving the building they will scan the crowd for someone holding a sign with their name. A company driver with an air-conditioned car will take them to one of the hundreds of smaller or larger companies scattered around Coimbatore or a bit further east to Tiruppur, India’s cotton-knit capital. Indian farmers don’t just produce a lot of cotton, they are the world’s leading organic cotton producers and most of their output is processed in India, too. Ninety percent of what’s spun into yarn in Tiruppur, what’s knitted into fabric on huge machines and then sown into T-shirts, underwear, bed sheets, children’s clothes, polo shirts, yoga pants, bags and sweatshirts will be exported.
It’s hard to keep a sense of direction in the maze of trunk roads, high ways and bypasses. The factories lie hidden behind long walls or are situated in new industrial parks. The access roads may still be under construction but production is already up and running.
FAIR ZONE underwear, the small organic cotton bags for the FAIR SQUARED Period Cups and the washable make-up removal pads are manufactured in Tiruppur, too. Reacher is one of the small firms, founded by two longstanding friends who, in 2009, decided to make the dream of owning their own company happen. The offices are located in a well-kept, friendly building in the centre of Tiruppur and there is also room for a workshop where the samples are made. Twelve cutters and stitchers work with an experienced master tailor: customers send patterns and specifications, often by email. To transform those into a perfectly stitched sample with seams, button tabs, borders and fastenings in the correct places is an art.
The production has been moved into a new, palm fringed, airy, and light building at the outskirt of Tiruppur. The lower level is reserved for storage, bales of fabric are stacked in neat and clearly labelled piles separated into conventional cotton, organic cotton, Fairtrade organic cotton and conventional Fairtrade cotton. Auditors are strict, if it says ‘Fairtrade organic cotton’ on a label, as those on FAIR SQUARED products do, there needs to be proof that this information is, indeed, correct. That’s why the separation has to be maintained from the cotton field until the product reaches the customer.
There are 30 full time employees at the factory, 20 more work about 80 % of the time, an arrangement that suits most of them well as it leaves them enough time for their children, household chores and family visits. Everyone has national insurance and can take part in the ‘eye camps’ organised and paid for by Reacher on a regular basis: operating sewing machines strains the workers’ eyes and it is important to regularly check vision and eye health.
Reacher pays about 5–7% above average wages. Qualified workers are sought after and easily find another job if they are not happy with their employer. Everywhere in town one can see flyers stuck to walls and fences – most of them are job adverts by textile companies. Reacher pays what is known as a ‘living wage’: a worker will be able do live of what he or she is earning. Of course it would be great if every worker were to earn enough to feed a family of four or five. But to achieve that, customers in Europe, the US, Japan and Australia would have to pay a lot more for cotton products. Nevertheless, working conditions at Reacher are good. Many companies employ migrants, young men and women who come from particularly poor parts of India. They live in dormitories, often thousands of kilometres away from their families in northern and eastern India to whom they will send the better parts of their earnings. Most of them do not speak Tamil and have a hard time communicating with local people. Climate, customs and food, too, are very different – moving from the north to the south needs some getting used to… With young women it’s often the parents who have to sign the work contract and they will only do so if the employer guarantees that their daughters will have no opportunity to meet young men. That’s why the companies often confiscate the young women’s phones, they only receive them back to speak to their families once a week and under supervision.
The young migrants often save their parents and siblings from abject poverty and sometimes even starvation, but a company like Reacher shows, that there are other ways of running a business: all their employees come from within a 400 km radius around Tiruppur. From the top floor of the factory one can see the simple, two-room houses in which many of the families now live. Large parts of Tamil Nadu are very dry and hot. A few feudal landlords own most of the agricultural land; many farmers are landless peasants who have to seek work as day labourers. The cotton industry in Tiruppur has brought about change. Young men and women, young couples, and often whole families move to the city and mostly find work immediately. Some construction companies have specialised in building small, affordable houses which families can rent with the goal of buying them later. With two incomes, buying a small house is a realistic goal – in particular if one can walk to work at Reacher’s in the morning.