Situation of Garment Workers During Various Stages of Pandemic: Views from Workers Think Tank
13:00 - 14:30 (Bangkok time, GMT+7), 31 May 2021
Covid Pandemic, while bringing to the fore issues around health and failing state of health infrastructure, in India, also exposed the true face of the industry across the sectors. As business operations across the world, including India was hit severely, manufacturing sector, relying itself on factory operations was impacted the most. And among various sectors, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on global garment supply chains. With, brands and retailers are cancelling orders from their supplier factories and government imposing restrictions on travel and gatherings; garment factories are suspending production and suspending their workers.
Research by Gethu group1, a worker’s led think-tank, reveals that the impact, of the pandemic, on garment workers is devastating. Those who continue to work in factories are at significant risk, of catching the infection, as social distancing is impossible during their work day and employers may not be implementing appropriate healthy and safety measures. Those who fall sick may not have insurance or sick pay coverage and will struggle to access services in sourcing countries where medical infrastructure and public health systems were already weak even before the pandemic. And for those who lose their jobs, they face uncertainty about their future, as they have few savings to fall back upon and no alternate options to generate income.
Prior to the Pandemic as well, the sector and its operation wasn’t particularly worker friendly. While the global fashion brands that outsourced production to suppliers in Asian countries, including have been making supernormal profits through unfair purchasing practices, the garment workers working in unsafe conditions were paid, in many cases less than the minimum wage.The situation was particularly unfair with regard to the huge women workforce that is employed to carry out unskilled jobs in the various stages of the supply chain. According to the study2 that involved interactions and interviews of 77 workers across 4 districts in Tamil Nadu, most of the respondents, barring a few men who worked as factory supervisors, reported being daily wage workers. During months when they worked for all of the 26 working days, they are given an incentive ranging from Rs 500 to 1000. This often placed women in disadvantageous positions as they had to face pay cuts or compromise on their health during painful menstrual cycles and other such urgencies for which they would have otherwise taken leave.
The pandemic accentuated the misery and exposed the structural issues that throng the sector. While government’s response to COVID 19 crisis is found lacking in many aspects and the company remains unresponsive. It pushed thousands of workers into situations of indebtedness, with many being forced to take loans from friends and SHGs to meet their daily needs, but with no avenue to pay it back. Most workers reported being paid only partial wages, and were not sure if they would be paid during the lockdown. While many workers reported the deduction of PF from the salary, but they were not aware about the process to access it, thereby making it difficult to access the PF schemes announced by the government during the lockdown
With regard to government schemes during lockdowns, while on one hand, all workers have received Rs.1000, through the Tamil Nadu Ration card and 35 of them have received payment and ration under the Public Distribution Card card, on the other villagers who have Jan Dhan accounts have not received the Rs.500 support, only one family has been provided cylinders and the Integrated Child Development Services is only providing food support to two members of the family. Indebtedness is increasing, as people are forced to take groceries on credit or take loans from their relatives3.
COVID opened up a pandora’s box, and revealed the vulnerabilities that workers face in this sector. It caused disruption not only in the way in which the industry functioned, but also in the lives of lakhs of workers who remain dependent on the industry and its operations. This session seeks to directly engage with workers and use garment sector supply chain in Southern India based supply chain as a case to understand grave relaities and map some of the key expectations from worker’s. The session would include primary voices of the workers as collated through regular deliberative engagment with workers think tank.
1 Gethu is a workers’ think tank on the garment supply chain. It is an informal group consisting of workers from across the supply chain from cotton farming to stitching and packaging of garments. The group meets every month to discuss diverse issues faced by workers in this textile supply chain. They have contributed tremendously to building an understanding of the making of school uniform from the lens of science as well as a social dimension. For more information please visit https://gethuworkers.wordpress.com/
As part of the session following questions will be explored
What has been an impact of the pandemic on the condition of workers and petty contrcators engaged in the garment sector supply chain?
What are some of the underlying issues in the garment sector suply-chain, which exposed the sector to vulnerabilitites?
Do workers think that brands have played their part or are they shying away from owning the supply chains at such crucial juncture? What do workers and petty contrcators expect?