“Needles and Threats”, Local Textile Industry, Part One

A text on the textile export industries around the New Delhi area in India, including workers' reports and how one company got rid of permanent workers by repression and taking advantage of the workers' trust in their union representatives.

Submitted by Steven. on February 22, 2010

The series “What are we/you doing…?” puts our daily experiences in the focus, against the general trend of giving more importance to the `big events´ (marriages of the rich and beautiful, election results, cricket World Cup, etc.) than to our own life. The first step in changing our lives is to reflect upon it together, shredding the veil of boredom and misery. Following are three reports from the textile sector. The first report is from a young worker living in Delhi area, telling about his daily life; it was originally published in Faridabad Majdoor Samaachaar (FMS) no. 215, in May 2006. The second report is from a Sona Fashion worker; the third is about LM Sagar Export describing the policy of many textile companies in Delhi’s South, shifting work and workers between various factories, often using official strikes as a pretext to re-structure exploitation. These two stories were distributed in the area with FMS no. 216, in June 2006. All three stories are from the industrial area of Okhla, in the South of Delhi. In order to get some background information on Okhla textile cluster we attach a summary of an academic study by NISIET (2003).
On the rather narrow empirical base of short chats at chai stalls in the more shiny textile area of Gurgaon Udyog Vihar Phase One we can say that at least in terms of basic wages and working-hours the situation is similar compared to the one in Okhla, as is the situation in sector 34 and 37 in Gurgaon. In front of the Orient Craft factory (pics: see web-site), opposite of the Hero Honda factory, two former workers hired through contractors sit and wait for their out-standing money. They report that workers are abused and hit in the factory. But as soon as buyers from America or Europe arrive, everything is all nice-nice again. One of the workers has been kicked out because he returned late from his village in Bihar. He worked at Orient Craft for about seven months. He says that the permanents get about 3,200 Rupees (Rs) per month, their over-time is paid double rate, while the workers hired through contractors get about 2,500 Rs and mostly do piece-work. Orient Craft has about 20 factories in the Gurgaon area. Just across the road in the industrial area of so-called Pace City 1, Sector 37, a permanent worker sits at another chai stall, also waiting for his severance pay. He worked as a skilled tailor in sector 37, in the finishing department of a company making shirts for export. He had a permanent job, but he decided to quit it. The company promised double-rate of the over-time payment after three months of employment, but they never paid. People were abused, wage payments were delayed and the wage was crap anyway, ranging between 2,500 to 2,800 Rs. The worker knows that he might have to return many times in order to get his outstanding money, about 5,000 Rs. Maybe the many job adverts at most of the factory gates in Gurgaon assured him in his decision to leave the job “tailors needed, helpers needed”. The decision of the Haryana government to increase the minimum wage might be more than just a formal move, but a reaction to the wage pressure from below. The conditions in Gurgaon are not only similar to those in Okhla, but also to those in Bangladesh and Vietnam, where there have been major textile workers upheavals in the export zones recently…

What are we/you doing…?

Sona Fashion Worker (19 years old)

