Tiruppur exporters flooded with orders, but shortage of labour a problem

When the Covid-19 outbreak began in March, fear gripped exporters in the knitwear hub of Tiruppur as many thought the international apparel market would take longer time, at least a year, to get back to normalcy.

But exporters have been proved wrong just six months down the line with buyers placing huge orders from Tiruppur in the past one month – some of them even exceeding those from pre-Covid times. However, there is a glitch – the exporters are finding it difficult to meet the sudden demand due to non-availability of the required workforce.

With over 20 to 25 per cent of the workforce, mostly migrant labourers from North Indian states, yet to return to the knitwear hub, exporters are faced with the strenuous task of completing the orders on time and shipping them to their buyers. Tiruppur alone accounts for 46 per cent of India’s exports in the sector.

The Tiruppur Exporters’ Association (TEA) has appealed to the Centre to resume normal train operations to enable migrant workers to return so that the factories can run with 100 per cent workforce. Exporters’ also feel they should grab the opportunity that has come knocking at their doors and try to tap the market that might move out of China due to the Covid-19 fear.

“The markets in the EU and US have opened and the response from there is very promising. We have been receiving a good number of orders from the key markets but labour shortage is the major problem that we are encountering. The orders for spring-summer has begun and we will be on the road to prosperity very soon. But the resumption of train service is key,” Raja M Shanmugham, President, TEA, told.

Figures available with the Tiruppur district administration says around 1.27 lakh migrant labourers working in various parts of the district and sectors – not just knitwear — left for their native states due to Covid-19 scare. Roughly 50 to 55 per cent of them have returned so far, a government official said.

If the situation remains the same and migrant labourers do not return soon, exporters might not be able to deliver orders on time, he said. “We would make profits if we are able to complete the orders on time and send them via sea. However, if we get delayed and are forced to send them via air, we will only incur losses,” he added.

Another exporter who deals with the lucrative EU market said their doomsday prediction has fallen flat with orders from buyers in the past one month even crossing the pre-Covid levels.

“I feel international brands are filling up their portfolios with new designs in the face of competition. This seems to be the reason behind several popular brands placing fresh orders with exporters here. Fierce competition among the players to make up for the losses may also be a reason for the jump in orders,” he told.

He added: “The situation is completely reverse of what we had predicted in March. The apparel market has opened completely, and the demand is quite high now, while we are struggling to meet them due to labour shortage.”

Besides the regular apparel orders, several units are still engaged in stitching personal protective equipment (PPE) and face masks which are being exported to other countries.

Shanmugham said Covid-19 has presented a “wonderful opportunity” for exporters in Tiruppur to make further inroads into the international market as many players would be looking to move away from Chinese suppliers without making it public.

“We (exporters) should correct any anomalies in our products and fight for a larger share in the international market. Next to food, apparel has become absolutely necessary to the mankind and that is why the revival is also taking place fast. We should be prepared to welcome the new opportunities,” he said.