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From the Factory Floor: Inside India’s Anugraha Fashion Mill

From the Factory Floor is a new series offering firsthand visits to manufacturers across Asia as they deal with the fallout from the coronavirus.

Post pandemic, factories in Asia—which account for more than 60 percent of global apparel manufacturing—have been changing focus, rebooting and restrategizing.

India’s Anugraha Fashion Mill Private Limited resides in the Tirupur hub, which accounts for more than one-quarter of all garment exports from the country. The figures from April to December for all of India’s knitwear exports are estimated to be 316.98 billion rupees ($433 million).

Tirupur, a city in the Southern state of Tamil Nadu, had exports over the same period of 161.66 billion rupees ($221 million), accounting for more than half of all knitwear exports from the country.

Anugraha, a fiber-to-fashion enterprise, is vertically integrated and spread over four locations. With spinning, knitting, processing and garmenting divisions, the factory exports primarily to European countries like France, the Netherlands and Spain.

With more than 2,800 employees, the company has been in business for almost 30 years, with steady growth of 10 to 12 percent annually before the pandemic.

“In business, after some time, growth is not a choice. You have to grow or perish—there is nothing in between,” Manoj Mohan, who has been general manager of Anugraha Fashion for the last 10 years, told Sourcing Journal.

One of the key post-pandemic shifts at the manufacturer has been the careful positioning of machines, the streamlining of labor activities and the staggering of lunch timings, Mohan said during a tour through the factory to discuss the impact of the changing times.

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“Where we could position 20 machines, we had to distance them so that there are only 10. Where there was a distance of two to three feet between workers now it has to be six feet, where we had lunch break in two slots, now it is in three or four slots. We also have to separate workers who live in the town—we call them day scholars—and those who are migrant workers who live in dormitories as they have different levels of susceptibilities and to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread. Working areas have to be assigned differently in accordance with this.”

While that is a familiar story in factories across the world, the difference here is also in terms of handling migrant laborers, who are the cornerstone of the factory, as is the case at many of the manufacturers in Tirupur, with a seasonal and migrant workforce from all across India.

Many of these migrant workers come from the states of Orissa and Jharkhand in Eastern India. While they are recruited from skill centers, they need training in the factory protocols, adding on an extra element of management and training, in itself a scarcity in these times. Mohan, who has the unusual background of having worked on the production floor himself for more than five years before working his way up to his present position, understands that this changing arrangement has been crucial in times of crisis.

He ensured special buses were engaged to bring labor back long distances to the factories as a lot of migrant workers had returned home during lockdown and trains were not arriving in Tirupur.

“A lot of labor had to be brought in on flights,” said Mohan, “and that has really added to the costs. It is also something that cannot easily be retracted—once they get used to this kind of transport, the ease of movement and comfort cannot be changed.”

In addition, there is a big gap between demand and supply, with the need for skilled workers outstripping the supply, since “people are faced with so much confusion and fear,” he said.

“One of the problems has been the spreading of messages on WhatsApp, which created a lot of unrest in the minds of people. Labor were kept idle for about 45 days during the pandemic lockdown period. ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’ You cannot expect any positive energy from that,” he said.

Some of these difficulties have been attributed to the huge migration of labor when India went into sudden lockdown in March, and migrant workers were determined to return to their home villages, with some traveling hundreds of miles with little or no modes of transport.

Many did not return as the pandemic, and the fluid and fast changing rules by both the state and central government, created uncertainty about the legality of opening production centers.

At Anugraha, plans to double the capacity and continue to add new technology have been put on hold.

While the factory showed an emphasis on technology—in terms of investments in new machinery and automation over the past years—Mohan said that the key focus these past months has been on managing to fulfill orders while keeping vigilant about masks, sanitization and hygiene. This effort runs in concert with the uphill battle of spinning, knitting, processing, checking and packing with a reduced workforce and an unpredictable flow of orders over the past 10 months.