The Government of India has announced a “Gift Package” for Garment Industry that is going to have a very negative impact in the industry dominated by women workers.
Below is a statement from the Garment and Allied Workers Union in Haryana, India.
The Indian government on Wednesday, 20th of June announced a Rs. 6000 crore package for the garment and textiles industry, stating that it will lead to the creation of one crore (10 million) jobs and amass a cumulative increase of US$ 30 bn. in exports and investment of Rs. 74,000 crores all over the next 3 years.
Although this package has been welcomed by the industry with open arms, the truth behind the large numbers is not exactly glossy. The garment industry, at present is already reliant on informal labour subjected to numerous violations of labour rights. Creation of new jobs on a large scale without a proper strategy in place for monitoring compliance with labour laws in all tiers of the supply chain would only mean an increase in the exploitative conditions.
The announcement further includes changes in labour laws to fuel the employment process including introduction of “fixed-term employment.” This term is a camouflage for irregular, short term contract labour that is a recipe for labour violations. Any form of non-regular employment reinforces and increases the insecure conditions of workers. It pushes workers into employment terms that are unaccountable, at the whim of the employer and susceptible to rights violations.
As experienced in the industry, the present form of fixed duration contracts denies benefits to the worker and pushes workers out of the ambit of even retirement benefits. It is only beneficial to the management so that workers can never establish their seniority, regularity, labour rights and claim the benefits associated with it. It is used to hire and fire workers without due process and is one of the more common union busting strategies used by factory management. Needless to say this move only adds to the existing challenges towards workers realising the right to freedom of association.
Creation of more jobs will only add to the existing labour violations and force a larger number of workers to work in inhuman conditions in low paying jobs; while the garment industry itself grows on the cheap labour provided by the Indian government to the global brands
Further, as the larger percentage of the new workforce is expected to be women this raises concerns over the incidents of sexual harassment regularly faced at the workplace by women, as well as the denial of maternity benefits. Already both the existing social taboo around incidents of sexual violence and the power dynamics across the factory workforce prevent women from raising their voices against any violation; an added apprehension of their job security will only clamp down the few voices as well as possibly expose the new workforce to a more exploitative environment.
One of the key features of the new package is the change introduced to the Employee Provident Fund Scheme. The government will now bear the entire 12% of the employers’ contribution of the EPF Scheme for garment workers hired in the 3 years who are earning less than Rs. 15,000 per month. Additionally for these workers earning less than Rs. 15,000 participation in the EPF will be made optional to apparently promote more money in the hands of workers. This seems rosy enough to believe that it has been devised keeping in mind the workers’ interests. However the reality is that most workers due to the already low pay that they receive will in all likelihood opt out of the scheme rendering therefore the government’s contribution useless which in any case only benefits the employer by subsidising their contribution. Additionally making EPF optional for workers, earning below Rs. 15000, increases the future insecurities, while not addressing the current issue of low wage.
Recognising the opportunity presented with China upskilling away from the sector, the press release by the Apparel Exports Promotion Council emphasized the need for India to take on its competitors Bangladesh and Vietnam, two countries that have surpassed India in apparel exports over the last fifteen years. AEPC cited flexible labour laws and preferential tariffs as the reason for this and hence stated the importance of this package in boosting Indian apparel export to the fore.
However before the government creates an enabling environment for increasing employment into the garment and textiles sector it needs to lay down concrete mechanisms for enforcing labour rights within all the tiers of the garment supply chain. Creation of more jobs will only add to the existing labour violations and force a larger number of workers to work in inhuman conditions in low paying jobs; while the garment industry itself grows on the cheap labour provided by the Indian government to the global brands. A series of three reports released by Asia Floor Wage Alliance (for the International Labour Conference held in Geneva earlier this year in June) on working conditions in supplier factories of global brands H&M, Gap and Walmart exposes the harsh realities of rampant rights abuse faced by workers on a regular basis at their workplace.
This package serves to benefit only supplier factory management to boost export production at the cost of human rights of workers. In order to compete with other countries the government can improve other aspects – such as better infrastructure, efficient use of energy and water, better industrial engineering on the shop floor, better managerial skills, education and skill development of its labour force – all of which would be good for the country and its competitiveness. Instead such packages only ends up squeezing India’s already poor workforce – it speedily takes India to the bottom in the race to the bottom as opposed to a high road development and growth approach.
Especially the stance of employing women as a step towards social transformation is hollow when protection of women against rights violations including unequal payment of wages, employment in low paying positions, denial of maternity benefits and sexual harassment is yet to be enforced. There is a need to develop more robust strategies towards better working conditions that will lead to an environment conducive to work and therefore contribute towards quality assurance of products as well as good management practices. The process of putting India on top of the apparel exports industry needs to be complementary to the interests of both the workers and the management for the industry – and the country — to flourish.