Stitched Together: Migrant Workers and the Indian Textile Sector

By Aarohi Damle and Priyansha Singh

The mass exodus of migrant workers from Gujarat following horrifying instances of violence in 2018, the reduction in output from the Tamil Nadu manufacturing clusters as migrants returned home to vote this past election season, job crunch in the informal economy following the implementation of GST and demonetisation, or the plight of the migrant female factory workers and home-based workers working to spruce up the finished garment are more than one-off news stories or unsettling personal accounts of migrant workers in the Indian textile sector.

In the October edition of Gotta Keep on Movin’ we explore the where, how and who of migrant labour in the Indian Textile and garment sectors.

  • Where are the major textile hubs in India and what is the industry structure?
  • How does the fluid, unorganised and informal nature of the industry free the local contractors from obligations to migrant workers?
  • Who is coming to work? And how do women migrant workers suffer a triple burden given their socio-cultural and economic position?

We conclude by understanding the role of labour laws in creating vulnerabilities by ignoring the informality on which the textile and garments sectors run. We point to the need for a bottom up approach that ensures migrants access to their rightful entitlements.

The Indian Textile Sector

The Indian garment and textile sector is part of the global apparel production networks that are staunchly buyer-driven and notoriously top-down in their operations strategies.

Image for post
Image for post

Source: Appelbaum and Gereffi (1994), p. 46

Industry, Contractors and the Migrant

The scale of informality in the textile and garment manufacturing industries in the global south is a well-known and well-researched fact. Layers of vertical and horizontal contracting and subcontracting between brands, manufacturers, factory and non-factory stakeholders have become fundamental to producing flexible outputs in a changing/growing apparel market.

In India, academics like Srivastav have explained this complex, ambiguous, and dynamic relationship between the organised-unorganised manufacturing sectors and their labour recruitment. The figure below explains the relationship of all the stakeholders involved in the textile and garment sector:

Image for post
Image for post

The combination of subcontracting and use of migratory labour makes business viable for the thekedaars. Labour migration patterns are fluid, workers are easy to hire/fire, and a fragmented labour force comes with a minimal risk of unionisation.

Most migrant workers are either intrastate rural migrants or migrants from the neighbouring states who migrate seasonally. They do the same jobs as the locals for lower wages in far harsher living conditions and with little to no legal, linguistic and social support mechanisms. Yet, the decision to migrate remains a matter of economic and social mobility for a majority of migrants and their families.

The stories of an inter state migrant worker from Pokhari, Uttarakhand and an emigrant from Hyderabad, Telangana.

Both factory workers and home-based workers end up working for subcontractors and are often employed at the factory gates or through word of mouth but are never acknowledged on official payrolls and are far away from redressal mechanisms. Given the nature of these work arrangements it is unsurprising that the industry relies on migrant working hands.

This top-down and informal approach of the industry frees local contractors/manufacturers of any obligations towards the workers. Simply put, the local manufacturers own the materials but are in no way accountable for the well-being of the migrant worker.

Image for post
Image for post
Source — People’s Archive of Rural India

hese pictures are part of a story of female migrant workers from Odisha who work for the multi-crore textile industry in Surat, Gujarat, from home, are not covered by labour laws, are unable to negotiate better rates, and are seen as unskilled workers. Click here to read the entire article by Reetika Revathy Subramanian for People’s Archive of Rural India.

Triple Burden on Female Migrants?

The socio-cultural position of the female migrants workers recreates conditions for their own casualisation in an already informal workforce. The starkest example of social regulations legitimising informality was the Sumangali Scheme in Tamil Nadu. Under the Sumangali scheme (referring to an unmarried woman transitioning to married life) southern mill and manufacturing centres started relying heavily on girls aged 13–18, who were recruited from remote villages as ‘apprentices’ under a 3-year contract (until they come of age).

The completion of the contract would guarantee a lump-sum amount or adequate money for eventual dowry payments. But mill work does not require a 3-year apprenticeship; the apprenticeship tag merely legitimises the ill treatment meted out to young, vulnerable female workers.

