Indian fashion artisans face ‘extreme distress’ in pandemic
Saddam Sekh was once a floor supervisor at a steamy Indian workshop in Mumbai that produced orders for an exporter working with some of the biggest names in luxury fashion, including Dior and Gucci. Day and night he watched karigars – an Urdu term for highly skilled artisans who specialize in crafts like embroidery, beading, and appliqués – stitched designer dresses destined for the Hollywood red carpet, or samples. adorned for the parades in Milan and Paris. .
But when the coronavirus pandemic took hold their work came to a halt, the backbone of India’s garment supply chain quickly collapsed as millions of migrant workers dispersed across the country. More than a year later – as India rushes to contain a second wave of the coronavirus, centered in Mumbai, with new lockdowns – many people employed by the Indian fashion industry are struggling to keep up. adapt to a new difficult reality.
“The factory is currently closed because there is no work – it’s a big zero now,” Sekh said, adding that some of the artisans were working instead as day laborers for 200-300 rupees. , or $ 2.50 to $ 4 per day. One ended up in a biscuit factory, another in plastic and another in agriculture. Some were calling from their villages to apply for loans, but the managers and supervisors themselves are in dire financial straits. For now, the factory doors remain locked.
“The situation before was nothing like what you see today,” continued Mr. Sekh. “The karigars are particularly in extreme distress.”
Mumbai, where labor is cheap and the quality of complex manual labor is high, has long been a linchpin in the global luxury supply chain. But in the pandemic, orders disappeared overnight. Although some workshops in Mumbai have reopened, the volume of inquiries from high-end fashion brands is nowhere near what it used to be. The outlook for many karigars remains bleak.
“For months all production and trade stagnated across the spectrum of the Indian fashion industry, including in high fashion workshops,” said Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India. “It was a total disaster for our industry.
“The fortunes of manufacturers and exporters have collapsed. Many have been forced to close or downsize. At the bottom of it all, there are workers like the karigars.
While many Western markets are still stranded, events such as big weddings, black tie nights and fashion shows have dropped the calendars of wealthy shoppers, many of whom are not in the mood to spend on fashion and accessories. expensive.
“Red carpet dresses and cocktail dress orders are largely gone, which means the financial pressure on specialist workshops has continued here,” said Max Modesti, founder of Ateliers 2M, an embroidery company. from Bombay who works with Chanel and Hermès.
These two luxury houses and Louis Vuitton were the only three to increase their orders in Mumbai last year, Modesti said. Orders from other Western fashion houses have either been cut by around 50 to 70 percent or canceled, he said. Mr. Sethi confirmed these statistics.
“In more than 35 years of activity and several recessions, I have never seen anything like it,” Mr. Modesti said.
For years, part of the problem in Mumbai was that the high demand for specialized manual labor led suppliers, who struggled to keep up, to sometimes deviate from labor standards and hire unregulated contractors. Some Western luxury groups, including LVMH and Kering, had started addressing these challenges before the pandemic with a security compliance agreement known as the Utthan Pact. But it did not respect basic labor rights, such as fair wages, even before the lockdown.
Now, many karigars have no work at all. (An estimated 140 million people have lost their jobs since March of last year, the Mumbai-based Center for Monitoring Indian Economy said.) With little work and no housing or the guarantee of a regular salary, many karigars have remained in their villages of origin. rather than going back to town. Another exodus was sparked by the latest wave of infections and lockdowns this month.
According to Modesti, the costs of virus-related security measures for many export houses and suppliers that attempted to reopen last year have increased the risk of bankruptcy. The situation was potentially even worse for Utthan’s suppliers, many of whom had spent heavily in recent years on compliance requirements such as dormitories for workers and fire exits.
Rosey Hurst, the founder of Impactt, the Mumbai-based consultancy that manages the Utthan agreements, confirmed that the production and Utthan evaluations of the hand embroidery workshops stopped between March and July of last year and that orders had been “severely disrupted”. She said the Utthan signatories worked during this time with exporters in Mumbai to try to protect jobs and that the support payments were made directly to the bank accounts of more than 1,000 karigars informally employed by them. Utthan subcontractors.
There were rare bright spots. After a robust domestic wedding season at the end of last year, Mr Sethi said, karigars employed by Indian wedding designers had seen an increase in work. Sampling was also improved during the recent Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. And vaccination efforts have multiplied.
But fears of the pandemic are rife in a densely populated country with one of the worst death rates, as is public skepticism – especially among workers like karigars – about the safety and effectiveness of drugs. government-sponsored Covid-19 injections. Most of the karigars are Muslim males, a position increasingly socially marginalized as Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempts to remove the country from its founding as a secular, multicultural nation and transform it into a more overtly Hindu state.
Today, as each day marks another dark stage for Covid-19 for India, many haute couture artisans are increasingly pessimistic about whether they can make a basic living, let alone focus on obtaining fair working conditions, wages and contracts from their suppliers.
“Before, there was more and more talk of improving workers’ rights,” said Mr. Modesti. “Now for many it will be more about survival.” He added that he did not expect things to improve until 2022 and that “many of these companies and their employees will not be able to last that long.”
Abdullah Khan is a craftsman with over 20 years of experience. Although he lost his job at a factory providing embroidery work for Saint Laurent in March of last year after complaining about low pay and trying to approach a union for representation, he found another job with a subcontractor for one of the Indian exporters who helped create Utthan. .
This factory is now open. But as managers paid workers during the lockdown, fewer orders were coming in. This meant no overtime pay, which previously accounted for a quarter of Mr Khan’s income. He resorted to selling sports shoes by the side of the road after work.
“We don’t receive orders. There is very little work, ”said Khan. “Now I’m standing on the road at night with the shoes in front of me. What else can I do? “
Kritika Sony contributed reporting.