By Vandana Menon

With an educated & skilled workforce, Tamil Nadu has a burgeoning industrial sector which has scored massive investments in automobiles, electronics, and even footwear.

It should come as no surprise that Tamil Nadu, India’s most industrialised state, employs a large number of people on the factory floor. But what is staggering is that Tamil Nadu’s industries not only employ a large female workforce, but nearly half of all the women working in factories across India.
Data from the 2021-22 Annual Survey of Industries revealed that of the 14.9 lakh registered women workers across India, 6.3 lakh — or 42 percent — were working in factories in Tamil Nadu. Nearly 70 percent of all women working in industries are employed in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala.
Tamil Nadu has emerged as a manufacturing hub over the last three decades, and offers the social infrastructure required for companies to enter and set up factories. With an educated and skilled workforce, the state has a burgeoning industrial sector which has scored massive investments in automobiles, electronics, and even footwear in recent years.
Products like the latest iPhones and Nikes are now being manufactured in Tamil Nadu.
And as more and more global players look to pivot to new manufacturing destinations as part of the China+1 strategy, Tamil Nadu is being seen as an enticing option — and its huge female workforce is part of the draw, ticking off companies’ diversity requirements.
“By fostering an environment where women are encouraged to pursue careers in manufacturing, Tamil Nadu not only enhances the economic status of women but also contributes to overall prosperity and competitiveness of our state’s industrial sector,” said T.R.B. Rajaa, Tamil Nadu’s minister for Industries, Investment Promotion and Commerce.
“This commitment to gender inclusivity and workforce diversity is what positions Tamil Nadu as the most attractive destination for companies to invest and operate in, further solidifying our reputation as a progressive, dynamic and inclusive state,” he told ThePrint.

More working women in Tamil Nadu
The high number of women in the workforce is attributed to the state’s ‘Dravidian Model’ of governance, which has aimed to combine high levels of economic growth with human development. “Tamil Nadu’s success in encouraging a significant number of women to become a part of the industrial workforce can be attributed to the state’s progressive politics, policies and supportive ecosystem,” said Rajaa.
He listed women-centric schemes like Pudhumai Penn — monthly assistance of Rs 10,000 to schoolgirls to encourage them to stay in school — and free bus travel for women, introduced by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, as showcasing the state’s continuous efforts to promote gender equality.
“Our emphasis on education and skill development, particularly among women, has been instrumental. By ensuring access to quality education and vocational training, we’ve enabled women to excel in various manufacturing roles traditionally dominated by men,” added Rajaa.
Women workers in Tamil Nadu are also engaged in a higher share of jobs in the non-agricultural economy, according to The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu, by economists Kalaiyarasan A. and Vijayabaskar M. — the former is an assistant professor and the latter a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. Dr Vijayabaskar is also a member of the state planning commission.
Women’s participation in service and manufacturing is extremely high in Tamil Nadu, according to data from the state planning commission — 64 percent of women in Tamil Nadu work in this sector, compared to the national average of 43 percent, Gujarat’s 44 percent, and Maharashtra’s 35 percent. The sectoral shift away from agriculture is significant, given the larger national trend of women employed in agricultural labour.
The government also tries to support working women — whether in manufacturing or other sectors — to move from their hometowns and join a more metropolitan, mobile workforce.
One such initiative is the state’s Thozhi hostels for working women. The affordable hostels are dotted across the state, especially near industrial centres, to encourage more women to leave their home for work. Fully equipped with different kinds of rooms and set-ups for working women, these hostels are also intended to ensure safe spaces for women — something the government is trying to extend towards the workplace too.
“The state’s proactive measures to ensure safe and conducive work environments have significantly contributed to boosting the confidence of women to participate in the workforce,” said Rajaa. “Additionally, our targeted initiatives to encourage industries to adopt gender-inclusive hiring practices have played a crucial role.”

Education outstripping job creation
But one potential issue is a mismatch between educational level, job creation, and the aspirations of women workers.
Tamil Nadu has aggressively pushed education across the state, with many students even graduating into the workforce with postgraduate or double degrees. In the 22-24 age group, one in four women is still pursuing education — which suggests she is potentially enrolled in a postgraduate course, according to economist Vidya Mahambare.
The high level of industrial dispersion spread across the state has increased manufacturing employment for women, creating jobs for them that are not too far from their homes and preventing them from migrating too far. “But it’s not tenable to have a dispersed low skilled job creation policy in economically laggard areas which now have highly educated young local population,” said Mahambare, who is Union Bank Chair Professor of Economics and Director, Research at the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai.
“Yes, there should be a regional focus, but what kind of industries are coming up in those areas when the local, young population have degree level education would determine the willingness to take up those jobs. Else, there will be a mismatch in aspirations and job quality.”
Employing engineering graduates on the factory floor is not a sustainable long-term option as many would prefer to work in offices in the service sector.
Companies like Foxconn, which is manufacturing the latest iPhones in Sriperumbudur, exclusively employs such graduate women. But when the novelty of manufacturing Apple products wears off, many wouldn’t want to continue the hard manual labour at such low pay when they have other educational qualifications.
“Going forward, I wonder how much manufacturing employment will be filled by local labour, given that education levels have soared,” said Mahambare.
She added that “we should also keep in mind that while a large chunk of Indian women working in the industrial sector are in Tamil Nadu, the industrial sector employs fewer women than services in the state”.
Considering a workforce of women between the ages of 25 and 54 as a prime age group, she explained that the highest number of women in Tamil Nadu are employed in agriculture — including animal husbandry and fisheries — at around 20 percent in 2022-23. This is followed by the services sector, which employs 18 percent of all women in Tamil Nadu. in this age group. Industries come third, employing around 8 percent of women.
She also pointed out that for women between the ages of 20 and 24 — the ideal age group preferred by manufacturing companies — less than 1 percent are employed in agriculture in the years 2022-24. While 1 in 4 are still enrolled in education, 1 in 10 were looking for jobs they could not find. This suggests that younger women will look for work in the industrial sector, but increasingly look for work in the service sector, preferring to work in offices over factories. “Across India, the industrial employment of women is highest in Tamil Nadu — which suggests the situation in other states is even worse,” said Mahambare.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
Courtesy: The Print

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