Last year, when the national lockdown was announced, 25-year-old Geeta found herself in a precarious position like millions of others in the country. Her dilemma was whether she should go back home to Bagalkote where her family of eight live in a 200-sq-feet house or continue living in her room in Bengaluru’s Peenya which she shares with four other colleagues. With no transportation for her to make the 470 kilometre journey back, the decision was made for her and she was stuck in her room for almost four months, barely able to make ends meet.
Geeta is once again faced with the same questions. The 14-day lockdown-like curfew announced by the Karnataka government has specified that garment factories will not be able to function. On the one side, the garment workers fear losing their jobs if they head back home, on the other, they worry about how they will survive if the lockdown is extended indefinitely.
Karnataka’s garment industry employs over 5 lakh employees and they are all facing uncertainty once again. The average salary nationally of a garment worker is Rs 9,000 as per government records. The Karnataka Employers’ Association (KEA) has appealed to the state government to allow at least 50% of their operations to function.
The Garments and Textile Workers Union(GATWU) too wrote a letter on Tuesday to the CM questioning if agriculture, construction activities are being allowed then why is the garments’ industry being penalised. They have also urged the government to allow 50% operations or provide compensation otherwise. While they hope the state government will revisit its decision, this has further deepened the workers’ dilemma.
Over 85% of the employees who work in garment factories are women. And many of them are the sole breadwinners in their families. Shantha Moodalgi, who moved to Bengaluru from Tumakuru four years ago, says that she received 50% of her wages for around 6 months in 2020 and is yet to receive the rest of it. She had to take loans to fend for her family and was now hoping to pay back the loan. But now if the factory that she works in is closed again then she will be in deeper debt. “I had to pay for my younger brother’s education in Tumakuru. My husband lost his job last year so I am the only one who has a job in the family," she says.
Prathibha from GATWU says about 40% of the employees were sacked last time in bigger factories and several smaller ones were closed. There are around 950 garment factories in Karnataka and of these, 760 are in Bengaluru.
“Last year, some of the employees were employed in preparing PPE kits. Many others did not get even half the wages. Now the employers have neither told us they will pay nor that they won’t. The situation is bad even for them. They will not incur losses and pay us. We were just trying to get back on our feet but this is a huge blow for us,” she tells TNM.