I get up at 6:30 in the morning. For an 8ft by 8ft room in a newly built house in Tekhand we three people pay 910 Rs rent per month. The house has two floors, altogether fifteen rooms, the landlord lives somewhere else. There is one latrine upstairs and one downstairs. At the moment three or four rooms are empty, that is why the queue for the latrine is not that long. There is no bathroom; the men bathe outside, the women inside their rooms. The house where I lived before was much more crowded and the rent for a much smaller room was 920 Rs. At 7 am one of us cleans the alloy pots, the second prepares wheat flour rotis and the third cooks some vegetables, then we bathe. At 8:30 am, after having had rotis, we three go off to work. At the moment I work at the Anand Internationals D-3 factory in Okhla Phase One. Right from the beginning of the shift at 9 am you are immersed in trying to meet the target. Nowadays I make ties – when starting this work the company gave you 12 minutes to finish a tie, then after three days it was 11 minutes, then 10-9-8 and now it is 7 minutes per tie. Because the target was too high I left the Anand Internationals A-185 factory after two months of work. There you got 20 minutes per skirt at the beginning, then 19 minutes the next day and the target time kept on dropping; by the third day it was down to 10 minutes. You have to increase the work speed so much that the body cannot keep up, the work is consuming the body.
My father does handicraft work, he makes metal utensils as a profession. Well-off people in the trade asked him to come to Kanpur, Nagpur, or Nepal. But today – because of steel and aluminium – plates or water-pots made of brass or copper do not sell anymore. In the village I left school after the seventh class and learned how to tailor. When I was fifteen, in 2002, I went to Delhi with an uncle and he got me a job in Okhla Phase One, in the A-257 factory of Raj Mataar. Instead of small sewing machines like in the village there were big Zukki machines and ‘modern fashion’ production in the factory. During the four months of the ‘learning and doing’ period I worked day in and day out from nine in the morning to one in the night. The pressure from the company was a clear “do it or leave it”, and my uncle also said that I should stick to it. I was still in puberty and after four months of working such long hours I fell ill. In Delhi Doctor Usha Maheshvari took a 200 Rs fee and diagnosed TB. I went back to the village and Doctor Pande in Ilahabad took a 20 Rs fee and said that my blood picture is bad. I stayed in the village for four months and bought medicine from Doctor Pandes’ shop, which was 20 percent overpriced, and continued my treatment. When back in Delhi I started working at PeeEmparo Exports factory (F2/6 Okhla Phase One). I worked there for three years and they covered neither ESI nor PF. Every eight to nine months I went to Ilahabad in order to get medicine. Then I made friends with someone in Okhla who gave me treatment.
Then at D-3 factory of Anand International you had to work from 9 in the morning to 12 at night. Official working hours were from 9 am to 9 pm but if a worker finished work at 9 pm then the company would only count working-time till 8 pm, meaning that in order to save one hour paid working time for which you had already worked, which is 16 and a half Rupees, you work till 12 at night! Your company account is sealed on 15th of April, meaning that the company card will expire and you will be made a new one. The numbers on the cards change and the cards are kept in the factory. (meaning that the workers cannot prove their seniority). From the total of fifteen working days I was 30 hours in minus, lacking behind in the race for the target. The company cut 496 Rupees from my wage.
In the factory the target becomes an obsession; if you go for a piss, you get minus (meaning that they cut your wage), if you go to drink water, you get minus. Only when it becomes unbearable do we go for a piss or to get water. Only for the lunch break at 1:15 pm do we get up from the machines. On the board in the canteen it says that a meal is 8 Rupees and a tea is 1.5, but actually it is 12 and 2. If you ask about it they say that the board is just for display. The lunch break is 45 minutes and in order to allow people to get out quickly there are two security guards for checking people; at midnight when people finish work a huge crowd queues up because there is only one security guard. Then it takes ten minutes to leave the factory premises.
For lunch I go back to my room, where there is the food we made in the morning. After eating I leave the dishes like they are so that there is a little time for relaxing.
At 2 pm you are back in the factory behind the machine. At 4 pm there is a fifteen minute tea break; we leave the factory for tea. From 4:15 pm till 6 pm behind the machine, then another tea break, leaving the factory in order to grab some food, and again from 6:15 pm onwards behind the machine.
In the factory there are 300 sewing machines, they are in the basement where it is very hot; even in winter you sweat. One always feels suffocated. Out of the 300 workers there will be 10 who are healthy, the rest of us suffer from this or that illness. No one has been given an ESI card, we pay privately for our treatment and if you are too ill you get fired from the company. In the first floor of the D-3 factory of Anand Internationals there is the office, in the second and third floors the finishing department – cutting threads, removing stains, ironing and packaging. In the fourth floor there are people who earn 15,000 to 25,000 Rupees, they don’t talk to us. In the fifth floor, next to the canteen, chemicals are prepared for washing the clothes. For 500 men and women working in the factory there is only one latrine each in the basement, there is always a queue.
Because nowadays they keep us working until midnight they give us half an hour dinner break at 8:30 pm. We eat at a street stall – the company gives us 20 Rs for food. Then again, from 9 pm to midnight behind the machine. After returning to my room I go to sleep at about 1 am, leaving the dishes from the noon break like they were. At the moment they put 7:30 pm as the time that we finish work on the timecard, so it shows 1.5 hours overtime. The payment for overtime is at double rate, but what does that mean if we actually work 15 hours, from 9 am till midnight? If the working time was from 9 am to 9 pm they would say on the timecard that we stopped work at 6 pm. The timecard is to show to the buyer and the labour department. There is not a day off, neither Sundays nor any other day. The delegates of the buyer GAP or Lenson announce their arrival, and at that day we finish work at 6 pm. In the factory conversations are not like they should be and people misbehave – abuse, swear words, lies, exaggerations, petty cheating. If a piece is wrongly made then you get told off by the line man and the master. Our land-lord at home bickers about our water and electricity consumption.
When work finishes at 9 pm then one of us gets some veggies on his way home from work. In Tekhand the market is very crowded even at 10 pm.. The shop-keepers pack up their stuff at midnight. When back in our room we clean the dishes and make food. We do not even make tea at home. At night we make rice, lentils and roti-bread, the veggies we prepare in the morning. We get veggies, lentils, rice, flour, oil, spices, gas and soap together and each cent is listed in a book; in every respect we have learnt to keep separate accounts of everything one spends. At the moment I live with very close relatives. For food and rent each of us pays about 1,100 Rs, in addition to that 10 Rupees are spent daily on tea and food in the factory. If you work from 9 am to midnight you get 5,000 Rupees, if you work from 9 am to 9 pm you get 4,000 Rupees. Apart from covering my costs here I send money back to the village, because if you fall ill you cannot predict how much money it will cost you. During the four years that I am in Delhi, I have never been well – illnesses have cost me 30,000 to 32,000 Rupees. What hope is there in this kind of existence? You just have to keep on going.

