Makers of High Fashion, Karnataka's Skilled Garment Workers Are Cheated of Fair Wages

Elections do not excite them as successive governments have robbed them of a chance to make a good living. While many have left this line of work, companies do not care as they can always find replacements among migrants.

Bengaluru: The pavement on a small stretch somewhere on Mysuru Road suddenly comes abuzz as the clock strikes five.

Vegetable vendors switch on the megaphones atop their yellow three-wheeler pickups to blare out prices. A couple of private security personnel push the factory gates open. On the other side of the gates, a battalion of workers – largely women – queues up impatiently for their turn to be frisked and have their bags checked before they can step out.

The evening has brought to close yet another eight-hour shift for these women and men who form the skilled workforce at garment-making units in Bengaluru, Karnataka. 

As they troop out, many of the women flock to the vendors to fill up polythene bags with tomatoes, potatoes, onions and greens. Apart from the pickups, there are scores of young men and women, some still in their teens, squatting on the pavements. Most of them are from the families of garment workers, out here to add to the household income.

The workers who are from other states have to quickly complete shopping lest they miss the company bus that will cart them back to their hostels. The local workers don’t have much time either: They will need to return to their rented quarters to start preparing dinner for their families and help the children with their studies.

Some linger around to socialise with colleagues – between their eight-hour shifts and endless household chores, these are the few minutes to call their own. Gradually, some of the vegetable shoppers join them. Most of them are unimpressed at the prices they have just shelled out. The conversations turn towards how difficult it has become to make ends meet.

Family members of garment workers sell vegetables on the pavement near two garment factories on Mysore Road. Photo: Joyjeet Das

High inflation, like in most places in India and among most sections of the society, is a cause of concern here too. But for garment workers, it is not just about the monthly household budget going haywire. In the absence of a decent wage, it is increasingly becoming more about scraping the bottom.

Low wage has been a persistent problem. Now, it has started to wean the local workforce away from this once-popular source of employment. The companies are not worried as there are always enough workers from other states willing to take their place. 

Garment manufacture, along with three other related sectors – textiles, silk, and dyeing and printing – has been suffering a persistent wage disparity. Barring these four, all of Karnataka’s 82 scheduled employment opportunities guarantee minimum wages of Rs 551-651 per day, depending on the level of skill involved. A skilled garment worker, on the other hand, can make only Rs 441 for an eight-hour shift. This totals to Rs 11,466 for a usual, 26-workday month.

“That’s just not enough to run a household,” says 48-year-old Jayalakshmi*.

“The rent itself is Rs 6,000-7,000 a month. A cylinder of cooking gas costs about Rs 1,200. Groceries are much dearer as are bus fares. Then there are the tuition fees for the children,” she explains.

Highly skilled garment workers like her are entrusted with complex tasks such as attaching collars to button-down shirts – shirts that would typically retail for Rs 5,000-Rs6,000. That is half a month’s salary for Jayalakshmi. 

‘Waging’ a long battle 

Disputes regarding wages are nothing new for the sector. Their grievance goes back more than a decade. A section of the workers feels that the government has simply stopped caring for them and is serving the interests of the business owners instead. As a result, they seem aloof about the ongoing electoral process.

In 2010, government led by B.S. Yediyurappa withdrew its own notification on minimum wages for the garments (officially known as tailoring) sector, citing a clerical error, and followed it up with a reduced figure. Trade unions took the government to court but it took all of 2014 to solve the matter and fix a floor wage (Rs 220 per day for unskilled workers).

Problems cropped up again when the government of Karnataka notified revised minimum wages to be effective from January 1, 2018. The list of 37 sectors did not include the garment sector, but featured allied sectors like textiles and silk, as well as dyeing and printing of clothes. 

Also read: BJP Government in Karnataka Changed Labour Laws After Foreign Firm’s Lobbying: Report

On February 22, 2018, the state government issued a draft, notifying a minimum wage of Rs 445.69 for the garment sector.

Meanwhile, industry representatives started lobbying with the government to reduce the proposed minimum wage. In March 2018, Shahi Exports – India’s largest garment manufacturer – wrote to the government, seeking:

  1. That the proposed wages be withdrawn and 
  2. That all four “integrated and similar activity”, viz Tailoring, Dyeing and Printing, Textiles and Silk, be kept on a par.

The government succumbed and withdrew the draft notification exactly a month after putting it forth, along with the notifications for the three other sectors, setting the stage for another legal battle.

The trade unions moved the Karnataka high court and a single-judge bench first stayed the notification with the condition that workers of the three sectors for whom the floor wage was already notified be paid 75% of what was promised. In 2019, it passed an order directing that the remaining 25% be paid too, along with a 6% interest.  

The state government, meanwhile, on October 31, 2019, notified a new minimum wage for the sector at Rs 341.94 – significantly lower than the original Rs 445.69. This was later held by the high court as “inoperative”.

In 2020, the Karnataka Chief Justice’s bench ordered the government to honour the draft for the tailoring sector as well and form a committee as laid down by the Minimum Wages Act.  

