The Indian Garment Worker: Rights versus Survival

The Indian Garment Worker: Rights versus Survival

Western media’s damning reports notwithstanding, no global brand has initiated an exigency support net for supply chain workers from India. The second COVID-19 surge has only deepened inequality for oppressed artisans

May 1, also known as Labour Day in India came and went. Some of us in the business of writing new entries to “poor India diaries” posted messages and heartwarming (or heartbreaking) photographs about the crushed lives of workers in a cross section of industries. Others agitated and fumed in private. Still others called a spade a spade in stark, dark observations.

Consider these.

“I don’t think artisans have any rights, just as they don’t have a safety net of pensions or insurance or social security,” says Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar, the well-known Delhi-headquartered organisation for crafts advocacy.

“Skilled artisans who make products for rich buyers are totally lost. They will suffer even more because of digital disempowerment,” says Osama Manzar, founder of Digital Empowerment Foundation which offers digital training for weavers and craftspeople across India.

“Unless we treat supply chain workers as equal, how can they become an equal part of a growing movement for a better global industry?” asks Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution and author of Loved Clothes Last published earlier this year.

“It is a top down approach and depends on a company’s capacity and consciousness towards care. Even some of the most well-known global brands which manufacture in India have workers grinding away without (any rights),” says Bhaavya Goenka, designer and founder of Iro Iro, a zero waste label based in Jaipur.


Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

A Kashmir artisan at a silk factory on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir.

This story is out there in global and local press. About the dignity and rights of artisans, tailors, weavers and small producer groups in India versus their basic survival given the ravages of the pandemic. For whom their frail existence as part of broken supply chains for global brands has been fractured again by the second wave of COVID-19. It wheezes in corners of newspapers and media platforms. Somewhere it is tucked away as woes of the migrant worker (true). Elsewhere it is turned inside out about karigars whose orders are cancelled or ready but not getting picked up (also true). Through the despairing laments of a choked India, we know that something is terribly wrong for skilled and semi-skilled workers who neither have the copyright on the products they create, nor are supported by legally binding employment contracts.

They may not even have pension, provident fund, health insurance or child education funds. Women workers may not have a crèche for their babies or a ladies’ toilet to use between long hours of labour. What then about fair wages, good working conditions, off days, right to unionise and protest for those who live and work among lakhs of invisible workers recruited through opaque supply chains for luxury and ready to wear brands in the West?

No Western media story (or Indian for that matter) can even identify such workers by name in a photo caption. Instead, what substitutes as descriptors are adjectives like “distress” and “exploitation”. On the other hand, are words like “intricate, handmade couture and fine weaving”. Where is the person between the ugliness of their existence and the prettiness of what they create?


Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP

Indian artisans embroidering zardozi embroidery work on a saree.

Holes in India’s Artisanal Supply Chain

“Artisans are totally dependent on the goodwill and good faith of their clients, buyers, patrons. And these days, those enduring relationships, sometimes continuing over generations, that existed between karigars and royal gharanas, or the sari traders and silk weavers in Varanasi, based on mutual trust and interdependence, are being replaced by fly by night, short-term buyer-seller relationships,” says Tyabji.

What was heralded as free market progress in liberalised India, has in fact ended up pushing artisans further down in the hierarchy of production and profit. Once “knowledgeable creators” as Manzar calls them or original producers in a traditional, skill-based market, artisans were initially controlled by middlemen who exploited them for business and profitability. “Then came knowledge middlemen who helped them with information and communication. Now in the 21st Century, with this enormous reliance on digital, you will find that artisans are at the bottom of the pyramid,” adds Manzar.

He refers to the hurried digitalisation of India’s crafts sector in the wake of the pandemic last year. Where artisans were expected to join webinars, interact on Zoom calls, expected to sell online, join e-commerce marketplaces. Never mind if a large number of them are barely educated karigars without smartphones or consistent WiFi networks. The expectation to catch up and keep up with “new markets” meant setting up Instagram/Facebook Shops, posting photos and videos, writing captions and prices, uplinking exciting gifs, take online payments and orders and inspire “demand” without any digital entrepreneurial training whatsoever. Without the “knowledge middlemen” they would be lost. Truly.


An artisan at Iro Iro’s factory.

But that may be running ahead of the story. As what is lacking is fundamental social security and basic labour rights. Whether they are recruited by a middleman/ subcontractor or an Indian designer supplying to a global fashion brand. An already exploited and unfairly dealt with section of the large textile industry that directly employs more than 45 million people, where do they stand in the pecking order of asking for “workers’ rights”? Especially as half of the world (and many of their rich fashion and design employers in the affluent West) debate environmental responsibility, dignity for people and the planet.

The Legal Disempowerment

Goenka who was raised as she says in a garment factory—Shivam International, an exports factor in Jaipur run by her parents—grew up thinking how she could find and use her agency to make a difference. After training in design, Iro Iro, her zero waste label which supplies to small Japanese design brands was seeded with that idea. “The Japanese brands we supply to don’t just send compliance teams to inspect workers and their working conditions. Some of the owners visit themselves. However, that’s not what I observe with large global fast fashion brands who often treat workers as mere labour,” says Goenka.

The primary gap is the neglected legal rights of workers of labour-intensive textile and apparel industries. And the urgent need to follow Niti Aayog’s recent guidelines in the draft migrant policy of 2021 to genuinely empower the sector legally and economically instead of the “handout” approach that the country has followed so far.



“There are few written contracts and craftspeople don’t have the knowhow to litigate,” says Tyabji, adding that “In India even something official like GI registration of techniques and traditions is hardly a protection and to the best of my knowledge has never been used by any craftsperson in its two decades of existence.”

Delhi-based legal expert Safir Anand agrees. “The absence of a written contract of employment makes workers potentially more open to abuse, as there is no proof of an employment relationship and no record of the terms and conditions of employment promised and agreed upon. Often (official) letters may only detail salaries but be missing of other relevant clauses such as termination clause which may impact the legal rights of the workman,” says Anand.

He adds, “Fashion workers across the country face several impediments to fair employment.” While Anand believes that training staff, ensuring occupational health and safety standards, developing proper redressal mechanisms, as well as providing legally stipulated and additional facilities for workers is a solution oriented approach, Manzar says it is high time that artisans are digitally empowered.

“The one who controls digital will become the latest exploiter of skilled workers. Holistic integration of digital communication systems into the lives of producer groups and artisans is the final frontier of empowerment,” feels Manzar.

It is curious to note that despite damning reports in the Western media on the plight and current distress of the Indian artisan caused by COVID-19’s rampage this year, no global luxury or fast fashion brand from among all those who manufacture, produce, commission hand weaving and embroidery in India have stepped in to help the artisans step up. Not a single exigency fund has been set up by luxury houses with supply chains in India. If the workers are “invisible”, the brands are “absent”. What a fractured relationship between supposed co-creators of what the world calls “luxury” and “handmade”.

So when Orsola de Castro says, “In this narrative present even in the West where people so patronisingly say ‘at least we are giving them jobs,’ I find a fundamental word missing. That word is ‘good.’ We should not be proud of giving exploitative jobs, we should only use those words when we are improving someone’s lives, not making them worse,” you know she has hit the nail on the head.

With inputs by Snigdha Ahuja

Banner: A Himachali Pattu sari weaver from Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. Photo Shutterstock