In spring 2020, the carefully interlocked cogs of the global economy suddenly came to a standstill. With the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, textile companies reduced, suspended, or cancelled orders. Suppliers in manufacturing countries responded by stopping wage payments, laying off workers, or closing factories, thereby passing the costs of the pandemic onto those who were already most affected by poverty and threatened with losing their livelihood.
Marie-Sophie Keller holds a doctoral scholarship from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and studies the gendered dimensions of human rights due diligence. During a research stay in South India in spring 2022, she interviewed representatives of local trade unions and non-governmental organizations as well as journalists about the current human rights situation in the garment and textile industry.
Three years later, most countries have relaxed or completely lifted measures to combat the coronavirus. As the world transitions into the “post-COVID” era, has it led to a worsening of the labour and human rights situation in the Indian garment and textile industry? Moreover, what counterstrategies can workers pursue to improve their situation?
Maximizing Profits through Intersectional Exploitation
Poor working conditions are integral to global apparel and textile supply chains. Over the course of globalization, US and European fashion companies relocated most of their production to South and East Asia in order to reduce production costs. As a product of persistent (post-)colonial power asymmetries, high price pressure, flexible contractual relationships, lack of transparency, and international legal loopholes, a finely calibrated system of exploitation and impunity took root.
Explosive growth in the garment and textile sector began soon after the opening of the Indian economy to multinational corporations in the 1990s. Since then, a process of feminization of production has proceeded apace: Indian factory management increasingly hires women, often young, single, and from weak economic and social backgrounds, particularly those belonging to the lowest caste of Dalits and indigenous communities such as the Adivasi.
This is especially true in the manufacturing centres of Bangalore and Chennai, where women make up between 80 and 90 percent of factory workers. This preference for hiring women is linked to supposedly feminine traits such as “nimble fingers”, obedience, and controllability.
“Patriarchy extends to the workplace”, explains Prathibha Ramanath, president of the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) in Bangalore. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, India’s garment and textile industry was characterized by below-minimum wages, poor working conditions and benefits, sexual harassment, violence, and discrimination, as well as intense work pressure on employees and limitations on their freedom of association.
The Lockdown and the Supply Chain Collapse
On the evening of 24 March 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced the world’s most comprehensive curfew to mitigate the pandemic just four hours before its coming into effect. According to Indian journalist T. Venkat, the initial shock was not the virus but the lockdown: “The whole system was put out of order overnight.”
With over 90 percent of India’s economy based on informal or quasi-informal labour, hundreds of millions of people, mostly migrant workers, lost their gainful employment and livelihoods. State benefits to compensate for the loss of income were inadequate or inaccessible. Consequently, many migrant workers had no choice but to return to their home regions.
As a result, the curfew was followed by an exodus of approximately 140 million people. Since public transportation was not available, many had to invest their savings or take out loans to pay for often unsafe transportation. Many travelled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres on foot or by bicycle. Hundreds died along the way in accidents, due to malnutrition, or from exhaustion.
The textile industry was particularly affected by the pandemic-related collapse of international value chains. The supply of raw materials stopped partially or completely, demand for many goods plummeted, and the cost of shipping goods internationally skyrocketed.
To limit economic losses or even to profit from crisis, (mostly US or European) fashion companies began to suspend, cut back, or completely cancel their orders. According to a survey by the Apparel Export Promotion Council of India, 83 percent of the supplier companies surveyed indicated that their orders were partially or entirely cancelled. In more than two-thirds of the cases, fashion companies showed no willingness to pay for products already ordered — instead, in nearly half of the cases, they demanded additional price cuts.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a labour and human rights crisis in the Indian textile and garment industry.
Although the BJP government passed an ordinance to pay out wages during the nationwide lockdown, it was not implemented in the garment and textile industry. According to calculations by the Clean Clothes Campaign, within the first three months of the pandemic, garment and textile workers in Tiruppur and Bangalore were deprived of more than 170 million euro in wage payments. In addition, many factories were temporarily or permanently closed in the first months of the pandemic. Smaller companies in particular had to shut down operations permanently due to a drop in orders, further exacerbating market concentration.
