Thousands of garment workers in Bengaluru, also known as Bangalore, the largest city of the South Indian state of Karnataka, were asked by factory owners to resign as a result of pandemic-induced financial losses, according to a new report.
Nine out of 25 garment factories shuttered as a result of Covid-19, resulting in job losses for more than 5,600 workers, according to the study, which was published last week by the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union, a grassroots group in Karnataka, and Alternative Law Forum, a legal research organization from Bengaluru. The remaining 16 let go another 11,000 workers.
In interviews conducted with 89 workers across all 25 factories—including Arvind Limited, Golkadas Exports, Shahi Exports, Shalini Creations and Texport Creations—between September and October 2020 and then between January and February of this year, workers at 17 of them said they were “forced” by management to resign, which the majority did, fearing they would lose out on their dues if they waited.
“The decision to resign had to be taken immediately or at very short notice, giving workers very little scope to discuss amongst themselves and with family members, find other employment and explore options to contest the demand for resignation,” researchers said. “This is clear evidence of a coercive situation constructed by factory managements in which a worker has no choice but to resign.”
Factory owners deployed several “coercive” methods, they noted, including telling workers that the factory was shutting down and if they did not resign, they would not receive any wage settlements. Managements also threatened to halt bus transportation, transferred workers to other units within the company without providing adequate means of transport, promised workers they would be re-employed when the “situation stabilizes” or simply told them not to return to work.
Of the workers the organization surveyed, 81 percent had resigned. The others were either protesting the closures of their factories or had not left their jobs. Only 15 percent of workers who resigned said they did so voluntarily.
Given that between 30,000 to 35,000 workers were employed in the 25 factories, the report said, an estimated 50 percent to 62 percent of the workforce in the surveyed factories was forced to resign.
“Workers resigned also because they had little to no money during the months of the lockdown, and which had left them destitute,” the report noted. “Faced with [the] loss of employment, workers ‘chose’ the only alternative of resignation because it would mean receiving some income immediately.”
The loss of income delivered the biggest blow to nutrition. “A major reduction in expenses had come in the form of expenditure on food,” researchers said. “Workers reported primarily cutting down on meat, vegetables, fruits, snacks and beverages such as tea and coffee; in some cases, the number of meals [was] cut from thrice to twice or even once a day.” In some cases, children had to defer schooling.
Women, who make up 72 percent of garment workers in Bengaluru, typically have more to lose, researchers said. Female garment workers are less likely to have continuous tenure at any one facility, which makes them less eligible for certain compensatory dues. Forced resignations, researchers said, also result in the loss of tenure, which “adversely affects” access to pensions.
Those aged 55 years or more, too, have a harder time finding regular employment, Forced resignations “have thus put such women permanently out of the workforce or forced them to resort to working at piece rates,” the study said.
The labor department, researchers said, must inspect factories, examine resignations to assess if they were voluntary or forced and ensure that proper compensation was provided to workers. The women’s commission, it added, must also undertake a baseline study of the state of nutrition and health among garment workers and recommend interventions where necessary.
“The Covid-19 pandemic did wreak havoc in the apparel supply chain and, as studies have shown, garment workers were often at the receiving end of these losses,” they wrote. “But in the face of the crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, garment factory managements resorted to time-tested strategies of forced resignations. This is evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has only forcefully foregrounded—not introduced anew—existing anti-labor practices that engender precarity among working classes.”