Since the last seven months, 1,700 people have been demonstrating outside the gates of Century Textiles & Industries, protesting the firm’s sale to Wearit Global Limited. Out of these 1,700, nearly 1,300 had been permanent employees.
In textile, workers spend decades honing one or two skills mostly specific to the demands of that company. In the case of Century Textiles, they worked on cotton and denim yarn. “The demands of the workers was that they didn’t want to work with Wearit Global and believed it would shut shop sooner or later, and hence demanded their voluntary retirement scheme amount,” said Adv. Pratyush Mishra, who assisted legal counsels fighting on behalf of the Textile Mazdoor Union in the Indore High Court.
The high court’s judgment dated 8 April, 2018, ruled in favour of the labour union. It stated: “There is violation of Clause 7.4 of agreement as no proper intimation was given to the employees regarding continuance of service as yet. On 20.12.2017 (Annexure R/2/3), a letter was issued to the management of century yarn and denim from the office of Labour Officer, Khargone, with respect to the illegal deduction of the salaries of the workmen. Further, the reminder of the said letter was issued on 11.1.2018. The office of district registrar, Khargone, also issued the letter wherein it is specifically mentioned that there is no registration of business transfer agreement with respect to the sale of the century yarn and denim in the office of district registrar, Khargone.”
In the same order, the Indore High Court mentioned the concept of “corporate entity” and said that it was evolved to encourage and promote trade and commerce and not to commit illegalities. Adv. Mishra asked why the labour commissioners failed to intervene and why the matter had to reach the high court. He said they didn’t look at the complete appeal of the trade unions. How often can trade unions seek support of activists and NGOs to raise their voice and spend their precious labour time in litigation is a question that often haunts Mishra.
Tapandas Gupta, a labour rights activist based in Vadodara whom the the Socialist Unity Centre of India-Communist SUCI(C) fielded against Narendra Modi from the Vadodara Lok Sabha constituency in 2014, said the problem lies in the lack of staff in the labour departments. “In a state like Gujarat, where industrialisation is growing at a rapid pace, there should be 80 labour officers, but today, there are less than 25, which means one person is handling up to two to three districts. Lately, labour courts have also been appointing civil judges,” explained Dasgupta.
PK Walanj, general secretary of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, Gujarat State, agreed with him. The Hind Mazdoor Sabha, in the language of the Indian government, is a central trade union with more than one crore members across the country. Walanj spoke to Firstpost about how the implementation of labour laws is bifurcated into state and central level. “The Gujarat government has amended up to eight laws. One of them is The Apprentices Act, 1961.
Earlier the law was that a company of 100 employees could hire one apprentice, but after the amendment, they could hire as many apprentices and pay them 2/3rds of the salary of an average worker. So, it is quite common to see workers being hired for two to three years, then being kept on probation for one year, and then being laid off without Provident Fund,” explained Walanj.
Veteran textile researcher Chinmay Mishra, who has recently been working on conserving indigo and natural dyes in the Neemuch and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh, said, “Today, automation is taking a toll on the skill and livelihood of textile workers. Make a trip to Mumbai and Ahmedabad and you’ll notice that only 10 percent of the mills that existed 25 years ago have survived.”
In the textile hub of Surat — a city which holds the record for being the largest producer of man-made fibre and filament fabric, with a 40 percent share in the country and a daily production of 30 million metres of raw fabric units — seven to eight lakh powerlooms have shut down in the last seven to eight years. Manufacturers are investing in imported machines like the Jacquard that are made are Italy and cost up to Rs 80 lakh and don’t require much human help.
“In Mauranipur, close to Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and on the fringes of Ludhiana in Punjab, one finds a cluster of small powerloom units. Since these are small, labour laws don’t apply to them,” said Chinmay Mishra, explaining how the textile sector is littered with cheat codes.
