CHENNAI, May 23 — Indian villager Jaya places the bright pink, sequined, moulded C-cupped designer bra under the needle of her sewing machine and carefully stitches the seams together.
The padded “Very Sexy” push-up bra that 22-year-old Jaya sews is for American lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret - designed to give a “boost” to buyers in hundreds of high-fashion boutiques across the United States.
But a world away in this traditional rice-growing region of southern India, these luxurious bras are — in a different way — enhancing the lives of poor rural women.
“I knew nothing but the village before,” says Jaya, sitting behind her sewing machine on the busy factory floor of textile manufacturer, Intimate Fashions, in India’s Tamil Nadu state.
“My parents just wanted me married as quickly as possible. They never saw me as an asset, just a burden. They did not think a woman could earn money, but look at me,” she says, the scent of jasmine emanating from the bunch of white flowers in her plaited hair.
For conservative India’s rural women — lucky to finish school, married before 18 and confined to their villages — a project giving them jobs in the manufacturing sector is not just an end to poverty, but brings empowerment and respect in this deeply patriarchal society.
Located 30km south of Chennai, Intimate Fashions — which also produces bras for Victoria’s Secret brand “Pink” and the La Senza brand — is one of thousands of firms that have set up in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district in recent years.
Investment-friendly policies, close proximity to one of India’s largest ports and an international airport, and easy access to a large, semi-literate workforce has helped make the area one of the most industrialized in the country.
Traditionally known for producing India’s finest quality silk-woven saris, Kanchipuram is now a top automotive hub for car makers such as Hyundai, Ford and Volvo as well as playing host to apparel, technology and electronics firms.
“Thousands of companies have mushroomed here and there has been increasing competition to get good employees,” says Prasad Narayan Rege, general manager of Intimate Fashions, which employs Jaya among its 2,500 mostly female workers.
“So when the World Bank and the Tamil Nadu government came to us with the idea of employing women from some of the poorest communities and give them training, we saw a good opportunity. If it wasn’t for this project, we would be in big trouble.”
Under the Pudhu Vaazhvu (meaning “New Life” in Tamil) project, funded by a US$350 million (RM1 billion) loan from the World Bank, local village committees identify jobless youth - which make up a large percentage of the Tamil Nadu’s 20 per cent unemployed.
Firms are then connected with these villages and hold rural job fairs at least once a month — giving presentations, answering questions on qualifications, training and salaries — in particular focusing recruiting on young female employees.
But this is not so easy in these male-dominated communities, where over-protective families rarely allow their unmarried daughters out alone and expect them to stick to typically traditional roles as homemakers.
Officials say firms have to adopt “culturally sensitive” approaches such as bringing parents to see their manufacturing units to show them the environment their daughters will be working and living in as some girls must stay in hotels set up by employers. “Initially, it was strange to see rural women working. Our society has kept women at homes in their traditional roles as homemakers,” says Shajeevana R.V. from Tamil Nadu’s Rural Development Department.
“But now, these young women are breadwinners. Not only that, we are seeing positive social changes taking place due to these jobs. Girls, who were married off straight out of school are now delaying their marriages by three or four years.”
Since this public-private partnership which began in 2005, 143,709 young people in Kanchipuram and 25 other districts, have got jobs with 421 companies, which include Intel, Nike, Samsung and Nokia, say government officials.
On Intimate Fashion’s massive factory floor, hundreds of women in bright pink aprons and headscarves sit in long lines bent over their machines, busily stitching red satin ribbons and lilac lace straps as Tamil pop music blares out from speakers.
“It was hard at first. My parents did not want me to come and I was scared,’ says 18-year-old Vithya, who started at the factory one month ago. “But I am getting used to it and send home money now to pay for construction of my parents’ home.”
Nestled amid coconut trees and rice paddy plantations, Mamandur village, 30 minutes drive from Intimate Fashions, provides a steady pool of young women for the factory.
Most villagers here have no land and are dependent on manual labour, working on farms for a daily wage of 100 rupees (RM5.60). There is little financial security and if there is no work one day, even the basic evening meal is doubtful.
Girls traditionally spend their days doing household chores — collecting water from the borehole, making meals, cleaning and looking after younger siblings.
But in many households that has changed, say villagers, due to the Pudhu Vaazhvu project.
“Before I struggled to send my children to school, even food was a problem,” says Latta Gubendran, mother of three, whose 19-year-old daughter, Divya, works at Intimate Fashions and earns a monthly salary of 7,000 rupees.
“Divya earns more than I thought possible. My two younger girls can go to school and we have bought a fridge, a television and even tiled our floors in our house. She is like the son I never had. She brings me and my family respect.” — Trustlaw