Indian garment workers caught between Covid-19 and lost wages – Quartz
Workers in the garment industry in Bengaluru face a dire situation.
The city is home to one of the largest clothing manufacturer groups in India, which employs some 500,000 workers. Much of it is women, including many migrants from neighboring villages and other areas who depend on the low wages they earn to feed themselves and their families. They can barely afford to disrupt their income, as happened last April when factories temporarily closed due to the pandemic and many workers lost their jobs. Now Bengaluru is entering a new lockdown to stop its growing number of Covid-19 infections, disrupting its garment industry and leaving workers facing a possible crisis.
The rise in daily infections in Bangalore is the second after Delhi in India, prompting the government to order a two-week shutdown to curb the spread of the virus. While it exempted certain manufacturing sectors from the ordinance, the clothing industry was not one of them. The government “is aware of the plight of garment workers,” a local official told reporters. “But, as they gather in large numbers in a limited space, this sector is not allowed to continue operations.”
Despite the risk of falling ill, many workers would prefer factories to keep operating, according to IndustriALL, a global union federation, fearing the effects of the lockdown on their jobs and wages. Local media also report that the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) as well as the Bengaluru Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the Karnataka Employers’ Association are calling on the government to allow factories to operate with up to ‘to 50% of their usual staff, which would allow greater distancing from workers.
For some, the concern is also to keep the Indian economy running. Bengaluru is a critical garment hub in India, which exported $ 17 billion worth of clothing in 2019 based on World Trade Organization data, ranking it sixth among all nations. (It is second in textile exports). Factories in other major garment centers such as Chennai are still operating, but also see lockdown as a growing possibility.
Fight against the garment workers’ pandemic
In Bengaluru, as in other garment centers in Asia, working in garment factories often pays low wages, leaving workers with little financial security. During the pandemic, many suffered as factories cut jobs and hours to stay in business, while Western companies often relied on cut orders amid declining demand for clothing. In countries like India, where the textile and clothing industries together are the second largest employer after agriculture, some workers have fought hunger and have taken on debt to survive.
As Bengaluru garment factories have finally started to see orders surging, the new lockdown raises concerns that factories are cutting jobs and losing business as customers in the United States and Europe divert orders elsewhere.
It is not known if the government will offer assistance. So far, it has not announced any support for garment workers, IndustriALL said. GATWU, one of IndustriALL’s local affiliates, wrote to the labor department to request more information and demanded that workers receive wages during the lockdown, he said.
Help has not always been reliable. A survey of garment workers in Karnataka, the southern Indian state where Bengaluru is located last year, found that most had received no support from either their employers or the local government. Many informal workers who perform tasks such as embroidery or beading in their homes may also be overlooked by these programs.
As the crisis in India continues to deepen, countries around the world have pledged to help. It remains to be seen whether garment workers will get the help they need.