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These workers have to deal with certain pressing issues at work

Ajai Sreevatsan

Family tradition, main reason for continued existence of mobile ironing units

— Photo: M. Karunakaran

Not many options are available for people who run mobile ironing units.

CHENNAI: A rickety, old blue pushcart symbolises their trade. Many of their customers don’t even know their names. They are just called ‘isthirikaaran.’ But, behind the anonymity lies something which could be called a small-scale family run industry.

Mobile ironing units dot the landscape of almost every street in the city. Some of them even function as laundry agents. Each ironing unit is a family run enterprise and the older among the children are sometimes involved in collection and delivery of clothes from individual households. A family earns between Rs.500 and Rs.700 for a day’s work and they spend around Rs.100 on charcoal every day.

Many people who are engaged in this trade are migrants from Andhra Pradesh. “My hometown is near Tirupati. I came here because there are no opportunities there and farming has pretty much died,” says 62-year-old Ramdas.

There is also an unwritten code that a new ironing unit cannot come up in a place where another person is already carrying out the trade.

Family tradition is the primary reason for the continued existence of ‘isthiri vandi’s’ (pushcarts). “I started doing this work when I was 10. I got into this trade because our family has been doing this for generations. I don’t know anything else now,” says Gunasekar.

Apart from pressing clothes, there are other pressing issues to deal with for these men and women.

The charcoal filled box-iron weighs close to eight kg and the close proximity to burning embers of coal for long periods causes health problems.

The pushcart might symbolise their work but the aluminium roofing increases the temperature by a couple of degrees.

The ironing units are mostly located beneath shady trees or some other kind of shelter but still the workspace is extremely hot, especially during peak summer. Many descend into alcoholism because of the harsh work environment.

However, there are not many options available for them. None of them know of any other means of livelihood.

“Sometimes I think of home,” says Gunasekar. “But I have never thought of a day when I won’t be able to do what I have always done. Only God must show me the way when the day comes when I’ll get old and weak,” he said.

Until then, the “iron man” will sweat it out in mid-summer heat, deftly moving a heavy box-iron over realms of cloth every day and hoping that the day of retirement would never come.

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