Hanging by a Thread

From a conversation with Nandita Shivakumar.

Hanging by a thread

Millions toil in dimly lit rooms, hunched over sewing machines. Many are contract labourers or migrants.

They make luxury clothes for high-fashion brands.

These are the 12 to 15 million people employed by the Indian garment industry, making it among the world’s largest.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown, the situation was dire. Workers were mostly hired through labour contractors, who are not legally mandated to pay the workers.

Then the coronavirus struck.
Within a month, COVID-19 killed the demand for new clothes. Brands cancelled Spring and Summer orders. Orders that were ready to be shipped. Orders for which suppliers and factory owners had already purchased raw materials and covered production costs.

When the lockdown began, workers were paid wages for March. They believed the situation was temporary and that they’d continue to get some form of support.
No one knew the lockdown would be extended. Then extended again.

Today, their wages are nonexistent.
Their livelihood hangs by a literal thread.
Some parts of the country are better off – slightly.

Karnataka has strong labour unions and more permanent workers, so the disaster is partly mitigated. But Gujarat has a large number of contract and piece-rate workers. Tamil Nadu has many migrant and contract workers. They are not paid regularly.

Reports of exploitation abound. Of being forced to work without pay. Of food not being provided.

There is hope: The industry is likely to survive. Domestic demand and production are high, and a lot of the raw material is produced locally. In the past few weeks, many garment factories have started reopening. Instead of lamenting lost orders, many have turned to mask-making as a much-needed (and lucrative) side business today. Trade unions and labour rights organisations are campaigning to get brands to pay for the cancelled orders, and release at least 60 days’ pay for the workers.

This comes to just about 2 % of the brands’ yearly sourcing cost. But there is also fear: Workers’ fear of unemployment and starvation trumps their fear of COVID-19. To avoid getting fired, they travel to work however they can – even crammed 15 deep in autos and cabs.

Social distancing remains a far-off luxury. In factories that have successfully pivoted to mask-making, unfair practices and low wages are still the norm. Workers get paid Re. 1 or Rs. 2 per mask, while they are sold in shops for upwards of Rs. 40 or Rs. 50 each.

That’s not all.

In the rush to kick-start the economy, governments in states like Gujarat, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are revising labour laws. It is feared that these revisions may cause a spike in already unfair labour practices.
However, activists and campaigners are apprehensive that these laws will get passed without opposition from unions, who are already concerned and afraid. One thread running through this and other stories from the Coronacrisis and the ensuing lockdown is this: many of our

existing laws, policies and labour practices take unfair advantage of the most impoverished and the poorest members of our society. In our eagerness to restart a flailing economy, drastic measures and changes are being brought in, which will only serve to hurt the most disadvantaged even more.

We cannot deny that there are holes in the fabric of our society. Instead of being a protective blanket for the poor, it leaves them shivering in the cold instead. Today, the lot of the garment workers threatens to lie in tatters.