Piece by piece
A bend between a few heaps of garbage leads to the colony of workers employed in the garment factories of Udyog Vihar in Gurgaon, an industrial city in National Capital Region (NCR), on the outskirts of Delhi. On a Sunday morning, in one of the many narrow alleys of the colony, several young men stand around a hand pump, waiting their turn to bathe and wash their laundry. At the entrance to a large compound lined with about 20 single rooms with asbestos roofs, stands Gyaneshwar, a 26-year-old migrant worker from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Gyaneshwar is a new entrant to the garment industry, locally called the 'export line' of work, for its supply of garments to global retail brands. He is one of two lakh workers employed in one of the thousands of units located in Gurgaon. Most garment exporting units are concentrated in Udyog Vihar. For his work from 9 am to 5:30 pm, six days a week, he is paid INR 5800 (USD 92) per month. Given the rising costs of living, the salary is insufficient for workers like him, who work up to 15 hours daily, sometimes even on a Sunday.
Rashid, 55 and from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, has been in the industry for more than 20 years. Although a senior worker employed in a permanent capacity, his years of service have been punctuated by several breaks as he was forced to resign and join different organisations every time he tried to access his provident fund, which denied him the right to take out loans when in service.
As workers' regular salaries are inadequate to meet basic needs, overtime work has become necessary, a situation far removed from the life embodied in the luxury brands they create. Most will never own a single shirt of any of the brands they work for, despite having stitched thousands or even hundreds of thousands during their lifetime. Sher Ansari, a tailor at one of these factories, cannot even afford shirts cheaper than the brands he stitches for. "In the last twenty years, I have not bought a single shirt for myself. I always buy second hand stuff from the street vendors for 30-35 rupees [less than half a dollar]," he says. Ansari's comments are not surprising. The apparel manufacturing units in Gurgaon sell to international brands such as Gap, Marks & Spencer, Abercrombie & Fitch, Zara, Next, and domestic ones such as Biba, Satya Paul and Ritu Kumar. Clothes from these brands sell at several thousand rupees.
With growing demand from these companies for a steady and cheap supply of garments, India's garment industry is big business, and employs a massive work force. It ranks high in terms of contribution to employment in India (agriculture still employs the largest number of workers) and also contributes significantly to GDP and export earnings. In 2014, textile and garment exports to the US alone grew at 6.5 percent, compared to the 2 percent annual growth in the last five years. The spurt was fuelled by the revival of the American economy, and the decline in imports from India's competitors such as Bangladesh, after the Rana Plaza collapse and other accidents drew attention to safety concerns in that country.
Factories and fabricators
With factories in Gurgaon, Faridabad and Noida, the outer edges of the NCR are one of the major centres of apparel production in India. These satellite townships fall outside the jurisdiction of Delhi and do not face the same kind of scrutiny as the capital. In fact, many manufacturing units relocated from parts of Delhi to Udyog Vihar (in the state of Haryana) in the 1990s, due to Delhi's stringent labour laws and heavy tax concessions provided by the Haryana government. Recently, there has been growing pressure to relocate these factories even further away from to Manesar or Rewari in Haryana.
The manufacturing units located here vary in size, from those employing 1000 to smaller units employing 400-500 workers. Registered under the Factories Act, they take orders from intermediary companies, often called 'buying houses', or directly from global brands. In contrast to these factories, there is the grey world of 'fabricators' – unregistered manufacturing units that employ between 10 to 500 workers. These units do not negotiate with global buyers directly and take orders from registered manufacturing units. Since fabricator units are not registered, though the larger ones are required to, they save on taxes and pay electricity charges below commercial rates. They are also, of course, able to avoid the jurisdiction of labour laws, and many are located on the Delhi side of the Delhi-Haryana border.
Apart from these factories and fabricators, some of the manufacturing work is done by those working from their homes. This happens when the manufacturing units subcontract a small part of their work, like sewing buttons on the garment, to these home-based workers. These workers, mostly women, are often paid very little, which again reduces the overall production costs for the manufacturer.
