Tamil Nadu Matches Manufacturers' Association has been on a 12-day-long strike since April 6, seeking the urgent attention of the Union and state governments on the issues plaguing the industry. The steep increase in prices and shortage of raw materials have hit the industry, which employs around 2 lakh people, of which 90% are women.
The fluctuating cost of raw materials, including cardboard, wax and potash, is taking a severe toll on the industry, forcing an increase in the price of matchboxes after a gap of almost 15 years.
Ensuring the supply of cardboards through Tamil Nadu Small Industries Development Corporation Limited (SIDCO) and wax through central public sector undertakings (PSUs) are measures put forth by the manufacturers' association.
Those employed directly in the 350 manufacturing units and in the packaging and job work units numbering around 1,500 stare at an uncertain future as the prices have remained volatile in the recent months. The workers' trade union has demanded adequate compensation for the workers and urgent intervention of the state and Union government in saving the industry from crisis.
SPIRALLING RAW MATERIAL COST
The cost of raw materials required for matchbox manufacturing has increased since the pandemic. The costs of cardboards, wax, red phosphorus, sulphur and blue match papers have increased considerably.
With 350 semi-automated and fully automated units, directly and indirectly employing around two lakh people, the industry is an important source of employment in Thoothukudi and Virudhunagar districts.
S Lakshmanan, president of Tamil Nadu Matches Manufacturers' Association, said, "The cost of raw materials increased after the COVID-19 pandemic. It continued to increase even after almost all industrial activities became normal. A hike of 60% to 140% has been witnessed."
The increase in cost and unavailability has pushed the industry to a crisis never witnessed before, forcing the manufacturers to strike work for 12 consecutive days. The increase in fuel costs has increased the freight charges as well.
"Due to these two factors, we cannot fix the price of the products. The prices are fixed once in six months and cannot be changed in accordance with the changing raw materials price. Sales have fallen, and our stocks are increasing," Lakshmanan said.
The industry depends mainly on the export of raw materials from countries including China, Russia and Iran. The recent Russia-Ukraine war has also added to the woes of the matchbox industry.
"The container freight charges have increased drastically in the last few weeks. This is also adversely affecting the industry," Lakshmanan said.
INTERVENTION REQUIRED TO SAVE INDUSTRY
The cost of matchboxes was increased to Rs 2 from Rs 1 in December 2021 after a gap of 14 years. The increase in prices came soon after the relaxation of COVID-19 lockdown norms. The phenomenon continues in prices of the raw materials, almost all of the 14 used in matchbox manufacturing have increased as the Union, and state governments remain insensitive to the plights.
"The Union government can ensure the supply of wax, a byproduct of crude oil processing, while the state government can ensure the supply of boards from the Tamil Nadu Newsprints and Papers Limited (TNPL). The intervention of the Union government can check the prices of imported raw materials as well," Lakshmanan said.
The demonetisation and hasty implementation of goods and services tax (GST) pushed the industry into a crisis. The crisis intensified after the unplanned and blanket lockdown was imposed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cumulative effects and the global factors have had a telling impact on the matchbox industry. The workers, almost 90% being women, are staring at reduced income and fear of losing jobs.
P N Deva, Virudhunagar district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said, "As men are yet to get regular jobs, the women working in this industry became the breadwinners of their families. The government must provide compensation for the workers."
The matchbox industry is worth around Rs 2,000 crores, with Tamil Nadu being the hub. The attention of the Union and state governments is essential to save this industry from the ensuing crisis.