The Clothing Manufacturers’ Association of India (Karnataka chapter) and the state Textile Mills Association moved the Supreme Court, but their plea was rejected. They then appealed to the HC to reconsider its decision. This time, the court asked the government to discuss wages with all stakeholders and arrive at a decision.

The state convened two meetings but failed to create a consensus. All the same, it went ahead and notified a new floor wage on January 23, 2023 at Rs 401.07, along with a dearness allowance of Rs 19.61, without the workers’ representatives being on board the decision.

“Earlier in January, we requested labour minister A.S. Hebbar to raise the wages as directed by the high court, but he said he could not,” said Jayaram K.R., joint secretary of Garments and Textiles Workers Union.

The industry lobby is too powerful – they even threatened to shift production away from the state if the minimum wage was further raised, he alleged.

Jayaram cited the the basic minimum pay of the ceramics sector which was fixed at Rs 615.09 last year to point out that the garment workers in the state receive a raw deal.

A lack of political muscle

For Jayamma* and her colleagues, meanwhile, the reality gets bleaker by the day. Most of the 5-7 lakh workers in Karnataka are single earners for their families. At best, another family member tries to supplement the income, like the vegetable sellers outside the factory gate.

Some 40-50 lakh voters – almost every 10th voter – in the state would be directly or indirectly dependent on a garment sector worker, Jayaram estimated. Even leaving a margin for over-estimation, that should have translated to a considerable political clout. But it hasn’t.

“We live and work here now, but most of us are from other districts like Mysuru, Channapatna, Hassan, etc,” points out Jayalakshmi’s colleague Saraswathi*. While many of the workers plan to cast their votes come May 10, they will be scattered across many of Karnataka’s 224 assembly constituencies. This dispersal of the garment workers’ votes has ensured that the workers – almost 80% of whom are women – never become a strong voting group who can negotiate their interests. 

Garment workers finish their shift and leave for home. Photo: Joyjeet Das

The industry, on the other hand, has much more heft. Shahi Exports, the largest player, alone has over 50 factories in nine Indian states that are estimated to employ more than 1.1 lakh workers. Though the lion’s share is in Karnataka, the company retains the edge of being able to move work away to other states. Gokaldas Exports Ltd also has more than 20 units and 32,000 employees. Other players include Arvind Ltd, Aditya Birla Fashion & Retail, Pearl Global Industries Ltd, etc. Between them, they cater to the who’s who of fashion brands: GAP, M&S, Victoria’s Secret, PVH Corp (that houses Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), Columbia Sportswear, H&M, Walmart, C&A, Nike, Adidas, Puma and even new-generation fast fashion darling Zara.

The export dollars help the industry regularly get its way with the state. There are 800-1,000 manufacturing units like the one in which Jayalakshmi works, with a combined turnover estimated at Rs 25,000-30,000 crore from exports and branded garments. It is something that a state with a budget outlay of around Rs 3 lakh crore cannot take for granted, just as it cannot take for overlook the huge volume of employment generated.

The staffing pattern has started to change though. Karnataka’s women garment workers have, over the years, silently but deftly established their stamp of quality. But of late, there has been an increase in workers from the north and the east. “They tend to work for lower wages than locals,” Jayaram says. Being thousands of kilometres away from home, they are also not in a position to take a stand against harassment and production pressure from the management. 

Workers from the state, on the other hand, are more conscious of their rights. In 2018, they took on the Shahi management for physical assault and verbal abuse, including sexist and casteist slurs. The matter was probed by United States-based monitoring organisation Worker Rights Consortium. 

The lack of work during the COVID-19 pandemic led several workers to other sectors, some of which turned out to be more lucrative: An unskilled housekeeper or mall attendant now makes Rs 14,000-15,000 in Bengaluru – 30% more than a skilled garment worker.

“During the lockdown, nobody came to help us out. Now they come to seek votes,” says Revathi,* outside the factory gate. Not surprising then that elections do not excite Jayalakshmi and her colleagues any more. Voting is just another chore for them.

The outgoing government has left them more wary. “The cost of everything has gone up, the government has made more money but what did we get?” asks Saraswathi.* Revathi points out that bus passes for workers were withdrawn; she is afraid that fares will shoot up once the elections are over.

“There are also talks of 12-hour workdays. That will be extremely bad for us. Already, there are days when we have to stay back overtime – even for five-six hours,” alleges Varalakshmi.*

They have not completely lost hope, though. They hope the new government is more sensitive to their needs. Their demands are simple: 

  • No unbridled rise in living costs (rents, power, water),
  • Prices of daily essentials be within reach,
  • Cheaper bus fares and reinstating of bus passes,
  • Affordable and quality education for children,
  • Better civic amenities in the areas they live in.

And, of course, a more decent wage that recognises their skill, hard work as well as the repute and dollars they bring to the state.

*The names of workers have been changed to protect their identities.

Joyjeet Das is an independent journalist and researcher.