Whatever the scale of production, all of these processes are at the bottom of the global assembly-line production chain, one whose history goes back to the mid-20th century. Since the 1950s, countries of Southeast Asia and Southasia have been manufacturing garments for markets in the Global North: Japan in the 1950s and 1960s; Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s; China in the 1990s; and India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and others today. From merely assembling the imported materials, the garment manufacturers of Asia have moved up the value chain to making readymade garments on their own – a process known within the industry as 'full-package supply'. Under this process, which includes procurement of fabric, design, manufacture, and finishing of the garment, the level of explicit coordination by the global buyers is reduced, as is their responsibility. Since the global brands merely act as buyers of apparel, they are not held accountable for the conditions under which the production takes place.
The full-package production starts with the prototype of a specific design ordered by the brand company; the design may be specified by the global buyer or generated by in-house designers of the local producers. This work is usually done by senior and skilled tailors called master tailors. Samples of this design are made by tailors called 'samplers'. The design is then sent for approval to the brand company. After the approval of the design, cloth is procured by the production unit (sometimes the brand company specifies the supplier of cloth) and sent for dyeing, often outside Delhi, on account of concerns regarding pollution. Next, the cloth is cut in accordance with the sample and finally, these bundles are distributed to the workers for stitching.
Within the manufacturing units, there is a growing trend to employ a 'chain system' rather than use 'full piece' workers for the stitching process. In the chain system, each worker is supposed to work or stitch merely a part of the garment rather than the entire garment. This kind of work can be done by workers with minimal training, who are then paid lower wages. In contrast, a 'full piece' worker has to stitch the entire garment and hence needs to be a skilled tailor who would have to be given higher wages.
The chain system was introduced in Udyog Vihar as far back as the 1990s, where rows and rows of tailors, each with an electronic sewing machine, form the assembly lines. The fabric passes from one machine to the other till the basic structure of the garment is stitched. Reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, each tailor works only on a small patch of the garment. Every row, consisting of around 40 tailors and 10 helpers, has a supervisor in order to ensure that the workers meet the time and production targets. Larger units have multiple rows in a hall, but irrespective of whether the room is big or small, well lit or dark, tailors and machines are so tightly packed that all one can see is a sea of bent heads, and all one can hear is the incessant sound of sewing machines.
With production targets becoming extremely punishing, injuries and deaths at the workplace are no longer a rare occurrence. In 2011, a worker in Modelama Exports Limited died after getting an electric shock from the sewing machine. Another worker in the tailoring department of the Orient Craft factory in Gurgaon suddenly collapsed on his seat at the electronic sewing machine in March 2014. However, it was a while before other workers realised what had happened as they were busy completing the production targets.
In fact, the success of factories like Orient Craft is related to the increasing work intensity on its factory floors. In late-March 2014, a fact-finding team with representatives from Krantikari Naujawan Sabha, Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra, Mazdoor Patrika, Perspectives, People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Sanhati and Workers’ Unity investigating the accident at Orient Craft was told that the practice of monitoring individual tailors with stopwatches had begun four years earlier and was further refined with the introduction of magnetic card readers. According to the team’s report:
every bundle of cloth that arrives at the desk of a tailor is accompanied by a magnetic card. Every tailor has to punch this card on the card reading machine at the beginning and conclusion of operations, which relays data regarding how many seconds each worker takes per task, and how many pieces he/she has finished in a day.
The introduction of these machines significantly increased the strain of the work. The report notes that a single bundle comes with about 15 garment pieces and a worker is expected to finish between five to ten bundles an hour. Production targets can go as high as 150-200 shirts per hour per person.
The tailoring is followed by a quality check after which the garments are sent for finishing, which includes cutting off stray threads, and stitching buttons and laces. Perceived as lighter work, finishing is usually given to women workers, some of whom work within the factory premises and some from their homes. Women are invariably paid lower wages. In a fabricator unit I visited as a part of a research group, women workers were paid INR 5000 (USD 80) per month whereas their male counterparts were paid around INR 8000 (USD 127). The women were let off two hours before the men in order to “take care of their household chores”. Patriarchal beliefs and notions, such as women should be responsible for housework, actually enable the employers to pay them lower wages.
