Mumbai unlocks, but garment workers in Dharavi struggle to revive themselves

Despite the suspension of COVID-19 restrictions, garment workers in Dharavi are struggling to find work and make ends meet.

Mohammed Irshad, a garment worker in Dharavi, recalls being gripped by the fear of policemen lathi-charging him when he would step out in search of odd jobs during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. His garment unit was shut down. He wasn’t the only one, and many workers were suddenly faced with a crisis that appeared to have no solution ahead.

Laxmi Kamble, co-ordinator with Acorn Foundation, which distributed food and ration kits during the lockdown, recalls the humiliation, desperation and embarrassment faced by workers, who were suddenly stuck with no tiffin service or hotels, no vessels to make food and no money to buy food. “Workers struggled to get even tea since local restaurants were shut. But despite that, many would feel embarrassed to accept food aid from us, ” she recalls.

Cut to two years later, on February 8th, Mumbai mayor Kishori Pednekar announced that the city would be entirely unlocked by the end of the month. March would see the beginning of a post-pandemic city, and barring some COVID-19 rules such as masking and sanitation, all restrictions imposed since the first lockdown in March 2020 would be lifted.

But even as the city celebrates the return to normalcy, the lasting impact of the pandemic and the three consequent lockdowns, continue to take a heavy toll on the readymade garment manufacturing sector in Dharavi, the hub of this sector in Mumbai. An estimated 20% of the 500-odd readymade garments units in the area have since shut shop, affected by the lockdowns, and another 30% are susceptible to a collapse, according to Babbu Khan, president of the Dharavi Garment Manufacturers Association, a group of garment manufacturers and traders associated with the readymade garments industry in the area.

Lockdowns prove to be the last straw

The domestic clothing manufacturing industry in India is a 1.12 million-strong workforce, about six lakh of which is in Mumbai, with an annual turnover of about 85 billion dollars pre-COVID-19, according to Rahul Mehta, chief mentor and past president of the Clothing Manufacturer’s Association of India (CMAI). Higher GSTs (slated from 5% to 12%), entry of branded garment manufacturers and inflation have already left their impact on the industry. Branded manufacturers invest in large sums and acquire raw materials for cheap prices, thus can afford to produce clothes at lower rates, which small manufacturers can’t do, according to Babbu Khan.

The lockdowns proved to be the last straw for many small-scale traders who run these manufacturing units, with the constant shifts in lockdown policies accompanied by weak market demand.

This led to losses for many, and debts, forcing some to shut down their units. “Even though things have now opened up, the impact has been so hard that many of the garment manufacturers are unable to infuse fresh investments or are not in a position to revive them by taking fresh loans,” says Babbu. Rahul adds that the businesses have been impacted by the lack of retail avenues and lacklustre sales, especially since malls and shops were closed for a long time.

Since most of these units lack proper documentation, they fail to get loans from formal lending institutions or government schemes. 

“Many garment traders have mortgaged their houses for bank loans and are struggling to repay. Many have defaulted on business transactions, thus burdening the entire business network that was built on trust over the years. Yet others have defaulted on electricity bills that kept coming in even when the units were shut during the lockdown. Now, these units are stuck with huge bills and need huge sums to just restart the electricity connection,” adds Rahul.

The future of about 8000 small-scale manufacturing units, which have mushroomed mainly in the slums of Mumbai by engaging unskilled and semi-skilled workers, especially from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, now appears bleak.

Read more: Schools in Mumbai reopen, but school bus owners struggle to get back to work

To return or not to return?

“Even now, workers are reluctant to return from their native homes. They prefer the meagre earnings from working on farms or getting work from the MNREGA, a government employment generation scheme,” says Rahul.

The garment manufacturing business is labour-intensive, (about 12 million workers were engaged in this trade across India pre-pandemic), and an estimated 60% of the workers involved are migrants. The first lockdown in March 2020 had caught many of the workers off-guard, forcing them to return to their native towns in trucks, tempos, buses or Shramik trains, in what was a mass exodus of migrant workers across the country, resulting in countless deaths.

The transportation breakdown, and the trauma of travelling back-and-forth, has restrained many from returning to the city. The workers that did return are finding it difficult to meet ends. Since most garment workers engaged get paid in terms of the number of clothes they make, less work translates into low earnings.

Difficult working conditions

Mohammed Kauser, 25, a tailor, returned to Mumbai in August 2021 due to the lack of work opportunities in his native village in the Begusarai district of Bihar. Although he can make 20 dresses per day, these days he hardly gets to make 10 dresses a day. Even this work is uncertain. Mohammed gets paid Rs 30 for every dress stitched, a majority of which he sends to his wife and two small children back in Bihar. The paucity of work impacts the money he sends them, and his living is frugal. He lives and sleeps within the garment factory and spends about Rs 2500 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 only to find that work opportunities had reduced significantly | Photo: Hepzi Anthony

His life is a reflection of the basic living conditions of workers in his industry. Most of the readymade garment manufacturing units are cramped, enclosed spaces, generally unventilated, with no natural sunlight. White tube lights are required throughout the day. The units are generally placed in multi-storied slum settlements, accessible by iron stairs with either a handle or a hanging rope to hold onto for support while climbing. A few workers live within these units and sleep either on the tables or on the floors, amidst scrolls of clothes lying around. A few units have attached bathrooms, but most workers are dependent on the community toilets. 

a garment worker in Dharavi taking a break on top of a table where he works
Many workers live within the garment units amidst difficult conditions | Photo: Hepzi Anthony

During the 2020 lockdown, many of the workers were stuck either inside these units or in shared rental houses. The complete halt of transportation services prevented them from getting raw materials, and the finished garments, too, could not be sent out, recalls Mohammed Qadir, a garment worker.

In such circumstances, staying back in Mumbai seemed impractical. Qadir shudders at the way he travelled back home to Kaushambi in the Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh, in 2020, in a lorry by shelling out Rs 3000. The lorry was cramped with about 70 people and he was forced to stay standing through the night. Lockdowns also meant personal setbacks for him, as his marriage got postponed twice, resulting in losses from advance payments made for various arrangements. 

No monetary support

Ram Bahadur irons readymade garments for Rs 3 per piece. A worried man, he says that depleting work means more struggle to pay his house rent of Rs 6000. Lack of employment options at his native Faizabad district in Uttar Pradesh means that Mumbai is his only option to earn. Farming, he says, doesn’t earn enough. Although he has documentary proof like ration cards from Uttar Pradesh, he did not receive cash transfers or any other form of aid from the government. During the lockdown, he, too, recalls police patrolling in his area and threatening workers.  

A couple of workers, like Bahadur, say that they used to put in around 10-12 hours in the garment units and regularly shift jobs within the sector for better prospects. The March 2020 lockdown meant that they had to take debts with interests ranging from 5-10% to travel to and back from their native place and to sustain themselves during the lockdown. The workers say that they took debts, yet again, to return to Mumbai and stayed in shared rental accommodation and struggled to find jobs here.

Many have just cleared their debts and fear more of them, each time the rumours of an impending lockdown keep doing the rounds.

So what is the way out for them? 

The garment sector is plagued by fears and anxiety each time the numbers of COVID-19 cases rise. They need constant reassurance that lockdowns won’t impact their work, transportation for garments to allow them to stay back and fresh investments to revive the sector. “The only way out for us would be if the government provides interest-free loans to help us get back on our feet,” says Babbu Khan.

Rahul Mehta is optimistic that the sector will bounce back soon and hopes that the complete re-opening will boost sales and trickle down the benefits to the small units in another couple of months. The sector itself should record growth in another couple of years, he feels. 

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