n March 2020, Susheela Srinivas, a garment worker in the state of Karnataka, fell ill while grieving her dead husband and missed work for a few days. Amid her trials and the COVID-19 pandemic, little did Srinivas know that she would become unemployed. She was shocked to hear from colleagues that, in her absence, the factory where she had been working for a year suddenly closed.
In the second half of 2020, Srinivas and hundreds of thousands of garment workers in Karnataka lost their jobs overnight. A study entitled “Forced Resignations, Stealthy Closures” by the Alternative Law Forum and Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) delved into the devastating impact of the factory closures on the garment workers in Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka.
Study authors Swathi Shivanand and R. Prathibha surveyed 25 garment factories in the city and found that nine had permanently shut down. The closures rendered 5,600 workers out of 7,200 jobless amid the pandemic.
Bengaluru Urban district alone houses 766 of the 951 garment factories in the state of Karnataka. More than 282,000 workers, including 202,000 women, work in the factories in the district. Karnataka has a total of 402,155 garment workers, comprising 3.35% of India’s total garment workforce.
A life of precarity
Most of these workers are employed in export-oriented apparel manufacturers and are the linchpin of garment factories in the city. In 2017, the revenue of Karnataka’s garment exports stood at 5.4 trillion rupees (US$75 billion), which accounted for 18.78% of India’s exports. The state’s garment sector shoulders 20% of the nation’s garment production.
In the months following the lay-offs, 61% of the workers were unable to find alternative sources of employment. As a result, the workers’ monthly incomes fell to 14,000 rupees (US$187) in the second half of 2020. Before that period, the average monthly income of a garment worker’s household — consisting of three to four members, two of whom are working — was pegged at 20,000 rupees (US$268).
The workers’ loss of income has cut their food consumption: 80% of them were found to have reduced portions, while 77% admitted that one or the other household member had gone hungry since the onset of the pandemic. According to law, 87% of the workers surveyed were entitled to monthly rations from the Public Distribution System. In reality, though, they reported receiving only a kilogram of rice — a fifth of the amount they were entitled to — and pulses. Additionally, the workers’ children shifted from private education to enrolment in public schools.
According to the study, factory management extracted resignations from the workers to cut their retrenchment costs; resignations are “voluntary” and, therefore, the workers do not have to be compensated. Upon “resigning,” workers received low settlements, and only those who worked at the factories for more than five years were provided with a gratuity. This left 60% of the workers ineligible for a gratuity.
The factories violated the central government’s mandate to pay the workers for the months of lockdown and after. Their non-payment of the workers aggravated the desperation among the lot, and they put up less resistance while accepting meager settlement dues.
Most of the workers — 73% — reported that other members of the family worked in the informal sector, hinting at the precarity of cash influx. The workers’ weakened purchasing power led them to accumulate debt, fall behind in their rent payments, and dip into their scarce savings.
The study found that 68% of respondents had no savings even when they were employed, while 49% stared at mounting interest rates. The lay-offs deprived them of their borrowing capacity, which earlier existed due to good faith and steady monthly salaries. Some of them used the settlement money that they received from employers to cover rent, which once again meant no savings or investments.
An old trick
The authors chalk up the forceful and coerced resignations to the unfair labor practices long-enacted by the factories, and they attribute it to the latter’s refusal to compensate the workers. While 85% of the workers resigned, the rest protested this. The laborers who resigned said they faced only two options: to resign and receive their settlement money, or not to resign and lose out on the settlement.
The report also cites the torture faced by a factory worker as the reason for her resignation. Shivanand and Prathibha write that “Forced resignations have thus put such women permanently out of the workforce or forced them to resort to working at piece rates.”
The tactic of extracting resignations from garment workers has been perfected for over 40 years now. The factories used coercive methods, such as halting the provision of transport services for employees to and from the factory and transferring workers to other units within the company offering transportation options. This meant that, amid their already cash-strapped predicament, the workers had to shell out more money for their fares. Some factories assured them that they will be reinstated once the situation “stabilizes”; while some factories just asked workers not to report to work.
