An Indian government initiative to create millions of jobs and increase exports in the textile and garment industries could put vulnerable workers at greater risk, activists said, calling for better enforcement of existing labor laws. A package to generate 10 million jobs and boost exports by $30 billion over three years was unveiled on Wednesday but the measures, including cutting overtime, have raised concerns about workers' rights.
India is one of the world's largest textile and garment manufacturers, supplying many leading international brands. The $40-billion-a-year industry employs around 45 million workers.
Workers' rights campaigners say the industry is built on the back of cheap contract labor. "Creating more jobs will only mean even less regulation on the floor, with managements happily taking in new workers and firing old ones," said Jayaram K.R., a member of the Garment and Textile Workers' Union (GATWU), based in Bengaluru. "There are numerous labor laws that already exist and most of them are not being implemented in factories."
The "labour-friendly" measures approved by the Indian cabinet include capping overtime for workers at 8 hours a week in line with International Labour Organization (ILO) norms in order to create more jobs.
The government also plans to subsidize employers' social welfare contributions for workers. It said most new jobs would go to women, who already make up 70 per cent of the workforce in the industry, "helping in social transformation through women's empowerment". But Gopinath Parakuni, general secretary of Cividep India, which campaigns for workers' rights, said the new measures would not help workers, and urged tighter regulation to stop workplace abuses.
"When there are increasing cases of human rights violations being reported from the sector, better regulation is required. Instead, the government is dangling a carrot to the industry by offering subsidies to make more profits," he said.
Campaigners say the seasonal nature of work in India's textile industry, the advent of fast fashion and increasing global competition have created exploitative labor conditions. "The industry is moving towards 'piece rate', where a worker is paid depending on how many pieces of garment she completes in a day," Parakuni told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Pressure on the worker has increased and in the name of labor flexibility, managements have been given an upper hand to hire and fire at will."
A government presentation on the reform package highlighted that in recent years Bangladesh and Vietnam have overtaken India in garment exports. "This is what they want to fix and workers' welfare is not the focus," Jayaram said. "Managements are happy hiring migrant contract workers because it means no additional benefits have to be given. Even minimum wages are sometimes a fight."
A long-standing demand of activists, not been addressed in the new program, is to allow workers freedom of association and give them a voice in wage and pension negotiations.
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Jo Griffin and Ros Russell, Thomson Reuters Foundation)