Migrants in Indian Fashion, One Year After the Exodus

Migrants in Indian Fashion, One Year After the Exodus

A TVOF follow-up a year after India’s migrant crisis reveals that karigars remain the backbone of the fashion and garment industry. Here’s why a database of skilled workers, protection schemes and unerring “respect” could help

One year after 10 million migrants (as per government estimates) left Indian metropolitan cities in a mass exodus during the COVID-19 lockdown, NITI Aayog, the central government’s policy think tank, along with a group of allied officials and members of civil society released a draft national migrant policy. It rejects a handout approach towards migrants arguing instead for “enhancing the agency and capability of the community…”

At the start, the number of migrants affected due to pandemic lockdowns remains disputed. A World Bank report released in the end of April 2020 estimated the impact on nearly 40 million internal migrants in India. By the end of May, most estimates put the number of reverse migrants to 23 million.

While the NITI Aayog draft policy makes no specific mention of garment workers, tailors, embroiderers, patternmakers, dyers, seamstresses, and those who work on numerous finishing and packing jobs in fashion, accessories and exports, the designer industry pegs the number of migrants to almost 50 per cent of the total workforce employed. (Also read, Uncertain Trenches of Migrant Labour in Fashion). Most are from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal.


A karigar from designer Amit Aggarwal’s team.

Size, Scale and Scarring

In June last year, a story in The Economic Times on how garment units in Tiruppur and Noida were looking for local labour in the absence of migrants noted that migrants constituted half the 12 million strong workforce engaged in garment manufacturing across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi-National Capital Region and Punjab, among others. These include the synthetic textile and diamond industries of Surat and the knitwear hub of Tiruppur.

Earlier this month, Karnataka’s labour minister A. Shivaram Hebbar was reported saying that many women employed in garment factories in the state were left jobless as many units shut due to the pandemic, had not reopened. “As many as 983 garment factories were functioning last year and 2,86,747 women employees were working, this year almost over 1 lakh women have not been able to join duty yet…,” said Hebbar.

What is beyond doubt is the size and scale of the migrant workforce involved in fashion businesses, apparel, knitwear, synthetic textiles, diamonds and footwear. But what about their scarring?

A new book, Locking Down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre (Speaking Tiger, ₹399) by Indian author and social activist Harsh Mander, who works with victims of social violence and hunger includes many gut wrenching anecdotes of hunger, humiliation and desperation that he witnessed and documented during the (crippling) march of the migrants last year. The first chapter ‘Hunger’ talks about numerous skilled, daily wage workers queuing up for hours for food in Delhi during the lockdown days. The word one of them uses to describe himself is “karigar” (artisan), writes Mander, detailing the powerlessness of those like him to live a life of dignity and safety.


A craftsperson working from her home in Bhuj for designer Rahul Mishra.

A Matter of Policy

If NITI Aayog’s draft policy—even though it has been criticised by economists as a narrow vision document—is accepted and made legally binding, it could have wide ranging impact. It lays down institutional mechanisms for coordination between ministries, states, and local departments to implement programmes for migrants. It identifies the Ministry of Labour and Employment as the nodal Ministry for implementation of policies, and asks it to create a special unit to converge activities of other Ministries—from education (for the children of migrants), to legal services for handling grievances and housing and urban affairs for night shelters, short stay homes and seasonal accommodation. From skill building to workplace abuses, wage violations and accidents—it treads vast ground.

Fashion Industry: Why It Matters

What could be the collective contribution of the fashion industry to the sustenance, safety, shelter, dignity and livelihood guarantee of migrant workers without whom no garment would be finished, no consignment complete?

Fashion involves exceptional hand and machine skills, and a growing army of sustainability-oriented designers who are interested in bringing unique design interventions to protect people and the planet. The collaboration with the fashion industry to create a database of skilled migrants with details of specialisation (tailoring, embroidering, pattern making, dyeing, embellishments, button and zip usage…) could give the country a veritable ‘Make in India’ directory. Not only that, an involvement with fashion and apparel makers, footwear designers and jewellery artists through the Ministry of Textiles could yield karigar collaborative skilling schemes.

Last year, in a special report, titled Can Indian Fashion Make Migrant Lives Better, The Voice of Fashion argued for the outsourcing of skilled jobs to villages as well as the training of the unskilled in their natural habitats as part of the solution to the issue. Many stakeholders spoke to us about how they were handling the situation, about their migrant employees, whether they could sustain them even when there was no business (then).


