Sudden closure of Karnataka garment factory stitching H&M clothes leaves workers stranded

Labour activists are urging Gokaldas exports to reopen the factory and provide the workers the wages they are owed.
Sudden closure of Karnataka garment factory stitching H&M clothes leaves workers stranded
Sudden closure of Karnataka garment factory stitching H&M clothes leaves workers stranded
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Lakshmamma, a garment worker in Karnataka’s Mandya district, is an expert sewing operator who helps make jackets, shirts and blazers for fashion brands like H&M. 

But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, her factory - Euro Clothing Company -II - attached to Gokaldas Exports, a major apparel and clothing exporter in India, has seen a decrease in orders placed by international retailers. 

On June 6, the factory unit in Mandya, with around 1,300 workers, was shut down. An announcement was made through a notice stuck on a wall inside the factory telling its workers that they no longer had their jobs and that they would be paid half of their wages. 

The notice said that the reason for laying off the workers was due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the manufacturing activity of the exporter.

Almost three weeks after the unit was shut down, the factory workers, mostly women, are steadfastly protesting their dismissals. “We are living on borrowed money,” Lakshmamma says. “We have been unable to get other jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic. We have to borrow money to pay our rent and feed our children,” Lakshamma adds. After her husband suffered a stroke, Lakshmamma is now the family’s lone earning member and she has a son who is studying in class 9. 

Workers like Lakshmamma who were laid off earlier this month turn up at the factory premises every day and sit in protest till the evening hoping to hear from officials at Gokaldas Exports that they can have their jobs back. They say they are yet to receive assurances from officials. 

“We are valued only if we are working but when the work stops, we are not valued.”

The ECC-II unit is located in Srirangapatna in Mandya and the exporter - Gokaldas Exports - manufactures clothes of brands from leading Indian retailers as well as brands from Europe and the United States. The workers in the factory were paid half of their wages in April and returned to work on May 4, when the stringent lockdown restrictions in India were lifted. 

Workers say they were laid off without warning on June 6 following which a tripartite negotiation process involving the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), officials from Gokaldas Exports and labour department officials in Mandya was started. 

Officials from Gokaldas Exports declined to give a response, and did not clarify details about the layoffs. “We have not taken any decision and we are not discussing the details of the negotiation with the media. We will be sharing the statement once the talks are finalised,” Sireesh Kumar, Deputy General Manager of Compliance at Gokaldas said. 

Both the factory workers and labour department officials in Mandya said that the layoffs were announced without warning. Labour activists say that they were in violation of section 25M of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. In the run up to the dismissals, labour unions had sent letters to the state labour department on June 1 pointing to Gokaldas’ decision to remove machinery from the factory unit without offering explanations. Officials in Karnataka’s labour department told TNM that officials from Gokaldas had cited the reduction of orders due to the coronavirus. 

Lakshmamma says that the workers in the unit that was shut down often made products for Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M), a globally recognised clothing retailer. Labour activists told TNM that in 2019, a majority of the products manufactured in the Euro Clothing Company - II unit were H&M products. 

Officials in H&M told TNM that they have been following the developments and that the retailer was in close dialogue with both the workers and the supplier to resolve the conflict.

They also said that H&M is fulfilling the payments for orders placed by it with the supplier - Gokaldas Exports. “We are deeply concerned about the developments and are acutely aware that garment workers are in an extremely vulnerable situation. However, at this point, our orders at this specific supplier are on similar levels as during the same period last year. We are also fulfilling our payments for goods in accordance with contracts, on time and at the originally agreed price,” an H&M spokesperson wrote to TNM.

There are 20 factories in the area, but the unit in Srirangapatna is the only one that was closed. H&M said that the conflict between the workers and factory officials was due to ‘different interpretations of Indian laws’. 

“The conflict between the supplier and the trade unions is about different interpretations of the national law. We are in close dialogue with both parties to help them resolve the conflict peacefully and reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties,” the spokesperson added. 

Garment workers protesting in Euro Clothing Company - II factory unit in Srirangapatna, Mandya

However, labour activists questioned H&M’s silence and their unwillingness to take responsibility for workers who made their products.

“Is H&M admitting they have no responsibility for workers who make their clothes? H&M cannot reduce the conflict to interpretations of national law and hide behind its supplier. It needs to take responsibility for workers rights and abuses in its supply chain. There is a legal process to be followed by the government. The company (Gokaldas) has to pay back wages and reopen the factory,” Gautam Mody, General Secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) of India told TNM. 

A worker aware of the discussions stated that Gokaldas was exploring the possibility of relocating workers from the Mandya unit to its factory in the neighboring Mysuru district. “We were told that those unwilling to relocate will be paid retrenchment compensation and let go. But the workers have not agreed to this,” a worker told TNM. The same worker told TNM that the factory unit in Srirangapatna was targeted to punish workers engaged in union activity. “Many workers in this factory unit are union members and we have struggled for our payments even before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” the worker added. 

Garment workers protesting in Euro Clothing Company - II factory unit in Srirangapatna, Mandya

In 2018, the Karnataka government had issued a notification recommending a 35-40% wage hike for skilled and unskilled workers in the state. The notification was withdrawn and RTI documents revealed that around the time it was rolled back, three companies - Shahi Exports, Gokaldas Exports and Himmath Singhka Seide Limited - had made representations to the state government asking for a change in the notification due to a ‘slowdown’ in the textile industry. One of the letters addressed to the state labour department also suggested that factories would be relocated to a neighbouring state in an apparent attempt to pressure the government. 

In an industry where workers are paid low wages and made to work in poor conditions, practices to disrupt unionsing is not new and has been a problem for decades. Labour activists say that The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, mandates a revision of wages by state governments every three to five years but workers in the garment industry of Karnataka argue that their wages were revised only five times in over 40 years. 

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the workers’ struggles. The Karnataka government recently withdrew a controversial notification which extended the maximum working hours from 8 to 10 per day and from 48 to 60 per week for factory workers in the state. 

The state labour department is mediating the negotiations between the protesting workers in Mandya and officials from Gokaldas. Sources in the department told TNM that Gokaldas had sought one more week’s time. It has been nearly three weeks since the firings were announced and protests began. 

“We will come here (to the factory) every morning and leave every evening (protesting). It has been 19 days already and we will go on until we are paid our due wages and the factory is reopened,” Lakshmamma adds. 

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