Some companies used the pandemic as an excuse to close less lucrative or heavily unionized factories. According to a GATWU study conducted in Bangalore, at least nine out of 25 factories surveyed closed down, causing about 7,200 women to lose their jobs. Unionized, lower-performing, or older women workers were particularly affected by the layoffs.
The remaining 16 factories reduced their workforces significantly, laying off a total of 11,000 women workers. Overall, between 50 and 62 percent of the workforces in the factories studied lost their jobs. “Brands are very culpable”, remarks GATWU chair Prathibha Ramanath. Fashion conglomerates such as H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, and Levi’s, however, deny responsibility for non-payment of wages, factory closures, or job losses, as the case of Gokalda’s Exports in Srirangapatna shows (case study 1).
In many cases, management forced workers to resign in order to circumvent legal stipulations concerning severance pay and other social benefits. This was already a popular and frequently used strategy to close production facilities quickly and cheaply prior to the pandemic.
In Bangalore, 85 percent of layoffs were facilitated through forced resignations. For that purpose, management implicitly or directly threatened women workers. Another approach was to suspend bus transportation to the factory, making travel too costly for many workers and termination almost inevitable.
Case Study 1: Gokaldas Exports
On 30 May 2020, at 5:30 in the morning, all the machines in the textile factory of H&M supplier Gokaldas Exports in Srirangapatna, Karnataka were removed from the premises and the doors were locked. Without prior notice or authorization, 1,257 employees were laid off.
Company management justified the decision by citing the pandemic. However, given that the Srirangapatna factory was the only well-unionized site across Gokalda’s export operations, there is reason to suspect a case of unionbusting.
The workers resisted the illegal closure and protested in front of the factory building for 58 days. Despite management’s attempts to intimidate them, they persisted in their struggle. Neither Gokaldas Exports nor H&M responded to the protests until the responsible union, GATWU, brought global attention to the case through an international campaign with the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) and IndustriALL Global Union.
H&M denied Gokaldas Exports’ allegations of having cancelled orders. Instead, the Swedish fashion company presented itself as a mediator between the Indian supplier and the workers’ organization. After a series of tough negotiations, GATWU, NTUI, IndustriALL, and Gokaldas Exports signed a Memorandum of Understanding guaranteeing the workers’ reinstatement in a nearby factory and recognizing GATWU as the workers’ representative. However, better working conditions are not expected at their new workplace.
Factories as Superspreaders
Following the extreme and lasting social and economic consequences of the first lockdown, it was not possible for the BJP government to respond to the second wave of infections in a similar way. Even labour unions initially opposed another nationwide lockdown for the sake of protecting jobs. Yet, India was hit particularly hard by the Delta variant, recording the world’s highest infection rates in April 2021.
Nevertheless, garment and textile factories remained mostly operational. The government implemented requirements to ensure social distancing in factories, with, for instance, only one-third of the workforce being allowed on the shop floor in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Unfortunately, implementation of these regulations was not adequately monitored. When high rates of infection occurred in some factories, they were closed for only a few days, if at all. Management swept the high hospitalization rate and many deaths among female factory workers under the rug.
Other factories took the government regulations as an opportunity to restructure the shop floor. While reducing the number of women workers in the factory, production targets remained unchanged or even increased. Women workers were given more tasks and forced to work up to 16 hours per day. Overtime was usually mandatory and unpaid, toilet and lunch breaks were regularly denied. “Garment and textile factories today are like prisons”, stated Jayaram K. R., a trade union legal advisor in Bangalore.
The increase in workload and risk has by no means translated into higher wages. Workers in the Indian textile and garment sector were paid below the minimum wage, only one third of what is needed to live a dignified life according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, even before the pandemic. After COVID-19 hit, wages were in some cases even lowered due to price pressure.
