Indian textile workers protest outside factory, June 2020. Photo: Working Class India via Twitter Indian textile workers protest outside factory, June 2020. Photo: Working Class India via Twitter

Hundreds of unionised women workers are combating efforts by the fashion industry to pass the costs of Covid-19 onto the world’s most vulnerable, reports Susan Ram

For the past four weeks, hundreds of women garment workers at Euro Clothing Company II (ECC II) in Srirangapatna, a small town near Mysore in the south Indian state of Karnataka, have been gathering outside their factory to protest its abrupt and brazenly illegal closure.

Press and social media images show the women, clad in saris and wearing masks, observing social distancing as they stand outside the locked factory gates. Each holds a red banner bearing the legend GATWU: the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union. Unusually for India’s vast garment manufacturing sector, these women workers have a union behind them. And they are certain that their organised status has made them a prime target for layoffs.

The struggle in progress in Srirangapatna India is significant on at least three counts. Firstly, it illustrates the way in which the multibillion dollar global fashion industry is attempting to deflect the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Secondly, it highlights the readiness of workers, backed by international campaigns against exploitative fashion industry practices, to fight back in the most testing of circumstances. Thirdly, it exemplifies an encouraging turn, evident in India and other major outsourcing centres, towards the unionisation of workers in the unorganised sector: that immense ocean of misery and exploitation where millions around the world battle daily for survival.  

Taking on the fashion industry

The garment-making factory in Srirangapatna is one of twenty or so in Karnataka owned by Gokaldas Exports Ltd, which describes itself as the largest exporter of apparel in India. The company employs 25,000 workers and in 2018-19 reported a net profit of US$1.5 million. Its clients include a glitzy array of big fashion industry players: GAP, Banana Republic, Reebok, Adidas, Abercrombie & Fitch, Puma — and H&M.

The 1,300 workers (most of them women) at ECC II have been mainly producing clothes for H&M (Hennes & Mauritz), the world’s second biggest clothing retailer.

According to R. Pratiba, president of the state-level GATWU, the first intimation of the closure came on May 30, when Euro Clothing removed some of its machinery from the factory without prior discussion with the workers. The union notified the state labour department of this breach of labour law, but received no reply.

Then, at the close of working hours on Saturday June 6, a notice suddenly went up telling employees that they need not come to work from Monday “in the interest of the plant and also to save the employment of the workmen [sic].” The notice added that the sudden closure was because H&M had cancelled their orders.  

Protests against the mass lay-off began immediately, and have continued ever since. “We’ve been producing for H&M for more than 6 years”, said Shobha, a 28-year-old worker. “We built up the factory and the brand and just one fine day they laid us off with no notice. They’ve left our families to starve. There are no other jobs to be had in this small town.”  

Trade unions and labour department officials underline the illegal character of the layoff, specifically its contravention of India’s Industrial Disputes Act, which mandates that establishments employing more than 100 workers must serve notice and get prior permission from the government before imposing layoffs.

As if thumbing its nose at the niceties of Indian labour law, the management at ECC II has simply shrugged off the charges. It has been threatening workers that unless they submit their resignations they will not get a job in any other garment factory (reportedly 450 workers have complied). But the desperate economic circumstances of these workers, many of whom come from the most oppressed sections of Indian society, give them little option but to battle on.

Garment workers’ global fight-back

With global fashion sales in freefall because of the pandemic (the sector is predicted to suffer losses of 30 per cent in 2020), industry giants are striving to pass the costs down the production chain. In the process millions of garment workers stand to lose their jobs: perhaps as many as 10 million in India alone.

Since March, protests by garment workers have been gathering pace in a number of exporting countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. The struggle in south India is of particular significance, given the scale of India’s garment industry, one of the world’s biggest for manufacturing and export. In 2019, the sector reportedly handled some US$38.70 billion-worth of clothing and employed directly some 45 million workers.

International campaigns help strengthen the fightback. A tracker set up by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a non-profit organisation monitoring labour rights around the globe, is exposing the prominent fashion brands that are abandoning workers during the pandemic. The WRC is currently investigating H&M for failing to honour its promise to pay suppliers. In May, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association called for the blacklisting of brands that fail to pay for fulfilled orders.

“Global brands have fewer options now than they did 15 years ago when it comes to outsourcing, which gives the suppliers more power,” argues Ashok Kumar, a US-based specialist in international political economy. “Recent actions of challenging brands openly, threats of blacklisting, or calling on them to honour their contracts could potentially lead to brands capitulating.”

Unionisation of informal sector workers

The targeting of workers at ECC II in Karnataka also underlines the nervousness of big capital, domestic and international, at growing efforts to organise workers in the informal sector of countries such as India and Bangladesh.

In India, the past two decades have seen the emergence of new unions, outside the purview of traditional structures and free of ties with specific political parties (the established pattern in India, where each major party has its own trade union centre). The GATWU is a case in point: founded in 2005 as a grassroots union geared to organising and fighting for workers In Karnataka’s garment sector, it is affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), which focuses its efforts on the unorganised workforce.

The scale of the challenge is evident in the figures: 440 million people are estimated to work in India’s unorganised sector, against 28 million in the organised sector. In Karnataka, the GATWU thus far has had only modest success: according to its website it currently has about 5,000 active members – just 3 percent of garment workers in the state.  

Meanwhile the women at ECC II continue their vigil. Last Saturday, June 27, they obstructed the management from shifting computers and other equipment from the factory.

For its part, H&M has been busy issuing statements. “We fully stand by our responsible purchasing practices,” reads one, released on June 22 on Twitter. “We are in dialogue with the supplier and the trade unions to resolve the conflict peacefully.” 

According to GATWU leaders, no dialogue has been initiated thus far.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.