Garment workers in Dharavi struggle to relaunch the profession after COVID, and some prefer to stay in their villages | Photo: Hepzi Anthony

Mohammed Irshad, a garment worker in Dharavi, recalls being gripped by fear that police officers would charge him with lathi as he went out looking for odd jobs during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. His unit clothing industry was closed. He was not the only one, and many workers were suddenly faced with a crisis that seemed hopeless.

Laxmi Kamble, coordinator of the Acorn Foundation, which distributed food and ration kits during the lockdown, recalls the humiliation, desperation and embarrassment faced by workers, who suddenly found themselves without tiffin service or hotels, without containers to make food and without money to buy food. “Workers have struggled to even get tea since local restaurants closed. But despite this, many would feel embarrassed to accept food aid from us,” she recalls.

Cut to two years later on February 8, Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar announcement that the city would be fully unlocked by the end of the month. March would see the start of a post-pandemic city, and with the exception of certain COVID-19 rules such as masking and sanitizing, all restrictions imposed since the first lockdown in March 2020 would be lifted.

But even as the city celebrates a return to normalcy, the lasting impact of the pandemic and the three ensuing lockdowns continue to weigh heavily on the ready-made garments manufacturing sector in Dharavi, the hub of this sector in Mumbai. According to Babbu Khan, chairman of the Dharavi Garment Manufacturers Association, a group of garment manufacturers and traders associated with the garment industry in the region.

Confinements turn out to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back

According to Rahul Mehta, Chief Mentor and Former President of Garment Manufacturers Association of India (CMAI). The higher GST (anticipated 5% to 12%), the arrival of branded clothing manufacturers and inflation have already left their impact on the industry. Branded manufacturers invest large sums and acquire raw materials at low prices, so they can afford to produce clothes at lower prices, which small manufacturers cannot, according to Babbu Khan.

The shutdowns have proven to be the last straw for many small traders who run these manufacturing units, with the constant changes in lockdown policies accompanied by weak market demand.

This led to losses for many and debt, forcing some to close their units. “Even though things have now opened up, the impact has been so severe that many garment manufacturers are unable to infuse new investment or are able to jump-start it by taking out new loans,” says Babbu. Rahul adds that businesses have been affected by lack of retail avenues and lackluster sales especially as malls and stores have been closed for a long time.

Since most of these units do not have proper documentation, they do not obtain loans from formal lending institutions or government programs.

“Many clothing traders have mortgaged their homes for bank loans and are struggling to repay. Many have defaulted on business transactions, which weighs down the entire business network that has been built on trust over the years. Yet others defaulted on electricity bills which continued to arrive even when units were closed during the lockdown. Now these units are stuck with huge bills and need huge sums just to restart the power connection,” adds Rahul.

The future of around 8,000 small-scale manufacturing units, which have proliferated mainly in the slums of Mumbai by hiring unskilled and semi-skilled workers, especially from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, now looks dark.

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To come back or not to come back?

“Even now, workers are reluctant to come home. They prefer the meager earnings from working on farms or getting work from MNREGA, a government job creation program,” Rahul explains.

Garment manufacturing is labor intensive (around 12 million workers were engaged in the trade across India before the pandemic), and an estimated 60% of the workers involved are migrants . The first lockdown in March 2020 caught many workers off guard, forcing them to return to their hometowns in trucks, tempos, buses or Shramik trains, in what was a mass exodus of migrant workers across the country, resulting in countless deaths.

The breakdown of transport and the trauma of commuting have prevented many people from returning to the city. Returning workers are struggling to make ends meet. Since most hired garment workers are paid based on the number of garments they make, less work translates into low earnings.

Difficult working conditions

Mohammed Kauser, 25, a tailor, returned to Mumbai in August 2021 due to lack of job opportunities in his home village in Begusarai district of Bihar. Although he can make 20 dresses per day, he barely manages to make 10 dresses per day. Even this work is uncertain. Mohammed is paid 30 rupees for each dress sewn, the majority of which he sends to his wife and two young children in Bihar. The scarcity of work impacts the money he sends them and his life is frugal. He lives and sleeps in the garment factory and spends around 2,500 rupees a month on his food from a local tiffin service.

a garment worker in Dharavi working on a sewing machine
Mohammad Kauser returned to Mumbai in 2021 to find work opportunities had drastically diminished | Photo: Hepzi Anthony

His life is a reflection of the basic living conditions of workers in his industry. Most ready-to-wear manufacturing units are cramped, enclosed spaces, usually unventilated, with no natural sunlight. White tubes are needed throughout the day. Units are usually placed in multi-storey slums, accessed by iron stairs with a handle or hanging rope to hold on to while climbing. A few workers live in these units and sleep either on the tables or on the floor, surrounded by swirls of clothing lying around. A few units have attached bathrooms, but most workers rely on community toilets.

a garment worker in Dharavi taking a break on a table where he is working
Many workers live in garment units in difficult conditions | Photo: Hepzi Anthony

During the 2020 lockdown, many workers were stuck either inside these units or in shared rental homes. The complete shutdown of transport services prevented them from obtaining raw materials, and finished garments could not be shipped either, recalls Mohammed Qadir, a garment worker.

Under such circumstances, staying in Mumbai seemed impractical. Qadir shudders at how he came home to Kaushambi in Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh in 2020 in a truck shelling out Rs 3000. The truck was cramped with around 70 people and he was was forced to stay up all night. The lockdowns have also meant personal setbacks for him as his wedding has been postponed twice leading to losses due to advance payments being made for various arrangements.

No monetary support

Ram Bahadur irons ready made garments for Rs 3 per piece. A worried man, he says work burnout means more difficulty in paying rent on his Rs 6,000 home. Lack of employment options in his home district of Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh means Mumbai is his only option to win. Agriculture, he says, does not bring in enough. Although he has documentary evidence like Uttar Pradesh ration cards, he has not received any cash transfers or any other form of government assistance. During the lockdown, he too remembers the police patrolling his area and threatening the workers.

A few workers, like Bahadur, say they worked around 10-12 hours in the garment units and regularly changed jobs within the sector for better prospects. The March 2020 lockdown meant they had to incur debt with interest ranging from 5-10% to travel to and from their place of origin and to support themselves during the lockdown. Workers say they took on debt, yet again, to return to Mumbai and stayed in shared accommodation and struggled to find jobs here.

Many have just settled their debts and fear more of them, whenever rumors of an impending lockdown continue to make the rounds.

What is the exit door for them?

The apparel industry is plagued with fear and anxiety whenever the number of COVID-19 cases increases. They need constant reassurance that the closures will not impact their work, the transport of clothes to allow them to stay behind and new investments to revive the sector. “The only way out for us would be for the government to provide interest-free loans to help us get back on our feet,” says Babbu Khan.

Rahul Mehta is optimistic that the sector will recover soon and hopes that the full reopening will boost sales and pass on profits to smaller units in a few months. The sector itself should register growth in a few years, he believes.

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