LM Sagar Exports Worker

Plot F-63, Okhla Phase One. There is one shift from 9 am to midnight. Only the 20 women employed in the thread-cutting department leave the factory at 9 pm. Fifteen hours of daily work, 30 days per month: our condition is bad. Some skilled workers are given 110 Rs for an eight hour shift, others 115 Rs; this is 13.75 Rs and 14.25 Rs respectively per hour. For lunch and tea break they deduct one hour, so they pay us for fourteen hours per day. Those women who cut threads and other helpers get 1,800 Rs per month, based on an eight hour work day and a 26 day work month. The overtime is paid at the single rate, based on this wage. For the fifteen hour shift the company does not give you tea, but they provide 20 Rs for food. The water-cooler in the factory is broken and the quality of the drinking water is bad. For 80 machines there are two air coolers; the air reaches eight machines and the other 72 sewing workers are soaked in sweat during work.
FMS no.213 and no.216, March and June 2006
Okhla Phase One – the factories B-48, B-237, B-242, and D-116 manufacture clothes for export. The sign at the gate of all the factories says LM Sagar Exports, but inside on the documents it says JK Textiles, KK Apparels, Manish Apparels, DB Garments, Sonu Enterprises, MM Apparels, HV Enterprises and other names. There was only one general manager and one personnel manager. In order to avoid having to give workers permanent contracts (see glossary) the company had a trick: workers are sometimes listed in the account of one company, sometimes another. In this game of changing names, several months’ worth of workers´ PF money was embezzled as well. The workers kept on working and the PF is deducted from their wages, but the deducted money was not deposited at the PF office. According to the company’s documents, during this period the workers were not employed in the factory! There were also workers employed by contractors inside the factory. Despite all that the workers managed, by all kind of means, to create such a pressure that the company made 1,500 out of 6,000 workers permanent. Officially the shift was 8 hours, but actually workers worked 10 and a half, twelve, and even sixteen and a half hours on a daily basis. The overtime did not show up in the company’s documents and it was only paid at single rate. Most of the casual workers and workers hired through contractors were not mentioned in the company’s records, they neither got ESI nor PF. Those workers employed by contractors did not get the minimum wage mandated by the Delhi government. The management paid less than their stated fixed piece rate. They cut wages under the pretext of bad quality. This was common practice in the company. Bullying by goons was also a common issue in all the factories. The arrangements for drinking water were not acceptable.
In spite of it all the company started to get into difficulties. For four years (since 2002) there have been delays of wage payments. The resistance of the workers grew. Jag Sagar was replaced by Kailash Agraval and Amit Agraval as directing managers. The new directors´ priority was to get rid of the 1,500 permanent workers. By bullying individual workers they managed to kick 250 out of the factory.
…On Saturday, the 11th of February, when the workers of the B-48 finishing department asked the new managing director Kailash Agraval for their January wage, he answered: “How can you have the courage to ask for wages? In two minutes I will kick you all out”. After the weekly Sunday off, when the workers arrived at the factory gate at 9:30 in the morning of the 13th of February, there were five guys with guns and 15 guys with laathis and inside there were guys with hockey sticks waiting as well. The company had brought these people in three vans. At the gate notices with the various companies’ letterheads were attached each listing the names of all workers employed in the finishing department. The notices said that the workers had verbally asked for their final dues and that the company was going to give them. The guns and laathi men stopped the 100 workers from entering. 150 sewing machine operators from the sewing division were let in and they were given the January wage on the 13th of February.
Once the shady deals with the future funds (PF) became known to the workers, the skilled tailors joined a union. On the 15th of February the finishing department workers also gave money to this union and obtained their member receipts. After a complaint by the union a labour officer arrived at the factory on the 16th of February. The personnel manager only talked about the issue of the final dues and said that the workers can do what they want but that they will not be taken back on the job. On the very same day there was a meeting of the union with the director Amit Agraval, where he said that he can get free electricity in Muradabad, that he will re-locate the company there, and that the Okhla workers will get their final dues. By making the notice pay, compensation, gratuity, bonus sum, etc. the question of concern, the conditions were created for striking a deal which did away with 1,500 permanent jobs of workers.
Then at the B-237 factory they managed to force a huge number of workers to resign at one go, after the workers were tricked into a union banner-and-strike-tent action (meaning a traditional union protest) with the corresponding lock-out by the management. After having kicked out most of the casual and contract workers in January 2006, in February the management picked the B-48 factory as their target. On the 13th of February 100 workers from the finishing department were stopped at the gate. Hand-in-hand with another union and the Labour Department the company had arranged this deceptive action. It resulted in getting rid of 100 workers in one go (see passage above).
In April the company singled out the sewing workers of the B-48 factory. On the 12th of April 90 workers were laid off, on the 16th of April another 50, on the 18th of April the remaining 80 workers were laid off (see glossary “lay off”). Being transfixed by the union the workers abstained from taking steps themselves and then again, after complaining about the leaders having sold out, the workers only continued lamenting. In the absence of actions taken by the workers themselves the company, the union and the labour department were successful in tightening the noose – by 1st of May the employment of all permanent workers at B-48 was finished. Only some permanents are left at B-242 and D-116. All the talk about the company shifting to Muradabad turned out to be bullshit, the company opened a new factory in Faridabad, under the name of Target Fashion. Ten of the senior staff were sent there, too. The company sold the machines of the B-237 factory and was taking the machines of B-48 to Faridabad.

