Over the last so many years, NGOs and labour associations working with the garment industry like CiviDep, Clean Clothes Campaign, ITGLWF, Partners in Change, CITU, AITUC, Solidaridad, Garment Labour Union (GLU), India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), and SOMO, to name a few have kept the manufactures on their toes, with numerous reports and protests on poor working conditions and discrimination in Indian garment factories. Considered as watchdogs of the industry in the interest of workers, it is sad that today when the workers need them the most, many are missing from action!
Talking to a wide section of the industry pan India, it becomes obvious that most of the organisations that work for labour rights in the garment industry do not consider feeding and looking after immigrant workers in unprecedented crisis; in their agenda, they say that they are responsible to ensure that workers are looked after properly in factories, they are not discriminated against and that their wages are paid as per their skills and defined working hours.
Not surprisingly, most of these organisations are funded by international agencies and are bound by directions sent to them from the headquarters. At this point, their main concentration is on collecting data for its partners to analyse the situation and draft policy guidelines. They also claim to be constantly talking to workers on how to keep themselves safe, but no other social activity is noted.
The support to workers in the garment industry is very critical, as the majority of workers are migratory and many of them are stranded across the various manufacturing bases across the country. The statistics of migrant workers is staggering. The textile hub of Surat has migrants from at least 21 states from across India: nearly 2.5 lakh people from Orissa, about 10 lakh from the Saurashtra region, 3 lakh from UP, around 2 lakh from Bihar and Jharkhand, 1 lakh from Rajasthan and about 50,000 from Telangana and West Bengal.
Among the migrant workers, over 66,000 workers from Assam are stranded in Karnataka, 34,000 in Kerala, 33,000 in Tamil Nadu, 21,000 in Maharashtra, 16,000 in Telangana, 5,600 in Gujarat, 4,600 in Goa, 4,500 in West Bengal; many of these are related to the textile and garment manufacturing industry. These workers have nowhere to go, and in many cases, their companies have refused to take responsibility.
In Erode, there are about 2 lakh interstate migrant workers from Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and North-Eastern States in a similar situation. Many of these workers are being looked after by the mills, but still there are shortfalls. <strong>R Karuppusamy, Director, Rights Education and Development Centre</strong>, an NGO in the area, has identified 1,320 migrants in eight settlements in a vulnerable condition and written to the Collector and Chief Minister for help. This is aside from distributing food supplies to the migrants by themselves.
This is the time when NGOs can play a very critical role in supporting these workers, and it is not only about providing food and shelter. These workers also need moral support and the knowledge to get through the crisis from how to maintain hygiene, follow social distancing norm, awareness of signs of illness and what to do in case of an emergency. Besides, these basic things, NGOs can also gainfully engage the workers to keep their morale high.
NGOs that have projects in the garment industry that have come forward to help stranded workers are mostly active in Tirupur area, which is a major garmenting hub. Among them is Seva Bharathi, an NGO that has support from the manufacturing community. The NGO has done very good work of providing food to affected population, as there is a huge number of migrant workers in the region who are stuck in dormitories. Conservative figures put the number at around 35,000 guest workers, but industry believes that the numbers are far higher.
The industry in Tirupur has, in a very proactive move, started production of masks and PPE with fewer shifts that helps the workers sustain themselves as well as ensure that the units don’t have to go headhunting later. Further support has come in through an agreement with trade unions to take full care of workers in hostels by providing them with food and also paying sustenance support of Rs. 100 per day for those workers on the payrolls from 6th April onward.
Sharing the situation, N Sekar, Banian Factories’ Labour Union AITUC General Secretary in Tirupur shares that many labour unions and NGOs are distributing food and other material to the workers, but reaching lakhs of workers in need, is a difficult task. “After many representations, the Collector has now ordered 10 kg of rice to be distributed for each migrant worker household,” says Sekar. This has come as a major relief for workers not living in the company dormitories.
But that is about all there is from industry specific NGOs!
In the first week of April, the Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, who is also heading the Empowered Group (EG 6) wrote to over 92,000 NGOs working in the country to assist the Government in identifying COVID-19 hotspots and delivering essential services to vulnerable groups. As a response, many NGOs working for the underprivileged have sharpened their network and been distributing food and other essentials to the poor and thousands of migrant workers stuck far away from home without work or money. It was disappointing to find that when skimming through the list of NGOs, the names of organisations specially working with the garment manufacturing industry were conspicuous in their absence.
NGOs working round the clock to provide essential services to the workers stranded in various parts of the country are the general NGOs that work for the community at large and are not industry-specific. Among them, SEEDS, which has earlier also been involved with garment workers, has been very active in supporting vulnerable communities with food and hygiene kits in NCR, Uttarakhand, Odisha and Kerala. In Ludhiana also, support to migrant workers is mostly coming from local NGOs and administration.
At a time when many non-profit organisations and individual companies are donating to support the fight against coronavirus, the lack of initiatives coming from sector specific NGOs, that too working in an industry that is very labour intensive, is disappointing. On a regular working day, we hear of protests at factories on so many issues in the name of supporting workers, but when the workers need them the most, where have these organisations disappeared?