Photo: Shutterstock

A weaver at work, used for representational purpose.

This year, as a follow-up when we spoke to designers, representatives of export houses and others again, we realise that while most units have re-employed those who want to return, the wage structures and other assurances that should accompany a stable job may have shifted in some factories. Fashion’s discretionary nature and the resulting loss of business over the last year have led to fewer projects, orders and consumers. The migrant worker remains largely threatened by uncertainty, though some designers have actually begun outsourcing artisanal work to village clusters.

Here, a cross section of opinions that could offer perspective to policy makers and leaders of the fashion industry.

Tarun Tahiliani, couturier

“Sixty to seventy per cent of our migrant workers are back and they have been reintegrated at the salaries they were given before they left for their villages. We do want to bring back tailors to our city workshops but as far as embroiderers and karigars in Bareilly or Farukkabad for instance, are concerned, we have started recruiting entire clusters for our work which can be done from the hometowns of artisans. Skilled and unskilled labourers who live in the cities are desperate for jobs. Whereas, across the industry, large sections of migrant labour that left scarred and traumatised last year, are worried that they might be thrown out again. What worries me especially is the automation models of manufacturing that are being brought in to replace human hand work in many industries. Even in fashion, most of it is machine embroidery, which is sprinkled with a little bit of hand work on top. These practices could be the real threat to the jobs of migrant labour.”


Photo: Instagram/rahulmishra

A weaver from Rahul Mishra’s team.

Rahul Mishra, designer

“Migrant labour is not a recent issue; not just the government, we as a society have failed to provide jobs in the habitats where people need jobs. This issue got highlighted because the labour was stuck when the lockdown was announced. At our units, we took care of everybody; we did not send anyone on unpaid leave nor did we opt for any furloughs or layoffs. One year since, my team has grown. When we reopened our setup in the second week of May 2020, we told people to work on alternate days so that on any given day, we are not more than 33 per cent in total strength. Ninety per cent who work with me do so from the comfort of their homes. This was made possible because from the beginning I was enabling reverse migration and employing people wherever they are. There were no pay cuts for those earning ₹ 25,000-30,000. My wife Divya and I took the maximum cuts (around 50 per cent) while those earning up to a lakh a month were given 30 per cent cuts, but it was a temporary phase which lasted till only August. We were on full pay scale post that. I am feeling more bullish about the brand now. It is all because of the amazing team.”



Rakesh Thakore, designer

“The most important thing is that many of them (migrant labour) have returned and hopefully things will gradually get better for everyone. The challenge that lies ahead is how one continues. We have a great amount of respect for each worker because they are the backbone of the whole setup. We suffered but we have now managed to get back on our feet. The (difference) between the number of migrants who left last year and those who have returned is marginal. It has also got to do with how much we can take back in terms of the workload and when there is work coming in; then, automatically the ones who are willing to come back are absorbed into the company. A few changes were made in the management of our setup not just in the number of staff but also in terms of the wages— some of them are getting what they did (before the lockdown) but other areas have not really picked up as yet because of lack of work. There has been a cut in a small percentage of the wages. People have come back in spite of the situation and even if there is a minor setback in their wages. We are looking at a lot of projects hopefully; there is a wake once again that we can make it back to normal.”

Ravi Desai, Owner, Himalaya Cotton Yarn, Surat

“We run a large-scale spinning unit, providing employment to 500 migrant workers and 200 locals. Most internal migrants come from West Bengal, Odisha, and Bihar. After leaving for their homes in June last year, they returned in August. As their employer, we arranged buses to bring them back from far-flung villages, got their COVID-19 tests and provided two months’ ration to help them settle back. We also initiated daily temperature checks, sanitisation at entry and exit points as well as sanitisation of the premises. To boost our workers’ morale and incentivise them to stay, a salary raise of 20 per cent was given. Their average salary is ₹12,000 which goes up to ₹18,000 depending upon experience and responsibility. Last year has been exceptionally tough for workers and us—as a business we have hardly earned. The second wave of COVID-19 has already created fear among workers and 30 per cent have returned to their villages in the last 20 days, despite our best efforts. Business is nowhere near normalcy and we are working at 40 to 50 per cent capacity.”