Boosting Productivity with Sexual Harassment and Violence
To meet high production targets, already established practices of gender-based violence and intersectional discrimination have intensified in the garment and textile industry. Middle and upper management often resort to bullying, verbal and physical violence, and sexual harassment as tools of control. This includes threats of termination, pelting workers with bundles of clothing, beatings, or coercing employees into sexual favours with promises of better working conditions.
Many of these practices are indicators of forced labour. According to a study by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which surveyed suppliers of C&A, Primark, and VF Corporation, among others, 100 percent of respondents testified to gender-based violence and harassment in the factories (see case study 2).
An Indian law passed in 2013 to protect women from sexual harassment, the Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment Act (POSH), stipulates that cases of gender-based assault and violence must be resolved by an internal factory committee. However, since management usually staffs and controls these committees, cases are rarely resolved. Perpetrators usually evade sanctioning and preventive measures are rarely implemented.
Women affected by sexual harassment are often afraid of stigmatization and negative consequences. In one case in Karnataka, the committee found a sexual harassment complaint of two garment factory to be unfounded and forced them to publicly apologize to the accused.
Case Study 2: Natchi Apparel
In January 2021, Jeyasre Kathiravel, a 20-year-old garment worker from the Dalit caste, was raped and murdered by her supervisor at Natchi Apparel, a factory in Tamil Nadu run by Eastman Exports Global Clothing, which produced for H&M. The subsequent investigation by the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) revealed a completely unchecked culture of verbal and physical sexual violence by male, mostly higher-caste supervisors against workers, enabled by a culture of impunity. Kathiravel was not the first nor only victim. At least two other women were reportedly murdered at this factory between 2019 and 2020.
In response to the scandal, and following an international campaign and lengthy negotiations, H&M along with Eastman Exports, the Dalit women-led textile workers’ union Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCL), the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), and the Global Labor Justice–International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ–ILRF) signed an agreement against gender-based violence in the supply chain. The agreement is the first one of its kind and commits factory management to a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, abuse, and violence in verbal and physical forms. Union members have also been tasked with overseeing the Natchi Apparel factory to protect female workers.
How successfully the agreement will be implemented remains to be seen. However, as long as H&M does not back down from its pricing policy, it is likely that these protections will be undermined.
Working under Prison-Like Conditions
Pressure, coercion, and violence are not only practiced in the daily work routine, but also in the hostel accommodations provided to women workers, which are generally miserable. Supervisors exercise moral and physical control over the workers and illegally restrict their freedom of movement, repeatedly leading to allegations of modern slavery. A report by the University of Bath shows that workers living under such adverse conditions also produce for fashion brands such as H&M, The Gap, and Next, or for German companies including Hugo Boss.
At the outbreak of the pandemic, workers reported being involuntarily detained in the hostels in order to prevent them from returning to their home regions and to ensure sufficient staff to maintain production. According to the TTCU, many factories even made placement in hostels a mandatory condition of employment. The concerned companies argued that this was necessary to decrease risk of infection during arrival at and departure from the workplace.
Even at the height of the pandemic, workers in the shelters shared dormitories with up to 16 women. No hygiene or distancing measures were in place.
Hindu Nationalism Fuels a Downward Spiral
The increase in human rights violations, the dismantling of labour standards, and the exacerbation of hierarchical gender relations must also be viewed in light of the Hindu nationalist policies of the BJP and its affiliated hyper-nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The BJP emphasized boosting economic growth and globalization during its 2014 election campaign. Shortly after coming to power, Narendra Modi launched the “Make in India” initiative, through which the country was to become a “global manufacturing centre”, with BJP officials calling to unleash the economy’s “animal spirits”.
Progressive civil society groups and trade unions in India are counting on international support in their struggle against the systematic dismantling of the rule of law and democratic rights.
The Indian economy was further liberalized and many sectors privatized. The long-announced labour law reform was finally realized in the form of four labour codes, which were waved through parliament in October 2020 during the pandemic and in the slipstream of the controversial agrarian reform.
