So I’m not quite sure how to write this since I have mixed emotions about what I saw, the people involved, and my own nationalism. But I think I’ll start by saying that the people I met were very nice and seem to be good intentioned.
Yesterday I took a tour of a t-shirt factory in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, India. The “Esstee” Company.” And it is with the owner and CEO and the Managing Director‘s full permission that I write this and share the photos. Initially I sought to get all of my questions answered about process, costs and working conditions (and I did). Secondly, I reflected on this enterprise and how it related to me as a (albeit transplant) North Carolinian.
First, this company (and many other from what I can gather) are very responsible towards employees, process, and quality. It seems that their clients expect them to be. Companies like Wal-Mart cannot buy from the company I visit because they expect lower prices (higher margins) and so they head to less regulated places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and China where wages and working conditions are lower. Esstee has the full spectrum of certifications (if I were a real reporter, I would have written down each). Sufficed to say, they keep worker health and happiness, environmentalism and international trade safety first (with certifications in eco-friendliness, worker satisfaction, and the new C-TPAT: Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which means that they have given extensive background checks on their packagers certifying that the goods they ship won’t contain bombs, etc, meaning that their goods go much faster through US customs than other products (I couldn’t find a list of all members to show you…maybe you can at the website). That is pretty refreshing. I expected to see something fairly ugly (unhealthy conditions, child labor, etc.). Guess I’m showing my prejudice….but that doesn’t mean it’s not in India, just that I didn’t see it.
Secondly, it is through knowing a great friend of mine now that I’ve been able to reflect a bit on our nation’s textile history, especially in North Carolina. I’ll start by saying that Tirupur is chock-a-block full of rich people: BMW’s and Mercedes rolling down the dusty streets, gold (and I’ve learned about the value of gold here) all over the women who run these companies with their husbands, and schools built to teach the next generation how to manage these companies when the parents retire. iPhones, big houses, it’s all in Tirupur and it’s all built on the textile industry, specifically cotton t-shirts here (apparently other towns near Bangalore are the jeans and button down capitols of india). And it has helped me see where North Carolina jobs, like that of the father of my friend, have gone. As I learned about the place, I couldn’t help but see a connection to American Industrialists of 100+ years ago (including their wealth…wealth built on cheap labor).
Before I give you the tour, I do want to reiterate that everything I saw was what I would deem (not an expert) on the up-and-up. Workers make near 200 rupees per day ($4.25) for an 8 hour shift with three breaks (6 days per week), which is enough to live on (a pound of tomatoes cost me 13 rupees the other day). Enjoy the tour!
Pictured above: the showroom where buyers can see what is possible. As a “white” person eating in the town restaurants, I was told that everyone would think that I was a buyer from America or Europe. I didn’t feel too different though. Many come through here, given the first class treatment, as they select their goods to be made and shipped to market. At Eestee, 95% of their shirts (minimum 2,500 t-shirts at $3 per shirt) go to Europe (France, Italy, Belgium, Spain).
Pictured above: Companies find it profitable to make their own fabric from cotton thread. This machine cranks out many meters of fabric per minute. Outsourcing this is also bit and where I live (30km away), the day and night air is filled with “mom and pop” factories (10 machines in a 60ft by 60ft room) producing fabric for the t-shirt companies). Click-click-click all day and night.
Pictured above: Fabric back from the dyeing plant is waiting to be made into t-shirts.
Pictured above: Quality control is huge. Here you see two rejected samples that have been sewn to white swatches and run through a washer and drier many times. The bleeding seen is written as “NOT OK” for the red strip. They have a whole room dedicated to checking the quality of the dyed fabrics.
Pictured above: This machine is for matching colors when making shirts from different rolls of fabric that are supposed to be the same color. Different types of light (UV, sun, etc.) are put on the fabric to see if the human eye can tell a difference.
Pictured above: Hard to make out, but this software helps to plan how to cut the sheets of fabric to maximize waste of cloth while maximizing output. I learned that 80% of use is good for a sheet of fabric. 60 and 70% hurts the profit margins too much.
Pictured above: Stain removal. Steam is used to take out any small stains left by the handling that goes on in producing a t-shirt. This one has a zipper that has been dirtied and is being cleaned instead of discarded.
Pictured above: A screen that delivers a print that says, “SPORTS” is on the automatic press and will add a green layer to the fabric.
Pictured above: At the end of the day, my host Padma (an English teacher at my school), her husband and family friend actually treated me like a buyer and we had a delicious dinner at a five-star hotel. It was a great day, and I learned a lot!