Okhla Readymade Garment Cluster

The development of the garment industries in Okhla started in the late 1950s, although the main boost came during the 1970s and 1980s, when imported, power-operated cutting and sewing machines were introduced. Another shift was the displacement of the raw material industries (bleaching, dyeing, printing) from Delhi during the 1980s and 1990s. Raw material now comes mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the main work-force in the Okhla area. After the printed cloth arrives in Okhla the primary work then consists of cutting, sewing, embroidery, finishing, washing, ironing and packaging. Most of the garments are manufactured for export; the design and samples usually are dictated by the buyer. There are hardly any official figures of how many companies and factories are involved in the process; the NISIET study from 2003 states that there are 500 fabricating and 250 embroidering units in Okhla. The number of sub-contractors is not given. The same report says that 40 percent of the overall export garments come from Delhi and 40 percent of Delhi’s output originates from Okhla. It reckons that 50,000 workers are employed in the area. Knowing that most of the workers are not on the official payroll (see reports), the actual number will probably be three to four times higher. If you wait at one of the several entry points to the industrial area and watch people arriving for the early shift, you get a feel for the real numbers of workers: at the railway-crossing near Apollo hospital alone over 100,000 people pass within two hours. According to the report the average export factory employs 100 people. It lists the following reasons for the development of the cluster: already-provided infrastructure for the factories, short distance to railways and the airport, short distance to raw material supply, easy supply of migrant work-force, and proximity to political and public administration in Delhi. The report categorizes different types of companies in the area:
-the buying house (getting contract from buyer, organising the business, checking quality of sub-contractors),
-the manufacturers (get direct contracts from buying houses, sub-contract parts of the work),
-the machine embroidery units (get contracts from manufacturers),
-the contractors (take contracts from manufacturers and embroidery units and give work to work-shop and house-hold units),
-traders and manufacturers of threads, buttons, fittings (supply to the industry in the area),
-the machine manufacturers and maintainers (provide and repair tools and machines for the industry), -the packaging and transport units,
-the training and administrative bodies.
The study also comes up with following value chain analysis, with the percentage referring to the later sales price: basic raw material (50 to 60 percent), processing of raw material, e.g. bleaching, dyeing, printing (10 to 15 percent), cutting and fabrication (10 to 15 percent), fittings and accessories (7 to 8 percent), finishing and packaging (7 to 8 percent), embroidery and handwork (plus 25 percent on sales price). It reckons a profit margin of 5 to 30 percent for the different kind of companies involved. Most of the machinery is imported, mainly from Japan, particularly from Zukki Machines Corporations. Most companies are family-owned, and the study says that a minimum investment of 100,000 to 150,000 Rs is necessary to get a contract in the area. Between 2000-2003 a down-turn hit the industry in Okhla; according to the study 50 percent of the manufacturing units have been closed or shifted to other areas, mainly Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad. The study gives two (rather unconvincing) reasons for the closures: the liberalisation of the textile market and the lower minimum wages in Gurgaon (Haryana) and Noida.