NCR is unusual in that it is the only region in India with a preponderance of male workers in the garment industry, although there has been a marked increase in the proportion of women. In general, the industry is dominated by women. Tirupur in western Tamil Nadu, considered to be the hub of garment manufacturing in India, is a good example. Around the time of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, multiple studies and reports pointed out the large-scale employment of girls younger than 18 as bonded labourers in the industries in Tirupur. The work occurs under the Sumangali scheme where girls are paid their wages only at the end of their contract, which could be one year, five years, or more. If their services were terminated in between, they would not be paid. A report published by Verite – an organisation monitoring international labour rights – on this scheme in Tirupur notes:
the industry prefers to employ young girls because they are easily threatened and exploited and made to work more for lower wages. The girls working under the Sumangali scheme earn significantly less than adult male workers doing the same category of work.
The garments are checked, ironed, packaged and labelled, after which they are put into neat boxes, ready for delivery to the brand company. Interestingly, a single manufacturing unit makes apparel for multiple brands, some of whom may be in stiff competition with each other. Within a factory, all that distinguishes one brand from the other are labels and boxes.
Wages of labour
The global chain and multiple sites of production enable brands to purchase readymade apparel at low cost, locking developing countries into stiff competition with each other. For the workers employed in this line of work, this often means lower wages. In his book on garment workers of Bangladesh, The Song of the Shirt (2015), Jeremy Seabrook reports that workers are paid USD 1.66 an hour in China, 56 cents in Pakistan, 51 cents in India, 44 cents in Indonesia, 36 cents in Vietnam, and 31 cents in Bangladesh (Seabrook says even this is an overestimate). According to an estimate made by Workers’ Unity, an organisation working among the garment workers of the Delhi-Gurgaon area, the cost of labour for a branded shirt which sells at INR 1500 (USD 24) is not more than INR 20, or 30 US cents. The competition between the countries and between manufacturing units within the country is so great that the manufacturers themselves sell at low prices, their profits coming from the volume of the orders. In order to secure the orders they try to sell as cheap as possible.
The wages are kept low due to a variety of factors. Quite often, workers in these factories are migrants who find it difficult to unionise and demand higher wages. The industry is dominated by women workers who are paid lower wages. Most workers are temporary, many even seasonal workers who are employed during times of peak demand. Home-based workers are paid per piece. None of these conditions help the workers in demanding better working conditions or higher wages.
The working day starts at 9 am in the morning and carries on till 5:30 pm, with a half-hour lunch break at 1 pm. The monthly salary of a helper is around INR 3000 (USD 48), and for a tailor is under INR 6000 (USD 96). For samplers, it can exceed INR 8000 (USD 128). Except for a handful of companies, most pay overtime at single rates rather than the double hourly rate mandated by the law. Those working at home – the women cutting extra threads of stitched garments, for example – get around INR 3 (5 US cents) per garment. The supervisors are paid up to INR 25,000 (USD 400) per month, apart from being given incentives for more production. Therefore, it is not unusual to see the supervisors putting pressure on the workers to work faster.
Although monthly salaries, usually routed through a contractor, are based on this eight-hour working day, putting in four to five hours of overtime is a daily routine rather than an exception. Typically, a worker works till nine or ten at night, and this can extend further during the peak season from November to February. With overtime, the workers manage to earn around INR 10,000 (USD 160) monthly. According to the workers, without putting in extra hours, they would be in no situation to maintain their families. Even with the additional earning, the families of the workers usually stay back in the villages as it is difficult to afford an entire family’s subsistence in Delhi. The practice of working overtime is often involuntary. According to some accounts, many workers put in an extra 100 hours per month; legally only around 56 hours of overtime is permitted in a month. Overtime wages are paid separately from regular wages, and instances of miscalculation are not uncommon.
Some workers do piece-rate work where they are paid according to the pieces made rather than the time put in. These workers can earn up to INR 17,000 (USD 270) per month. However, even they are supposed to meet the production targets and not slow down the chain system. The piece rates have not increased much in the past 14 years. From INR 14 to 15 (24 US cents) per shirt in early 2000s, the rates have only risen to INR 20 to 25 (36 US cents), and in some cases to INR 30 to 35 (50 US cents). Even for workers earning on a monthly basis, an increment of INR 100 to 200 (around USD 2) in the monthly salary is nowhere close to the rise in inflation rates. It is hardly sufficient to continue with the same standard of living from one year to the other. According to the workers, there has been no increase in their real earnings and many of them talked of a fall in their savings.
