Kerala, popularly known as God’s own country, accounts for 61% of total coconut production and 85% of total coir products. Coir has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the state of Kerala, centuries ago. Today, it is spread over the coastal belt of India. It is interesting to note that on an average, thousands of women in Alappuzha district of Kerala carry heaps of coconut husk, feeding it into machines that turn it into a useful thread on a daily basis. The coir industry in India is controlled by the coir board under the Government of India. The Indian industry as a whole annually produces about 280,000 metric tonnes of coir fibre. 

In the coir industry of Kerala, the majority of workers are female. The rise of industries is relatively recent in history, and women joining the workforce is even more recent.

Women began working in factories for four main reasons. First, it helped the family make more money and boosted women’s status. Second, women are good at certain  jobs, like those in the coir industry, that require skill and precision. Third, working in factories allows women to be with their husbands and brothers. Lastly, many women want to be economically independent. However, the women working in the coir industry are facing many issues recently.

Challenges faced by women in coir industry

Wage disparity and delayed payments

Like any other industry, wage disparity in the coir industry is one of the most glaring aspects. Women in the coir industry often receive meagre wages for their hard work, which involves husking, scraping, spinning, and weaving of coir fibres. In factories run by machines, the machinery operations are done only by men. This is clear evidence of stereotyping jobs based on gender. Women are not allowed to operate machinery or engage in arduous jobs. This in turn results in women being paid less compared to men in most industries. Above all, the coir societies of the state are not submitting their reports on time, which in turn is causing delayed payments to the women workers working in these societies. Hajira (name changed) articulated that the majority of women are forced to shift to other work, like MGNREGA programmes, due to delayed payments. 

Health and Welfare

Because the state’s coir factories lack creche facilities, pregnant mothers who work there bring their babies with them, where they are put to bed in unsanitary working conditions. Despite the fact that Section 11A of the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act of 2017 mandates that each facility with 50 or more employees should include a creche; the majority of factories violate this legal obligation. Given the societal obligations associated with gender that are placed on women generally, it is detrimental to break the law requiring creche or childcare facilities. It is particularly challenging for female workers from nuclear families to work without these essentials. Above all, many factories do not follow the provisions of the Act, arguing that they have fewer than 50 regular employees.

Limited ownership

Women are underrepresented in positions of ownership and management in cooperatives, labour unions, and enterprises connected to the coir industry. As ownership and management roles frequently entail decision-making authority, resource control, and a more prominent role in determining the future of the industry, this is a serious issue. Limited ownership frequently corresponds to a limited ability to make decisions. Because of this, it’s possible that women’s opinions and concerns aren’t given enough weight when it comes to making decisions.

Many women in the industry want to start their own businesses, but they are severely limited in their ability because of a lack of resources and ownership opportunities. It is also noteworthy that, despite the fact that most of the workers in the state are female, male presidents oversee 99% of the state’s coir society. 

Way forward

It is the duty of both government and industrial concerns to provide a prescribed minimum of welfare projects to their women workers. Maternity clinics, creches and an adequate number of leisure hours are absolutely necessary. To begin with, one creche facility shared by women members working in three or more coir factories or societies can be initiated. The state should see that the amenities that are required by law are enforced. The state can provide tax incentives to encourage the factory owners to follow the provisions.

The significance that trade unions play in furthering the cause of women workers is evident. In India, trade unions have sadly fallen behind when it comes to the proportion of women in their leadership roles. Therefore, in order for women to properly articulate their claims, it is best for them to obtain a sufficient number of members and fair representation in the trade unions.

To enhance a worker’s efficiency and overall value, providing opportunities for vocational training and skill development is crucial. Similarly, if a woman displays proficiency, such as operating a machine, she should be given the opportunity to enhance her skills, just like her male counterpart. 
Women empowerment being one of the objectives of the labour reforms put forth by the central government in the form of four new labour codes, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020, which provides the right to women workers to work in all types of establishments, including factories, is a light on the horizon. In conclusion, by implementing policies aimed at equalising pay, ensuring healthier workplaces, and providing education and training opportunities and empowering women to take on leadership roles, Kerala’s coir industry can not only uplift the status of its female workforce but also bolster its own growth and sustainability. The government, industry stakeholders, and the broader community can play crucial roles in making these changes a reality.

The author is a youth leadership fellow at CPPR

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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