Even though garment workers are in the government’s priority list for vaccination and their companies have promised to get them inoculated, a majority of the workforce is yet to get the jab.

Garment workers in a factoryRepresentational image
news COVID-19 Vaccine Thursday, June 24, 2021 - 17:52

“Even if we take a day off due to being sick, our wages are cut. If we try to get the vaccine from a government centre, we will lose additional wages as we might have to wait for a long time. Although my company has said that they will vaccinate us and noted down our details, there’s ambiguity over when we will get the shot,” said Parvathi, who works at a small garment factory in Bengaluru.

After the Karnataka government relaxed lockdown restrictions, garment factory workers in the city are returning to work even as they wait to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Although many companies have promised to get them inoculated, the workers have various concerns. If they wait for the company’s vaccination drive, there could be delays in getting the jab even as they travel to work daily in public transport and work without physical distancing, exposing themselves to risk of the infection. They refrain from going to government vaccination centres due to fear of losing wages as they might have to wait in queues for a long time and miss work. Getting the jab from private hospitals is out of the question for many due to financial constraints and hurdles due to the digital divide.

In some cases, companies have begun vaccinating only those above 45 years of age. Nelamma, a worker at another garment factory, had gone back to her hometown Davangere during the lockdown and returned only when the factories opened. She said that many like her who had left the city are yet to receive the vaccine.

“Employees above 45 have been inoculated, but others like me are yet to receive the vaccine. Many of us had returned to our hometowns when work stopped during the lockdown, which is one of the reasons that has contributed to us not being vaccinated. However, even though the company has assured us that we will be vaccinated soon and collected our details, they haven’t confirmed when it will be done yet. Earlier, we couldn’t get the shot as we were not yet eligible. At present, although we’re eligible there’s ambiguity as to when it will happen. We also want to ensure our safety and our family’s safety. We work in close proximity in the factory and travel in public transport, risking our lives to earn a living,” she said.

Workers also complained that they do not receive paid leave or any benefits from their employers if they contract COVID-19. Instead, they receive a small amount from the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, a self-financing social security and health insurance scheme for workers in India.

Ramesh*, a 24-year-old garment worker, said that if an employee at his factory contracts COVID-19, they are not given any aid, rather their wages are deducted. “We’re not given any paid leave, benefits or aid by the factory, instead our wages are cut for the number of days we don’t report to work. After we recover, we’re asked to get an RT-PCR report; upon furnishing it, we’re asked to approach the local ESI office to receive some amount,” he explained. He added that his employer is already deducting Rs 700 per month from his salary as transport charges since last year. He said that managing his household expenses is already a challenge, so he cannot risk losing a day’s wages to get vaccinated outside and so is waiting to get the shot through the company.

Another major hurdle in the vaccination process is the digital barrier – many of the workers cannot afford smartphones or internet connection, which are required to get oneself registered for availing the vaccine. In addition, they are unaware of the Co-WIN portal and the registration process. When asked whether he had registered on the Co-WIN portal, Ramesh said that he did not have any idea about Co-WIN or how to register himself on the portal.

Rukmini, President of Garment Labour Union (GLU), a women-led trade union engaged in protecting the rights of garment workers, said that nearly 70% of the workforce across the state and in Bengaluru falls within the 18-44 age group, but only those above 45 years of age have been partially vaccinated so far. Speaking to TNM, she said, “Some companies are coming forward to vaccinate their employees, however, only those above 45 have been vaccinated till now. Among them, many have only received the first dose and are struggling to get their second. However, the majority of the workforce falls within the 18-44 age group, so large numbers of workers still need to be inoculated. These workers have only meagre earnings, so they cannot go to private hospitals which are charging as much as Rs 1,200 per dose.”

According to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city’s civic body, garment factory workers were to be inoculated on a priority basis. However, Pratibha R, President of the Garment and Textile Workers Union, observed that the vaccination did not happen per schedule for everyone, including government workers, due to shortage of doses. “Across sectors, people are struggling to get vaccinated due to a shortage of vaccines. Garment factory workers are facing a similar situation. Their companies are stepping in to vaccinate them. We’re coordinating with the BBMP to get them vaccinated,” she added.

When TNM reached out to Naseer Humayun, the Bengaluru representative of the Clothing Manufacturers’ Association of India, one of the country’s prominent organisations of garment factory owners, he said that they had approached the BBMP last month to get their employees vaccinated. “There was a delay in procuring vaccines initially due to the shortage the country was facing at large. We had approached the BBMP in May end and they had said that there was a shortage of vaccines then. Later, we received some vaccine doses and on June 21, a vaccination drive was held at four factories across the city. In the next 2-3 days we’re hoping to cover workers who haven’t got even one dose,” Naseer said.

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