The study states that 48% of Bengaluru’s garment factories have fewer than 100 workers, which puts them outside the purview of the “key provisions” of the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947. According to Shivanand, the current rules under the Act specify that these factories need not seek permission from the state Labor Department to shut down their operations; the factories only need to give a month’s notice to workers before they close.
This is not the case for factories with more than 100 workers. The state government is empowered to initiate proceedings against the management of these factories if they fail to provide notice or compensation amounting to three months’ wages to the employees.
Shivanand and Prathibha’s study describes how the Act is different in practice as opposed to on paper.
Last March, the Ministry of Labor and Employment announced new labor codes which would consolidate 44 existing central labor laws. K. R. Jayaram, a legal advisor at GATWU, believes nothing good can come out of the new codes. Echoing Shivanand’s concerns, he says raising the bar for factories from 100 to 300 workers will only expose employees to several vulnerabilities and help factories evade accountability for assaulting their rights. In addition to this, the reforms allow contractors to further sub-contract workers, thus depriving workers of some semblance of stability.
Maitreyi Krishnan, a lawyer and state member of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions Karnataka, believes that these reforms make retrenchment and termination easier and further aggravate the vulnerability of the workers, especially amid the lockdown. She says, “The new reforms are concentrated efforts by the central government to push back on workers’ rights and stifle any form of collective action.”
One of the systemic issues plaguing the garment industry is the threat of termination faced by workers who seek unionization. Collective actions are also heavily penalized. Krishnan says, “If you look at workers in other sectors, their wages are fixed by collective bargaining, whereas the garment industry, despite having such a large workforce, houses no scope for collective bargaining.” GATWU has struggled to strengthen unions to ensure job security in Karnataka.
The labor unions and activists have called on the government to abolish contractual labor, ensure living wages, and implement fair working hours, but these have fallen on the deaf ears. According to Krishnan, the contractualization of labor is one of the biggest betrayals to garment workers; even after working for 10 years, they are still considered “casual” workers.
The garment industry employs a huge proportion of women and individuals from marginalized sectors who are the most in need of economic security. So, Krishnan says, when the government brings in policies or supposed “reforms” that strip these vulnerable workers of their rights and security, this affects future generations. The lack of fair wages would mean that their children would be pulled out of schools and start working at an early age. The loss of formal education in India would mean that the next generation would be forced to take up jobs in the informal sector and fall into the vicious cycle of poverty.
Krishnan says, “The Constitution of India mandates equal pay and calls for ensuring the participation of workers in the management of industries.” She adds that these are legal mandates and not mere idealist claims.
The volume of profits is unimaginably high in export-oriented industries, owing to their supply to big global clothing brands. The share in profits is legally provided for under the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965. However, Krishnan claims no garment worker has ever received a profit-sharing bonus.
The garment manufacturing sector is one of the hardest-hit sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting the 12.9 million workers it employs in India, most of whom are women. On April 27, the Karnataka government ordered a stringent 14-day lockdown in the state.
GATWU appealed to the government to allow 50% operations or provide compensation otherwise. The appeal was granted — but it was later retracted during the lockdown that began on May 10 and has been extended till June 7.
On May 19, the Karnataka government announced a relief package to help tide over workers in the “unorganized sector” during the lockdown. This sector includes barbers, washermen, tailors, porters, and other laborers in the informal sector. Each worker will be given 2,000 rupees (US$27.50). However, Prathibha said garment workers are ineligible to receive the benefit as “factory workers are expected to get their salaries amid lockdown.”
Meanwhile, Srinivas is at her wit’s end. She is the only earning member of her family, and they are behind on their rent. For the last two months, she has been receiving her monthly pension of 600 rupees (US$8.1) as part of the central government’s Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension scheme. She laments: “Last month, they gave us only two kilograms of rice. How will I feed my family with this?” ●