They were adamant that she complete her education and find a job “in the private sector”. After college, Keerthana got a job at one of the largest contract manufacturers for smartphones.
Living alone for the first time, she found herself working in a large factory in Sriperumbudur on the outskirts of Chennai. What helped was her experience with working with her hands on textiles. The biggest difference, she said, was that she had to wear gloves here. “It took time to get used to the way of life here — living in hostels, doing the same thing every day, being in an area where there is nothing much to do,” she said.
“But I feel independent and proud that I am taking care of my parents. I have made good friends with people from all over the state, and during our free time, we go for movies and do small trips. For Christmas, we are planning to go to Puducherry to visit one of our colleague’s homes.” Keerthana is one among scores of women who are not only powering the electronics manufacturing space, but are also benefitting from the upward mobility, independence and promise of a better life that it provides them.
Women are increasingly becoming the talent pool of choice for electronics companies. This augurs well for companies which will have to double down on their hiring considering the electronics market in India alone is being valued at $155 billion, with domestic production accounting for 65 per cent.
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Bharat FIH, a Foxconn group company has averaged over 20,000 women workforce over the last eight years of operations at its three manufacturing units at Sri City in Andhra Pradesh and two near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Josh Foulger, managing director of Bharat FIH, said, “Women are more interested in assembly lines as they possess innate learning ability and perseverance to provide highly quality output.” The company has a diverse portfolio including manufacturing of mobile phones, EVs, telecom networks and equipment, TVs, hearables and mechanics.
“The average age [of the women workers] would be around 22 years and are largely from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and from the North Eastern states of India,” he added.
According to Aditya Narayan Mishra, CEO, CIEL HR Services, the electronics manufacturing sector (EMS) in India is “witnessing a progressive shift by welcoming more women into its workforce”.
“Women constitute 60-65 per cent of the total workforce in this domain. Their dexterity and precision play a key role in manufacturing electronic components, especially in battery, smartphones and consumer durables production,” he said.
Anshul Khurana, co-founder of Entitled Solutions, a tech platform empowering gig workers, said that the total employment in the electronics sector is estimated to be at about 3.2 million people in 2023, with more than half — about 1.8 million people — employed in EMS. He said the EMS segment is expected to grow to about 75 per cent of the overall employment in the electronics sector over the next two to three years, and is expected to employ about 6.2 million people by 2026, continuing to grow at a CAGR of about 50 per cent.
Pankaj Mohindroo, chairman of the India Cellular & Electronics Association (ICEA), said that tasks like assembling fine components and precision work require dexterity and concentrated focus, and this is where women excel and often outperform men.
Further, he said that even globally, women are a natural fit for the electronics industry given the hygienic environment required and roles in the units.
“Women also tend to present a lower attrition rate compared to men in labour-intensive work,” he said. “Electronics assembly requires continued focus for two-three hours, where women have been found to display more sincerity, dedication and stability in their jobs. Women can multitask and are better at following complex instructions as well.”
Mohindroo added that India’s electronics production is more than $100 billion and is envisioned to touch $300 billion by 2025-26 and $1 trillion production by 2030. This projection showcases the requirement of the workforce, especially for women in Indian electronics manufacturing, he said.
While this is an encouraging trend and will bolster women’s participation in the work force, industry veterans and experts flagged the need for aspects like safety, security and health of workers to be prioritised.
According to JS Gujral, managing director of Syrma SGS Technology, a Chennai-based electronics manufacturing services company that employs around 7,500 people (50 per cent women), late working hours are a challenge for most women.
“In one of our new plants at Noida, we target to have almost 90 per cent women workforce. However, working the night shift acts as a deterrent in having a higher percentage of women,” he said.
CIEL’s Mishra too said that roles in soldering, assembling, operations, technical positions and testing were increasingly being filled by women, predominantly within the age range of 18-30 years. As this trend grows, he said it was imperative for companies to prioritise the safety and comfort of their female employees by tailoring workplaces to meet their specific needs.
“The electronic manufacturing sphere traditionally catered to men, thus necessitating a redesign of work environments to be more inclusive and accommodating for women. This includes ensuring overall safety measures and addressing transportation concerns, especially during night shifts,” Mishra said.
To address this issue, Bharat FIH has dormitories for employees hired from outstation, and has weekly visits by its environment, health and safety department and employee relations team to ensure a safe working environment for women employees. Gujral suggested that ho st el s for work i n g women be set up by state in the vicinity of industrial estates, as this will give a big boost to increasing women representation in the workforce.
This has been a long-standing demand from the industry. It was also something that became glaringly evident when a food poisoning incident took place at one of Foxconn’s hostels near Chennai in 2021.
Recognising this gap in the system, the Tamil Nadu government embarked on a project to provide affordable housing to employees close to their factories, something that mimics Foxconn’s model in China where entire cities are built around the plant.
Located in Sriperumbudur, the housing project is being built by the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT), responsible for development of industrial land and infrastructure) at an estimated cost of Rs 1,000 crore and could house up to 20,000 people.
There are, however, other challenges. Khurana said one of the biggest issues is the concentration of women in largely unskilled or semi-skilled roles, relatively lower wages with less bargaining power as compared to male counterparts and issues with the physical work environment.
“Upskilling and empowering women with the necessary tools and training is a major need to unleash the full potential of the women workforce to move beyond assembly jobs. Creating a safe physical work environment, fair pay, comprehensive health benefits and flexibility are some of the other needs,” he said.
There are societal hurdles as well. ICEA’s Mohindroo said the primary obstacle in hiring women is the reluctance of their families to accept employment.
He said that in order to further enhance employment opportunities for women in this sector, there is a need to modify labour laws to focus on improving security, allowing flexible work shifts and constructing dormitories to provide safe and convenient accommodations for the women.
As India tries to pip China and countries like Vietnam to be the destination of choice for large electronics manufacturing firms, experts warn of certain patterns that India should not replicate.
“I am concerned about the reproductive health of young women,” said Dr JennyChan, who co-authored the book Dying for an iPhone.
“The girls employed in these factories are often in their late teens to early 30s. If at this time, they are exposed to toxic chemicals, it can also cause leukaemia, which can affect them and thenext generation.”
In 2018, Samsung Electronics apologised to the workers who developed cancer after working at its semiconductor factories, bringing to an end a decade-long dispute at the world’s top chip-maker.
As per research done by the KoreaOccupational Safety and Health Agency(KOSHA) in 2019, female workers handling chips at South Korean semiconductor plants faced a 1.59 times higher risk of leukaemia and a 2.8 times higher risk of dying from the disease than for all workers overall.
Chan said some of the toxic chemicals had the ability to penetrate through the gloves, especially if they are substandard. Further, there’s also the risk of inhaling these toxic chemicals, which could potentially lead to new-borns being born with deformities. “This happens a lot in places like Taiwan and Hong-Kong,” she explained.
Chan said she also found it “concerning” the way Foxconn was trying to tweak labour law clauses in India. For her book, Chan was part of a team that went undercover to report what they claimed was the story behind the suicides, excessive overtime, hostility and violence on Foxconn’sfactory in China.
Apple and its partner Foxconn were reportedly involved in lobbying for a significant liberalisation of labour laws in Karnataka recently. This meant changes that allow for 12-hour shifts and night-time work for women, which is similar to the companies’ practices in China.
*Name changed on request
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