The Clean Clothes Campaign research from Bangalore notes that women are coming to Bangalore from states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa with a predominantly agricultural economy and suffering high unemployment rates. The women claim to be within the 18–20 years age bracket with few crossing their 20s and are predominantly from marginalised communities. With more linguistically diverse and culturally marginalised populations moving to Bangalore, their safety must be ensured.

Yet, safety has become unanimous with confinement and policing in the case of female migrant workers. The women are provided hostel accommodation by their employers at a walking distance from the factories and are expected to return to the hostel immediately after the work day ends.

They are given two hours off every Sunday, with the hostel security recording their every movement. It is possible that such hostel provisions make the decision to migrate easier, especially on the families of the young women, but they severely restrict and police the lives of these women, many of whom are above 18.

As these reports indicate, Indian textile and garment manufacturing still remains largely informal and as is often the case, informality is assumed to be something that happens outside the purview of the state. The migrant, the worker, and the woman might remain invisible to the state policies, provisions, and protection but are possibly the most socially surveilled of economic contributors.

The Policy Framework of the Textile Sector

The textile sector of India is one of the oldest industries in the country. The Government has taken several initiatives for skill development, integrating technology and has paid significant attention to the handloom sector. However as of 2019, countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and China are moving ahead in the race. Plus, news reports highlight that close to 30 million people have lost jobs in the textile sector in 2019 and more job cuts could follow.

The sector employs close to 100 million people and is the second largest employment provider is the country. However, these are the official figures that do not take into account the informal structure of the sector and the female migrant workers who work in semi concrete structures. According to an ILO report on the working conditions of migrant workers in the Garment Industries of India, migrants who are largely employed in the lower end of the industry, suffer because of lack of documentation, job insecurity, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, lack of leaves and restrictions on movement.

But given the lack of local social and political governance and the growing concern by civil society organisations and consumers about rights violations global brands and manufacturers have formulated company Codes of Conduct under their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives and choose compliance to voluntary international labour standards like the Social Accountability 8000, 2014 and Fairtrade International Textile standards, 2016.

Research from the Tiruppur hub finds that compliance with the Codes of Conduct and labour standards on part of the (sub)contractors may be out of fear, accusations and loss of jobs/projects which creates new forms of inequality. For migrants in particular, labour standards relating to regulation of work hours might be detrimental if the migrants themselves prefer to work 12 hour shifts to send remittances back home. Wils work in Tiruppur found that Codes of Conduct are effective in regulating tangible outcomes on health, safety and often wages but do not empower or enhance the bargaining power of the workers.

MACHINES is a 2017 movie by Rahul Jain. It depicts the lives of workers working in the Indian garment industries.

The Indian textile and garment manufacturing still remains largely informal and as is often the case, informality is assumed to be something that happens outside the purview of the State. This assumption that is now reflected in the Government’s push to codify labour laws.

On one hand, the Indian garment and textile industry is about a constantly moving labour force and on the other hand it is about a simultaneously confined batch of labourers working in factories or as home-based workers. And more often than not, confinement adversely affects the female labour force.

The Working People’s Charter released a statement that highlights how the proposed Labour Codes fail to understand the structure of the informal economy nor its legal requirements. In the Indian textile sector, a shoddy and hurried implementation of ambiguous labour laws might even cancel out the few benefits of the labour standards and Codes of Conduct.

What is required of the Government is a sector-specific and comprehensive rights-based approach to labour, migration and the labourers.

At India Migration Now, we believe that migration is an opportunity and in order to ensure that migrants are not exploited by employment structures, there needs to be a comprehensive policy framework in place that takes into account all the stakeholders. We also believe that only if women have the freedom and agency to migrate, will we be able to reap the benefits of migration.

We look forward to bringing you more insights and perspectives from the world of migration. Until then please consider supporting us by making a donation.

Image for post
Image for post
Click here to access the box.

*The authors are researchers at India Migration Now, a South East Migration Foundation venture, based in Mumbai, India.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store