The new labour codes took effect on 1 July 2022, lowering both the minimum wage as well as restrictions on contract work. The already practiced “hire-and-fire” method, whereby employers employ and dismiss workers on short notice, was made even easier. Newly established companies are granted exemptions from occupational safety, health precautions, and working conditions, as long as they promise to deliver economic prosperity and jobs. The powers of inspectors were severely curtailed, and strikes were made more difficult by requiring 60 days’ notice. “Considerable power is being taken away from the workers”, comments Venkat T. “Unions are being delegitimized.”
The dismantling of trade union rights must be seen in the context of the BJP’s attempts to gradually shrink civic spaces in India. According to CIVICUS, a global network of non-governmental organizations dedicated to strengthening citizen participation, the space for civil society in India is “suppressed”. Amnesty International states that the Indian government’s legislative initiatives not only target trade unions, but also non-governmental organizations, activists, journalists, and all those who advocate for minority rights.
The authoritarian-nationalist Hindutva ideology promoted by the BJP and RSS, as well as the polemical and divisive marginalizing rhetoric deployed against minorities in the media, is also reflected on the shop floor of garment and textile factories. An extreme case was the refusal to reinstate at least 50 Muslim women workers in a factory in Gurgaon. The exacerbation of discrimination against minorities such as Muslims, Dalits, and indigenous Adivasi is thus linked to the patriarchal relations in Indian factories in the sense that both are fuelled by BJP and RSS rhetoric.
Due Diligence and the Social-Ecological Transformation
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a labour and human rights crisis in the Indian textile and garment industry. Companies took advantage of the systemic instability to circumvent national and international standards and stabilize or maximize profits by further reducing production costs. In doing so, they contributed significantly to the exacerbation of inhumane working conditions and patriarchal gender relations. Rather than taking responsibility, companies blamed their suppliers, the legal system of the country of production, or the pandemic.
One possible weapon in the fight against corporate impunity lies in making companies liable for compliance with labour and human rights standards in their supply chains. These so-called “human rights due diligence obligations” were first elaborated in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In Germany, they came into force in a weakened form in January 2023 with the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act.
There is a great deal of justified criticism concerning the legislative process and design of the law. In particular, the limitation of due diligence to the direct supplier rather than the entire supply chain and the failure to incorporate civil liability in the event of violations are problematic. Companies are also left to decide how diligently labour standards and human rights are implemented.
Nevertheless, the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act offers new scope for action and opportunities for collective struggle. The expansion of standing under private international law enables German non-governmental organizations and trade unions to file lawsuits on behalf of individuals whose rights have been violated along the supply chain. Nevertheless, international alliances will have to be strengthened considerably in order to quickly and comprehensively react to violations in the future.
Dynamic developments of binding corporate due diligence obligations can be observed at the international level, which could possibly lead to an adaptation of the German law. For example, on 23 February 2022, the EU Commission presented its proposal for a Directive on Corporate Due Diligence in the Area of Sustainability. UN negotiations over an agreement for transnational corporations and human rights will enter the ninth round in October 2023.
These projects are still ongoing. There is thus still time to incorporate more emancipatory approaches into German law, such as the mandatory participation of rights holders, the inclusion of gender-sensitive due diligence obligations, and more extensive rights of action.
The legal anchoring of binding due diligence obligations for companies provides women workers and their representatives with new tools for action against exploitative working conditions in the textile and clothing supply chain. However, these steps can only be the beginning. Conditions for Indian women textile workers will not fundamentally improve until there is a paradigm shift towards needs-oriented global trade based on long-term business relationships built on trust, equity, transparency, and socio-ecological principles.
Progressive civil society groups and trade unions in India are counting on international support in their struggle against the systematic dismantling of the rule of law and democratic rights. In Germany and the EU, a much greater awareness of the situation in India is needed. Unfortunately, the German government has continued to turn a blind eye to authoritarian developments in order to strengthen the relationship with its (geo-)strategic partner in New Delhi. Rather than a policy of appeasement, Western governments must incorporate a human rights-based approach into international cooperation.