Over the last two weeks, due to the COVID-19 scare, garment factories in Bangalore have been shutting down creche facilities. This has forced many women garment workers to either leave their jobs or go on unpaid leave, as creches are vital for many to remain in the workforce.
Last week, the workers’ union in Shahi Exports Private Limited (Unit 8), with the support of Karnataka Garment Workers Unions (KOOGU) approached the factory management to discuss paid leave for women workers who were unable to work due to the closing down of creches in factories.
Garment workers in B'lore refuse to enter factory unsure of measures in place to protect from #COVID19 Without Brands and Govt support factories say unable to take a stand re paid leave or at least reducing workforce and production to allow recommended distance btw workers pic.twitter.com/FOv1Jyql4C
— KOOGU (@koogu_kgwu) March 23, 2020
The factory management refused to provide paid leave and argued that such measures cannot be implemented without directives and financial support from governments and apparel brands. This response from then management forced many women garment workers to choose between unpaid leave and forced resignations, pushing many families to crippling poverty.
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases started increasing in Bengaluru and workers became increasingly worried that garment factories, were not taking adequate steps to prevent its spread in the workplace. For workers, social distancing seemed impossible within a factory where 500- 5000 workers worked in close proximity. Soon, soaps in the factory started running out within two hours of factory opening and lines to the few bathrooms became so long that many workers returned to their work without using the restroom.
On Sunday, after the imposition of Janata Curfew and show of applause to emergency workers, garment workers felt extremely panicked and agitated that no measures were being taken to protect their lives.
On Monday, workers at Shahi Exports (Unit 8) refused to enter the factory, unsure if the factory had taken adequate health and safety measures. The agitation continued for hours, with the factory management refusing to shut down the factory or implement adequate safety measures. The factory management remained adamant that workers must resume production as there were too many pending orders. However, the workers refused to work and the factory management was forced to shut down operations. Nevertheless, the factory has informed workers that they will remain closed only till 28th March, although the Government has mandated a lockdown till 31st March.
Workers in Shahi Exports (Unit 8) have temporarily been successful in protecting themselves and their communities against workplace exposures to COVID-19. However, questions still remain if workers would receive paid leave or if they would be forced to work extra-days and overtime for the rest of the year, to compensate for this. It seems that garment workers might have to pay a heavy cost for social distancing.
(Written by Nandita Shivakumar, South-India Coordinator for Asia Floor Wage Alliance with inputs from Ganga Sekhar,FEDINA)