Apart from uneducated people failing to understand GST complications, he observed that textile unit owners in Madhya Pradesh have also started offering pink slips to workers and are arbitrarily hiring and firing them. “For instance, if there is a rule that says a unit with 20 employees will offer them provident funds, only 19 will be employed,” he said, highlighting the plight of labourers who fail to find strength to form unions.
The labour ministry plans to start registering 47 crore unorganised sector workers and providing them with unorganised worker index numbers (UWIN) cards to bring them under the social security net. The size of India’s textile market in 2016 was around $137 billion, which is expected to touch $226 billion market by 2023, growing at a CAGR of 8.7 percent in that period. In the textile packages announced during the Union Budget, the government increased the permissible overtime up to 100 hours per quarter in made-ups manufacturing sector besides making employees’ contribution to EPF optional for those earning less than Rs 15,000 per month.
But as Padma Shri awardee Runa Banerjee, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), puts it, the problem is that awareness regarding rights doesn’t percolate to the lower levels. She feels the labour department should be more active in engaging with the lower rungs of the unorganised work force and should continually educate them about their rights.
At SEWA, an organisation that provides a platform for chikankari artisans to teach the craft to thousands of women, a spirit of uplifting each other is encouraged. The onus of adhering to labour laws laid down by the government is on private enterprises.
Gautam Vazirani, fashion curator, sustainability at IMG Reliance/Lakme Fashion Week, says that brands and designers need to also become responsible/aware of their supply chains. “At times they just don’t care about the conditions of workers who are involved in making their textiles or garments as long as the order is delivered within the budget. The time for profits over people is going to soon come to an end, as a new generation of millennial consumers is demanding transparency and morals. At Lakme Fashion Week, sustainability is a serious agenda. Our collaborations with United Nations, British Council, Craftmark, Fashion Revolution and Usha International among others are about initiatives that create a movement towards ethical fashion and inspire brands and designers to lead the change,” he said, talking about how several young designer labels such as Poochki, Pot Plant, Rouka and Naushad Ali are now creating collections with artisans as equal collaborators and not as rural labour.
Fashion needs to see itself as an agent for social change and empower people, more importantly the marginalised.
But inserting accountability into profit-making establishments won’t happen in a day and workers in textile mills of Gujarat have been suffering the brunt of it. Firstpost reached out to some of them, who happen to be migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Kanhaiya from Bihar’s Sasaram district specialises in oxidising fabric. He complained that he doesn’t receive medical or provident fund credits with his salary.
Bharat Maurya, who hails from Juaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, said he has been working in Gujarat since 24 years as a weaver in powerlooms in Rajkot’s Jasdan area. He narrated his story of denial, of how his karmabhoomi Gujarat hadn’t embraced him because workers like him aren’t even issued identity cards by mill owners and end up and face the risk of being roughed up by the police if they try to enter the loom. Ram Bharat Maurya, also from Jaunpur, has been working in the textile hubs of Surat since the 1960s. He recalled that when he started out, one kaarigar would man two machines. The number of machines went up to three in 1975 and four in 1985 and six in 1990. Today, he disclosed, one kaarigar is expected to run up to 16 machines.
Mahesh Khushwaha from Firozabad district in Uttar Pradesh said he used to work in handloom when he came to Surat in 1990 and then learnt how to operate powerlooms. Today, he says he gets paid barely Rs 10,000 and works 12 hour shifts.
Yet another problem is that of child labour in the textile sector. Sanjay Gupta, managing trustee of Chetna, an NGO for street children, revealed that the problem is concentrated in areas like Tughlakabad, which houses more than a couple of hundred garment manufacturing companies and employs close to 50 percent children, and in Okhla, where children, owing to their nimble fingers, are employed to sew pearl and sequins beads into fabric.
In Govindpuri, his organisation’s groundwork shows that children drop out of school at an early age to work in small-scale illegal garment factories to do sequencing and thread-cutting. Unless there are stronger policing mechanism keeping the check on the textile chain, from top to bottom, manufacturers will keep cheating the law in a sector that employs nearly 45 million.