In Kapashera, on the Delhi side of the Delhi-Gurgaon border that has huge settlements of garment workers, Mubarak, a tailor from Uttar Pradesh, talked about his earnings over the years at different factories in Delhi and Haryana. Fifteen years ago, as a tailor in a factory in Moti Bagh, he earned around INR 80 (USD 1.50) in a day. A shirt could be stitched in an hour and a pair of pants in one-and-a-half hours. Living on the factory premises, he sent INR 1500 to 2000 (about USD 28) to his family every month. In 2003, he moved to Kapashera after the company in Moti Bagh shut shop and relocated to Udyog Vihar. Mubarak joined a different company in Udyog Vihar where he continues to work till date.
Mubarak had very little knowledge of the company for which he has been working for ten years, because he is employed through a labour contractor. In his early days in Kapashera, he made around INR 200 (USD 3) every day, more than what he used to earn in Moti Bagh. But his costs of living were far higher. Now he had to pay INR 600 (USD 9) every month for his room rent, since workers couldn’t stay in factory premises unlike in Moti Bagh. And food was more expensive, too. So even though he was earning more, the money that he could send back home remained more or less the same.
Today, workers like Mubarak earn INR 80 to 90 (about USD 1.35) by stitching a shirt and INR 150 to 200 (about USD 2.80) by stitching a pair of pants. After working for 11 hours, he can earn nearly INR 600 (USD 10) in a day. Out of his monthly earnings, he spends about INR 2000 (USD 32) on rent and another INR 3000 (USD 48) on food. But he still cannot bring his family to Delhi, as he would then have to spend another six to seven thousand per month.
The majority of the garment workers in Gurgaon hail from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. A large number of them are Muslims and come from the Julaha community that has traditionally worked with cloth. Many of them are skilled tailors and have been working in the industry for more than ten years, some for as long as 20 years. But despite having spent a large part of their lives in Delhi, most do not have an identity card which shows them to be residents of Delhi. Except for a handful of export units, most factories employ workers indirectly through a labour contractor. About 80 percent of the workers are not permanent but on contract (Workers’ Unity estimates this figure to be around 90 percent), and can be, and sometimes are, fired at will.
Only a miniscule number of workers are employed as ‘permanent’, and are entitled to paid leave and maternity leave. However, the workers claim that ‘permanency’ is a myth as even after ten years of work, people can be thrown out. Often, workers are terminated before the completion of five years, which would entitle them to gratuity payment. They are then made to join afresh after a few weeks so that the company can save on the payments.
Even after working for 12 to 14 hours a day, the workers can at best afford a small room in the overcrowded tenements of Kapashera or Dundahera, located about a 30 minutes walk from Udyog Vihar. Buildings with more than 15 small rooms on each floor are found on the extremely narrow alleys lined on both sides by open, overflowing drains. The rooms have no ventilation, nor a separate kitchen space, and there are only three washrooms in a floor. The rent for such rooms varies from INR 1650 to 2100 (about USD 30) per month with a separate payment for electricity. Workers often cannot afford to rent even these rooms on their own. Usually, these are shared by two or three workers; in some cases, the landlord charges extra for the third resident. In case the worker stays with his family (usually when the family members are also working), there have been instances where the landlord put limits on the number of children and charged extra rent for more children. Some landlords also force the workers to buy groceries from their own shops in the building at a slightly higher rate than the market. Since these workers do not have Delhi ration cards, they have to buy rations and gas in the open market rather than at subsidised rates.
These huge workers’ settlements of Kapashera and Dundahera are hidden from view by the sprawling farmhouses of Gurgaon, owned by the country’s elite, indicating the disconnect between the lives of apparel workers and the world they produce for. The bitter irony of their lives is reflected in the fact that although most workers do not want their children to work in this industry, the absence of resources for decent education makes it quite likely that they will be trapped in the same situation as their parents. Yet another generation of youth will be spending their lives stitching shirts they are unlikely to be able to ever afford. Another generation toiling relentlessly in halls full of machines.
~Archana Aggarwal teaches economics at Hindu College, University of Delhi.
~Note: The names of the workers have been changed for their security.