The perilous lives of garment workers amid the pandemic

Garment workers tell tales of gender discrimination, callous treatment and government apathy

The apparel industry has long been under the microscope for flouting labor codes, violating environmental standards, violating human rights, wage structures and much more. Garment workers who attended an orientation workshop at a hotel on the Delhi-Gurugram road in October 2021, run by the Society for Labor and Development (SLD), know of these flaws.

In many cases, they protested and fought to amend many of these violations themselves. Over the past year and a half, their struggles have looked slightly different.

In the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, the poor have suffered disproportionately. Their story speaks of poverty, hunger, reduced education and lives lived in fear.

There is no analysis of what has happened so far during the pandemic and what is yet to come. The challenge, it seems forever, will be to cement the narrative and find ways to fix the future.

“It’s a ticking time bomb”

Rajeshwari, 50, left his village of Chhapra in Bihar for Kapashera in Delhi 15 years ago. The reason was simple: her husband, a violent alcoholic, couldn’t find work in the village and wreaked havoc on the family.

To protect the children from his influence, the elders decided to separate the family. She moved to town with her husband, the children stayed at home with her mother.

Over the years, while her husband worked in a cotton mill, Rajeshwari took a job as a tailor in a garment factory in Gurugram. He blew his paycheck on booze and gambling and the money she earned kept the two-person household running.

Three years ago, when he died after suffering complications from alcohol abuse, she was left alone, responsible not only for her own well-being but also for the upbringing of her youngest son. in the village. It was not easy with a salary of Rs 10,400 as a migrant in a city, but it quickly got worse.

“During the first lockdown, the business closed and suddenly we couldn’t go to work,” she said, adding:

There was a real fear of the virus, but there was also a fear of the police who wouldn’t even let us go out to get supplies. The company was giving us Rs 2,000 each month as compensation, and I won’t deny that was more than many others I knew were receiving.

Rajeshwari’s ration card is registered in his village and his son is the beneficiary. During the lockdowns, she got into a lot of debt just to buy subsistence and survival supplies, in the absence of a ration card.

This added to the heavy debt she had already incurred during her husband’s treatment. His only platforms for help were through civil society. SLD has partnered with Oxfam India through their Mission Sanjeevani initiative to provide rations and safety kits to vulnerable families. About 220 families garment factory workers received food kits for one family for at least a month.

One of the reasons Rajeshwari agreed to attend the workshop was to show her gratitude for the help, without which, she believed, she would have been lost.

Despite the easing of confinements and the return to his work, Rajeshwari fears the future. He is unable to think what will happen if there is a third wave of COVID-19.

“It’s like a ticking time bomb strapped to our chests, spinning,” she said. “The virus will never go away. But someone has to think of us, the people who have to live with the pandemic”

“Who does anything for others these days”

In the weeks after the first lockdown, after pots, pans and bluster became reality. Images of migrant workers exiting cities, walking on highways, struggling to get home, away from an economy that had regurgitated them, began to pour in. They shocked many people to tears.

For Sangeeta Devi and her husband, the images were a manifestation of a plan B, a brief reflection given to the idea that maybe, maybe, they should go home too.

But then came a clear thought, and with it a reminder of their own reality.

Sangeeta and her husband are from a village of Sasaram in Bihar. They were forced to migrate to the city 12 years ago after his in-laws died and his older brother-in-law and his wife took over the property.

“I still remember, we were asked to leave the house on December 6. Jeth bole ki sheher mei naukri karo, yahan pe kuch nahi hai. I was heavily pregnant and somehow we got on the train to come to Delhi,” she said. “My youngest son was born on December 12.”

Her husband got a job as a security guard with an insurance company. Sangeeta, meanwhile, joined a garment factory, making samples for production. She specializes in crochet.

Sangeeta Devi, 38, attending an orientation workshop for female garment workers. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunanda

Last year, living in confinement without pay, they exhausted their savings to survive and feed their children. Once that was exhausted, they started considering plan B, before giving up on the thought altogether.

Wahan humara koi bhi nahi hai. Bus jeth aur jethani hai…kaun kiska aaj ke yug mei karta hai”, she says. “We decided to hold on.”

The couple started selling half of the ration they received to get money for other supplies. Sangeeta ground half the wheat into flour and sold the rest to his neighbours. As work came back things got better, until they got worse.

Sangeeta’s husband was hit by a taxi while cycling to work in June this year. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and multiple fractures. To finance the treatment, Sangeeta used a small piece of land he still owned in the village to obtain a loan.

And then she returned to work, an eight-hour shift that earns her 11,000 rupees a month – her family’s only income.

“I fought to get my job back”

The main objective of the workshop was to educate women about their rights in the workplace and at home. Using plays and interactive sessions, the group discussed the various issues faced by female workers at the hands of their employers.

Stories of abuse, disrespect, lustful stares, sexual advances and open discrimination came to the fore. A key image that is slowly emerging is the lack of job security among female workers in the industry. SLD team members have detailed labor laws that can help those who want to bring their grievances into the public domain.

“The company fired me as soon as the first lockdown was enforced. It’s almost as if they knew how long it was going to be and decided to cut their losses,” said Sarita, a thread cutter at a factory in Mullahera. This mostly happened to women in the factory, she added.

The few that survived did so because they were on the employee’s good books, she said. “They are forced to do bad things and they do.”

Her husband, a tailor in a leather factory, also lost his job. The company he worked for closed and he has been unemployed ever since. With SLD’s support, Sarita and her colleagues sued employers for unfair dismissal and only recently got her job back.

It is a small success, in a long list of sufferings and failures. In the aftermath of all the devastation, there remains hope, but also a grim reality that the battle has only just begun.

The pandemic, for all its “distancing” messages, is actually everything. Small moves at one end have grim repercussions at another. People lower on the spectrum understand this, depending on community and support groups to survive.

On the part of the government and other power structures, apathy reigns. Neoliberal economics is not concerned with exiting the pandemic, but with returning to growth. Human lives are the collateral damage.

“People don’t think about what happens when people lose their jobs,” Sarita said. “The virus is not all there is to kill us. Landlords still want rent. The food still has to be paid for. Water, electricity, education… Nothing is free.

“You have to fight to survive, if not for yourself but at least for your children,said Sarita. If I give up, what are they going to eat tomorrow, she asked.

Vaibhav Raghunandan is a photographer, journalist and designer. This story was written as part of an assignment for Oxfam India, New Delhi. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Down to earth.

Michael O. Stutler