Karnataka’s Garment Workers during the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the countrywide Lockdown in 2020 has been devastating for garment workers. Left without a means of income beginning from March 25, 2020, workers faced multiple blows from transnational apparel corporations to which they produced for, from the factory managements to which they worked for and from state governments that were constitutionally bound to protect the rights of workers. Transnational apparel corporations, featuring some of the biggest clothing brands, reneged on their commitments to pay up for the orders they had placed and which had already been produced by workers.  The company managements deployed various illegal modes to deny payment to workers, to increase working hours, to fire unionised workers  and to force workers to resign, among others. The state reneged on its commitments to protect the rights of working class as it turned a blind eye to these illegal, anti-worker methods by employers as well as by not increasing minimum wages or dearness allowance.

This is a phenomenon across countries producing garments, and reports of severe distress faced by garment workers are pouring in from various parts of the Global South.  Already workers in these garment exporting countries are at a structural disadvantage.  These exporting countries are rendered ‘attractive’ to transnational apparel corporations due to weak labour laws or criminally ineffective implementation of these laws coupled with poor wages and working conditions, resulting in what some scholars termed as ‘the sweatshop regime’.  Given these conditions, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Lockdown followed the channels of inequality within existing relations of production and the largest burden of the pandemic-induced disruptions were thus borne by the poor women garment workers.

It is in this context that three different studies of garment workers in Karnataka were undertaken in the course of the pandemic to document its impact and the response of the workers. This article restates some of the key findings of the survey, while presenting the chronology of the unfolding distress.

Soon after the Lockdown…

In a survey conducted in May 2020 among 82 garment workers in Bengaluru, Ramanagara, Mysuru and Mandya, 63 percent of workers reported not having received any salary for the month of April 2020.  17 percent of workers reported that they received 50 percent and less of their salaries due for April. Many of these workers also said that even these full or partial payments were made only to those who reported to work in the last week of May 2020.

Even as factory owners were lobbying with the state government for increasing working hours from 48 to 60 hours a week and calling themselves “annadataru” (providers of food), 96 percent of respondents said that they received absolutely no assistance from their employers, be it in the form of cooked food, dry ration kits or loans and advances.

If factory owners failed to assist their employees during the Lockdown, the state too did no better. 75 percent of our respondents said they received ‘no free food’; 51 percent said ‘no free ration’, 66 percent said ‘no subsidised ration’; and 18 percent said ‘absolutely no assistance’ from the government.

The complete apathy of the state towards workers was amply evident in the fact that it provided no transport facilities for workers to reach their workplace while the factories were allowed to reopen. Workers angrily shared their inability to report for work for lack of public transport even when the factories were open. Workers were also extremely anxious and worried about the security of their jobs. They also feared of illegal retrenchment.

Protesting Illegal Lay-off in Srirangapatna

Soon after, in the months of June and July, several workers lost their jobs as many companies across the state either closed their units or cut down their workforce . The Euro Clothing Company-2 (ECC-2) in Srirangapatna, owned by Gokaldas Exports Limited, was one such factory which announced an illegal layoff on June 6, 2020, leaving 1300-odd women workers at a shock.  The layoff, as Garment and Textile Workers’ Union (GATWU) astutely argued, was illegal because the company had not taken permission from the state government under relevant provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 before declaring the layoff. Some key aspects of this labour dispute are worth highlighting.

ECC-2, which had been operating for ten years, produced exclusively for the transnational apparel corporation Hennes and Mauritz (H&M). However, when the illegal layoff was announced and when workers began to protest, H&M was reluctant to intervene despite a clear violation of workers’ rights. GATWU charged that the closure was a union-busting measure since this was one of the few factories where the union was active and regularly intervened on behalf of workers. This charge in itself should have been the ground for H&M to intervene since the company’s voluntary code of commitment includes protecting workers’ right to freedom of association.  But, it intervened only a month after the protest and initially insisted that it was merely a ‘facilitator’ between the supplier and the union.

In the meanwhile, workers continued to resign sensing no support from any quarters including the buyer H&M. The company management too stepped up its efforts to coerce workers to resign. Former supervisors and other staff at the ECC-2 factory were deployed to go to villages of workers and pressurise them to resign, in some cases, even in the late night. Workers and their spouses were threatened with loss of settlement dues if not resigned on the spot. The management staff attempted to scare workers referring to dragging of cases years together in the courts and a possible repeat of Lockdown when resignation might become impossible as the offices would be closed.

The union countered all false propaganda and threats by the management on the one hand, even by confronting management personnel in villages and by filing police complaints on the other. Sustaining the movement and gathering at the company premises became all the more difficult as the small town, Srirangapatna, too had a higher incidence of COVID-19 cases. Alternative channels of communication were opened including use of social media. Updates regarding conciliation proceedings, negotiations with H&M and support from other parts of the world were all shared with workers.

The workers protested for nearly two months demanding re-opening of the company but failed. Still, they managed to get an enhanced compensation to 600 plus workers who fought till the end.

Forced Resignations in Bengaluru

This however was not the case with workers in Bengaluru who were forced to resign by factory managements, from June onwards. In a two-part survey conducted with 89 workers from 25 factories in Bengaluru, workers reported that factory managements had devised different coercive methods, including false propaganda, suspension of transport, threat of transfers, etc.,  to force workers to resign. Workers were forced to resign in a short notice without any scope for discussion or consultation with family and friends.

The companies resorted to unfair labour practices by forcing them to resign and denied them legally due retrenchment compensation and the notice pay. They were also denied the legally mandatory tenure to be eligible for pension.

Workers had nothing to depend on in the period of lockdown as they were earning a meagre wages of Rs 8000 per month which was not even sufficient for rent, utilities and food. They also could not get any alternate employment because of lockdown. Loss of livelihood and retrenchment were the major impact of workers of the garment industry in the period of Lockdown.

The most serious impact was the loss of livelihood for worker households, particularly was the nutrition. A major reduction in expenses was on food. Workers reported primarily cutting down on meat, vegetables, fruits, snacks and beverages such as tea and coffee; in some cases, the number of meals were also cut from thrice to twice or even once a day.

The state during the pandemic

Despite the fact that the garment industry is one of the largest employers of women workers in the state, the Karnataka government refused to undertake any measure to protect the rights of these women workers. Instead, the government condoned the unfair labour practices of the companies. The state government neither instituted any enquiry to investigate mass resignations nor revised minimum wages substantially and thus shrugged off its responsibility under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Even the increase in Dearness Allowance for the year 2020-21 was not paid despite an order by the Karnataka High Court.

Thus, over five lakh odd garment workers in the state had to bear the brunt of a pandemic that was Modi-made. The state and the companies only intensified the structural exploitation under the garb of a pandemic.