THREE DAYS after the Covid-19-linked lockdown was lifted in Karnataka, a group of rural women employees of an export-oriented garment factory near Bengaluru gathered at a bus stand in the Mandya region, around 50 km from the factory, and protested the lack of transport to take them to work despite Arvind Mills arranging for passes on state buses for their transportation.
“We have been at the Mandya bus stand since 6 am. We have been given bus passes by the Arvind Mills company. We tried to board a state bus this morning but only two of us were allowed due to social distancing. We want bus services to function like before to take us to work. It is a struggle this way to manage our home and work,'” one of the workers said in a video message uploaded on social media by the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU).
The garment industry which employs nearly 3.5 lakh people — mostly women — in over 1,200 units at industrial estates around the city of Bengaluru has resumed operations, but social distancing norms and fear of the spread of Covid-19 has restricted the transport options for women workers who rely on company and state transport systems to commute.
In the Bommanahalli and Begur industrial regions of Bengaluru where a few of the former Covid-19 hotspots of the city – like Hongasandra and Mangamanpalya – are located, garment units like Shahi Exports, Aditya Birla Fashion, S K Garments have all begun operations with whatever staff are reporting for work and with a freeze on new hiring.
The streets of this industrial region are abuzz since the lifting of the lockdown unlike the neighboring Electronic City where the big IT companies are located and the streets are deserted as most workers are now working from home. Outside a Shahi Exports unit on the Begur Road, vegetable vendors wait with wares every day to attract the women workers who will pour out of the factory doors when their shift ends every evening.
“Production has started again. Our firm is in better shape than some others. But we expect 10 to 25 percent cut in the salary of staff depending on seniority,” said a senior employee of Shahi Exports.
“They do not want any new recruitment. There is a fear that the virus will spread especially since this is a region where there have been many cases. They are asking people to leave if they have not been coming since the past two weeks,” said another employee at the firm’s Hongasandra unit.
“We are back to normal production. A few workers who have gone home are missing but work is continuing like normal,” says Govind Kumar, a migrant worker from UP at a complex a few metres down the Hongasandra main road which houses units of Aditya Birla Fashion and S K Garments.
The garment units in the Bengaluru factories produce clothing for international brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, HM, Levis, Jockey etc. The companies have increasingly created facilities on the outskirts of Bengaluru and its rural parts to access the low cost labor afforded by rural women.
“All companies have re-openend – some even worked in the lockdown. A few units of some companies shut down during the lockdown. In most companies, those who came to work during the lockdown by whatever means possible are being retained. Those who have returned to work after June are not being allowed irrespective of their service,” said Prathiba R, President of the Garment and Textile Workers Union in Bengaluru.
One of the units that was shutdown during the lockdown was that of the firm Gokaldas Exports in the Srirangapatna area of the Mandya district – around 100 km from Bengaluru – which employed around 1,200 women from villages around the region. “Around 400 of the workers have resigned but as many as 800 women are protesting the illegal layoffs at the unit,” said the GATWU president. “The companies are saying that the international brands they serve have not placed new orders. We are trying to bring issues to the notice of the international firms as well.”
One of the reasons the workers are not being provided transport is because the company wants them to quit, says the KOOGU union general secretary T S Swamy.
While many of the factories had not paid wages for April and May they have now done so, say garments workers union officials. “The wages for April were not paid till May but they were later paid in full but for May only 50 percent has been paid by some firms,” said T S Swamy the general secretary of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU).
“We have paid full wages for the entire lockdown month of April 2020 in two tranches, the first prior to May 12, 2020, and the second prior to May 25, 2020. All the workers were informed in advance about this payment process. This approach has been adopted to tide over cash flow issues faced during the nationwide lockdown,” Shahi Exports officials said on the company website.
With retail operations gradually opening in the western market the next six months is critical, said a manager at a Bengaluru garment factory.
Some units like Arvind Mills have pivoted operations during the lockdown to make masks, PPE kits and special clothing with anti viral material to combat Covid-19, said a company official.
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