Several garment unit workers said that they had been laid off, while others were being overworked, with no extra pay.

Workers at a garment factoryRepresentational Image
news Employment Friday, February 26, 2021 - 13:44

During the COVID-19 pandemic, medium and small garment factories in Karnataka were forced to close down and many workers lost their jobs overnight. Export-oriented factories, meanwhile, experienced huge demands and are now allegedly overworking their employees.

“I lost my job on November 28. The factory all of a sudden closed down and since then I have been at home, unemployed. I am trying to find other work, including as a domestic worker; but I am not getting work anywhere,” said Parimala*, a former garment worker who worked at a unit in Ramanagara. Such is the condition of several other garment workers, who are mostly women, across Karnataka, due to the pandemic. 

Several factories closed down or laid off workers without any notice, blaming the pandemic. And this has been disastrous for the nearly two lakh workers and their families who were in many cases entirely dependent on the earnings of these women.

“We are a family of six. My husband is a tailor but he doesn’t go to work and is an alcoholic. The entire family is dependent on me. That work at the factory was our only means of livelihood. Now I’m unsure what to do next,” Parimala added, with tears in her eyes.

Another worker, Aarti*, working at the same unit recalled, “We have worked in that factory for 13 years. We even engaged in plucking weeds for the factory. I am a 45-year-old and lost my husband. Wherever I try, nobody is giving me a job. After working all these years for that factory, we are left with nothing. We have come to the verge of being on the streets.”

Several garment labours’ unions have demanded that the Karnataka government immediately take measures to ensure the safety of such workers who continue to remain unemployed because of the pandemic. They also alleged that the garment factories had not paid several workers even before the lockdown.

According to the unions, the workers who had gone back to their natives during the lockdown were the worst hit as the factories only paid those workers who immediately showed up when the lockdown was relaxed. Those who were in remote regions had no means to travel back as there was no public transport immediately after the lockdown was lifted.

Another section of workers who were severely affected are the elderly, pregnant women and working mothers. “The Karnataka government had said that allowing pregnant or elderly workers and opening of crèches for working mothers were the responsibility of the factory management. However, factories did not want to take any risk, and so threw them out of work,” said Rukmini VP, the president of Garment Labourers Union.\

‘We have jobs, but overworked’

Another section of workers did manage to retain employment in factories that primarily focus on export business, but say they are severely overworked.

“Though the companies paid the labourers for the period of the lockdown, they made them work for extra hours each day, which they said was to compensate for the time they didn’t work during the lockdown. This is happening even now, long after the lockdown has been lifted," said Jayaram KR, Advisor for Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU).

He also alleged that workers are given unrealistic targets and on failure to complete them, they are made to work a little longer without being paid for overtime work, which he called “forced unpaid overtime.”

Several workers, whom TNM spoke to, said that the current working hours have created extremely stressful working conditions in these factories. Workers complain of nearly inhumane treatment during the work hours.

“I used to complete 40 garment pieces per day before the lockdown, which is already difficult. Now, they give me 70 pieces per day. On failure to complete this, the supervisors reprimand us. If we question this, they say we must be grateful to the company for keeping us in jobs. They insinuate to fire us, saying many others are willing to take up the job,” said Roopa*, who works at a garment unit in Bengaluru.

Apoorva*, who works in another garment factory in Bengaluru, said, “They put massive pressure on us to meet the targets. If we fail to complete the targets or question the management, our supervisors, who are mostly men, bawl us out and use expletive language. Additionally, our lunch breaks are reduced from 30 minutes before lockdown to just 20 minutes now. The targets are so high that we cannot afford to take restroom breaks and also don’t drink water as that will mean using the restroom.”

A source from the Labor Department told TNM, “Things are coming back to normalcy gradually but it is true that the factories that depended on the local market and its employees did take a hit.”

However, the source did not completely agree with the allegations of overworking the employees. “It is true that in the initial days after lockdown, the workers and the company had agreed that they will work a little more, but as far as I know, it hasn't happened in many units,” the source said. 

On being asked if they are, in any way, compensated for the additional work, the workers said they had not received any increment and worried that any such demands will result in losing their job. Given the current volatile situation, they cannot afford to lose their job as most families are dependent exclusively on their earnings.

*Names changed on request

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