Chitra*, a senior worker at the garment manufacturing company Shahi Exports, is uncertain about her future. Chitra’s line manager has told her that she would not get her wages until the lockdown ends.
Ever since garment factories as well as leading fashion retailers downed their shutters, Chitra has become one among the over four lakh garment factory workers in Bengaluru who may lose their wages. Given the possibility that the lockdown may be extended, the workers are more vulnerable.
For the month of March, Chitra did get her full wages of Rs 10,500 in her bank account; but many factory owners say they wouldn’t be able to pay wages until April 14. This is despite the government advisory that employers should pay workers in the lockdown period.
Chitra, 27, has been working at Shahi Exports for the past 12 years, but like most garment factory workers in the city, she’s a contract employee. This means she is paid by the number of days she works in a month. The only paid leave these workers are given, is two hours per month.
Basic salary of garment workers is still quite low at around Rs 9,500, said Prathiba R, President of the Garments and Textile Workers Union (GATWU). Most workers in the industry, including experienced employees, earn only the basic salary or slightly more, plus PF and bonus.
Chitra might not have travelled beyond Bengaluru. But the finesse in embroidery and stitching that she and other garment workers employ, has left an indelible mark in top brands of the global fashion industry.
“I have worn nothing besides a polyester sari all my life. But I can simply see or touch any fabric and tell you if it is Cashmere, silk or satin,” said Chitra.
Workers struggle; factory owners say there’s no money
Chitra said, “My two children’s education as well as my household expenses depend completely on my job. I cannot imagine how we will live without this income.”
Seema*, 25, another employee at Shahi Exports, was confident earlier that her steady flow of income would cover the recurring expenses of her parents’ medications. “I get Rs 560 as daily wage. Though this income is very low, it is very important for me. But now they have told us not to come until April 14,” she said.
Prathiba said that one of the garment factory managements had even informed workers that they would have to compensate for the leaves they got due to the lockdown. “The lockdown leaves were deemed as ‘paid leave’ by the management. So they wanted them to work extra hours later, including on Sundays,” she said.
But Mallikarjuna S V, General Manager (Human Resource) at Gokuldas Exports, said that textile managements were just trying to secure the long-term interests of their employees. According to him, the garment sector is not doing well given the current COVID-19-led slump.
“Production has taken a backseat. Owners have borrowed capital for raw material and machineries, and have paid workers to ensure production, but now they are sitting on idle output that has no market. We can’t even transport the consignments that have already been completed as transportation services are hit,” Mallikarjuna said.
He also claimed that garment manufacturers barely have any margin of profit. “Without fresh orders, production and distribution, we don’t receive payment. So where do we generate the resources to pay the lakhs of employees who are working with us on a recurring basis?” he asked.
Govt should announce stimulus package, say factory owners
An executive from Shahi Exports said that the garment factory owners are hoping that, given over four lakh people and their families are dependent on the garment sector, the state government would announce a stimulus package. “Even we do not want to let go of our skilled workforce. But, with all due respect to the government’s request [to pay employees], we do not have the resources to comply with it. Either the government must give us domestic orders for garment production, or aid us to pay salary to our employees in the form of stimulus, till the market is back to normal.”
Mallikarjuna said that, with such a stimulus package, the sector can ensure full compliance with the rules issued by the government and follow the necessary protocols on health and safety of its employees. “In fact, from March 9 till the shut down, hand sanitisers were dispensed, hourly cleaning of factories and thermal screening was undertaken as preventive measures against COVID-19. Also tracking attendance via biometrics was suspended. We will continue similar practices,” he said.
Recently, even the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India (CMAI) appealed to the Prime Minister to support domestic apparel manufacturers to overcome the impact of lockdown and reduce potential job losses. According to the survey commissioned by CMAI, the collapse of the garment sector can only be prevented if the government provides a comprehensive support package.
But Prathiba pointed out that factory owners have been scuttling workers’ demand for basic wages for years. In February 2018, Siddaramaiah government had issued an order increasing the minimum wages of these workers, but withdrew it soon. In March 2019, Karnataka High Court also ordered that minimum wages should be fixed soon. “Even two subsequent Chief Ministers have failed to implement this due to strong opposition by garment companies,” she said.
Garment Labour Union (GLU) General Secretary, Saroja K, said, “As a union we are waiting and watching if the workers will have to work on compensatory basis, or if the government will give a package post March 31.”
[*Workers’ names have been changed to protect their identity.]