Worker efficiency accelerates amidst occupational uncertainty

by Dheeraj Tagra

01-November-2019  |  10 mins read

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Over the years, declining sentiments in the apparel export business have impacted every stakeholder – workers at grass roots being no exception.

With business slumping, there are no overtime and night shifts now and job opportunities have reduced. At the same time, manufacturers are now focusing more on automation and efficiency improvement. Various stakeholders right from manufacturers to international brands, retailers and NGOs have taken many steps to increase awareness about the situation and motivate workers. Plenty of activities are also taking place under ‘Skill Development’ initiatives; however, some critical questions arise – Do all these have any positive impact on workers? Are they more disciplined now and are they working more sincerely? Are they being more loyal to their factories, and are they changing their jobs less frequently? Are they taking less leaves and is absenteeism controlled compared to what it was earlier? Apparel Resources explored answers to these and other allied questions in discussion with apparel manufacturers across India. And as usual, industry is divided in their opinion.

Technical professionals like production managers and industrial engineers, who are always in touch with workers on the shopfloor, feel that there is an impact of all the above-mentioned developments. They have noticed positive changes and these have a good impact on overall working as well as the efficiency of the factories. Though it is difficult to measure exactly how much efficiency has increased due to the changed attitude of workers, there is a unanimous agreement on the fact that there is an overall improvement.

Some of the medium-level factories prefer not to work continuously with the workers and if any worker plans to go on leave for a long period, factories do their full and final settlement and ask them to rejoin once they come back after the leaves. This has created a kind of fear in the workers that they might not be having a job once they come back. Earlier they used to get a job in neighbouring factories, and so did not worry much, but now the overall business sentiments are down and they prefer not to change their factories so frequently. Also they have become more responsive and no longer work with the same old and difficult attitude. This trend has been observed more in North India. “Talking about overall industry perspective rather than company-specific, workers seem to be forced to work with dedication now which was not common earlier,” shared a production manager of a top export house of Faridabad, who doesn’t wish to be quoted. Few others have also echoed similar opinion. “Workers are an important part of the factory and they do understand how difficult the situation is. Counselling is also playing an important role, so their awareness and discipline level has increased,” added another production head.

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Pooja Makhija, Director of Fashion Futures, Delhi

On the contrary, some of the experts disagree that there has been noticeable change. “It is still very difficult to work with those workers who have been working from decades as compared to the youth exploring skill development opportunities. In the case of migratory workers in North India, there is no major difference observed in absenteeism, especially during the festival season of Chhath Puja and Deepavali when factories have workload. Still, they have lucrative options compared to working in garment factories, be it because of NREGA or the unorganised industry,” says Pooja Makhija, Director of Fashion Futures, Delhi. Pooja has wide experience of consultancy across India.

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KM Subramanian, MD, KM Knitwear, Tirupur

Because of India’s vast geography and diversity, there is a major difference in working culture and workers’ behaviour. Unlike North India, South Indian apparel factories have a majority of women workers and even male workers in hubs like Tirupur and Bangalore are considered more disciplined, skilled and efficient. So, these hubs have been positively impacted due to major developments. “The majority of factories are already compliant and are focusing on efficiency and soft skills from long back, so their workers are already good. Despite that I feel that some positive reflection is there in their working due to lack of orders,” informed KM Subramanian, MD, KM Knitwear, Tirupur. Producing one million pieces per month, the company is one of the most sustainable garment manufacturers of Tirupur.

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Vandeep Singh, Director and CFO, GBKC Fashions, Dehradun

Vandeep Singh, Director and CFO, GBKC Fashions, Dehradun is of the opinion that besides dipping business, there are other factors too which make things critical like year-on-year increasing minimum wages and unavailability of highly skilled labour, both of which have actually made things worse. Opting for disruptive technologies will certainly enhance the quality and accuracy of the output, but at the same time, this comes at a cost and especially for MSME companies that lack infrastructure and capital, it is not easy to invest even if they aspire to do so. GBKC Fashions is among one of the fastest growing apparel manufacturers of India.

There are many factories in India that are working with contractual workforce, and labour contractors are there to support them whenever they need extra workers. In this case, workers have not changed, as their job was not safe earlier also and they know very well that wherever they will get a job, it will not be for the long run. “I supply labour to many garment factories and don’t see any kind of change in workers’ attitude,” says Vinod Vashist, Partner, Vashisht Manpower, Gurgaon. The firm also supplies labour to many well-known Indian brands. On a concluding note, it will not be wrong to say that workers are changing, whether less or more, forcefully or willingly, but much more is required to improve the overall conditions and that too at every level.

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Harish Gupta, Chairman, Bela Casa Fashions & Retails Ltd, Jaipur

 “Entrepreneurs have to make sure that workers work for 12 months in a year. If it doesn’t happen, workers will move on and no one can expect accountability from a worker. We have 2,000 workers and offer them round the year work, so we are comfortably working with them with mutual trust,” Harish Gupta, Chairman, Bela Casa Fashions & Retails Ltd, Jaipur

TR Vijaya Kumar, MD, CBC Fashions, Tirupur
TR Vijaya Kumar, MD, CBC Fashions, Tirupur

 TR Vijaya Kumar, MD, CBC Fashions, Tirupur, who is a well-known exporter of the hub, having all workers on payroll shared, “Yes, skill development efforts have had some positive impact on efficiency, which has improved by around 8 to 10 per cent through various efforts. In addition, reduced orders have also impacted them, so they are now more willing to cooperate with companies. I must say that allied factors of the market like raw material price hike, apparel import from Bangladesh and policy implementation have created so much pressure on apparel manufacturers that they are now really in trouble and cannot focus on core business.” The company, doing an annual business of around Rs. 150 crore per year, has introduced the system of skill matrix so that the worker can deliver more. He further added that automation is still not affordable for SMEs and many of them use piece rate and contractor workers, and there is no impact on behaviour or attitude of such workers. According to him, their efficiency is always high compared to other workers, so they work more. 

Some major initiatives by brands, retailers, NGOs impacting Indian workers: 

  • Gap Inc.: PACE (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement)
  • BSR: HERproject
  • C&A Foundation: Many projects
  • M&S: Leadership for Life, Gender Equality

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