Namrata Joshipura, designer

“The return of migrant labour to cities has been staggered and in phases. Our factory reopened in May 2020 and in absence of regular labour, we employed few locals essential to move forward. As we progressed, and trains started operating September onwards, most of the original staff comprising of embroiders, tailors returned. A consistent salary, even if a reduced sum, was paid to our migrant workforce throughout the lockdown, which acted as an incentive to return. Their original salaries were restored upon their return and there is no delay in disbursement. We are currently working at 80 per cent capacity compared to pre-pandemic production rate. Commerce has been a bigger challenge than retaining the returning migrant labourers. An established business like ours follows a multi-pronged approach to allocating labour in various departments: domestic, exports, sampling, R&D. However, market dynamics are still changing and a business will be able to provide for its internal stakeholders by constantly being cognisant of external factors and market forces.”

Naishadh Desai, President, Indian National Textile Workers Federation, Surat and The Dyeing Bleaching & Finishing Work Union, Surat

“The Surat textile industry is divided in three segments – weaving, processing (dyeing, bleaching, printing, finishing) and trading, which employs a total of 15 lakh workers, 95 per cent of whom are internal migrants. Most of these workers stayed in Surat for two months when the total lockdown was announced last March and returned to their villages when work and salaries were nowhere in sight. Fifty per cent labourers who could not find productive work back in their village returned around Diwali at the same salary. Those who found employment stayed back in their native village. The work in factories was going in full swing until last fortnight. The surge in corona cases in Gujarat again is leading to distress amongst the migrant class. Some have already moved back to their villages. The trade unions are trying to convince the migrant population to stay back, assuring them of stable work, income and food. Throughout this period, factories have provided masks, sanitisers and many have allocated a budget to monitor their workers’ health. Vaccination will also be made available free of charge when possible. A tri-party collaboration between government, traders and workers is needed to stabilise the textile manufacturing ecosystem.”



Aneeth Arora, designer and founder, péro

“There are close to 200 workers in our headquarters in Patparganj, Delhi; about 80 per cent are from villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar etc and the designers too—including me—are not from Delhi. When the lockdown was announced last year, we informed everyone that we would resume ASAP. Many stayed on and a few went home only after the lockdown was extended. We returned to work once the 30 per cent workplace restrictions were lifted and train services resumed; now almost everyone is back to work in our premises. A few workers and designers however decided to stay back or pursue other activities. We also work with many people in villages, like our weavers in West Bengal, whose work was not interrupted. We have not stopped giving artisans work as we are continuously sampling for upcoming seasons. But the pandemic has hit us in terms of retail; péro is dependent on consignment orders in India and tourists; internationally too, the label is favoured among travellers although export orders have been consistent.

In the longer run, artisans may feel that our volumes are lower than past seasons because we don’t have as many orders. We have been able to retain everyone’s salaries once they returned to work, although we have not been in a position to offer increments this year and could only give a token bonus. We are yet to reach the same normalcy as before—business has been slow but steady.”


Photo: Instagram/amitaggarwal

A karigar working at Amit Aggarwal.

Amit Aggarwal, designer

“Many of our weavers come from Bihar while some embroiderers are from Kolkata. The last one year has seen a lot of shifting around—first the weavers went back to their villages and in the last few months some returned while others are probably waiting for the new financial year to bring stability. When we resumed manufacturing in Lado Sarai (Delhi), we intimated all the staff and retained everyone who returned. However, we had to find replacements for those of our weavers who were unable to return after five-six months of notice. Yet the hope remains that when they do return, we will be able to bring them back even if it means expanding the team. The loss of skilled labour and the instability of the pandemic have also affected many emotionally, and this reflects in their output. We fully empathise with the situation and are trying to normalise working conditions and have returned to original salaries as well—fortunately the last six months have seen a significant improvement in business. We hope to focus more on safeguarding the weavers and are exploring the possibility of setting up a fund for them as well—our recent capsule for Holi is one such example.”

With reporting by Shefalee Vasudev, Suruchi Khubchandani, Sohini Dey, Snigdha Ahuja, Etti Bali and Darshita Goyal 

Banner: Craftspeople at work in designer Rahul Mishra’s atelier, photo courtesy Instagram/rahulmishra