Covid-19: India is suffering and on the verge of starvation

[23 April, 2020] The situation following the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in India is quickly developing into a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of garment workers in textile hub Tirupur in Tamil Nadu are facing starvation. Suhasini Singh, Country manager India at Fair Wear, has heard concerning reports. ‘It’s heart wrenching to hear about the situation of migrant workers stranded in towns like Tirupur, living at the mercy of relief work.’

The Indian garment industry thrives on migrant workers who are now suffering heavily. Over 200.000 migrant workers from 17 states in the readymade garments sector in Tirupur are stuck without work ever since the 21-day nationwide lockdown in India was announced on 24 March. Usually, on-roll employees get paid monthly, while the large section of migrant workers are daily wage earners or are paid weekly. Moreover, 70-75% of all workers in Tirupur are hired on ‘piece rate’, with no social security benefits such as provident funds and health insurance. They cannot go back to their home villages to be with their families, because there is no public transportation. How are 200.000 migrants in the industry stuck thousands of miles away from their villages, expected to survive the lockdown?

Not been paid

Despite the Tamil Nadu government order, which mandates ‘all employers will make payments of wages to workers including those working on contractual and outsourcing basis during this period’, they have not been paid till date. Suppliers in India feel that Bangladesh are not receiving the same urgent attention which is desperately needed. As Raja Shanmugham, President of the Tirupur Exporters’ Association, put it: ‘How do you expect the industry, which is going through a Rs 8,500 crore strain due to stranded shipments and stalled production because of the worldwide Covid-19 crisis –to pay wages for no work done?Unions and NGOs are distributing food and other material. But there are insufficient resources to reach all the workers in need. If no action is taken, millions of workers will starve.’

Immediate support

After over three weeks into the lockdown, the government has not seriously considered the impact on the poor and marginalised communities already living on the brink of poverty. As garment worker Deepak from Assam put it: ‘We have been told we will not get paid for days not worked. After we protested, the contractor agreed to give Rs 100 per day as sustenance for these lockdown days.’ Unions and NGOs are distributing food and other material.But there are insufficient resources to reach all the workers in need. Deepak has not paid the monthly rent and is only able to do so after receiving his dues. He is lucky to be able to buy food and provisions on credit from a nearby shop until he receives his money from the contractor.

It’s clear that the most vulnerable garment workers need immediate support in these exceptionally difficult times. Otherwise we will see millions suffer from starvation. The future of the export garments industry in Tamil Nadu, including millions of garment workers, that the state takes pride in,will depend on the efforts of government, factories and international garments brands to save workers and the industry from perishing. While the global garment industry may build itself back up after the pandemic, the scar this crisis will leave the garment workers will not be forgotten.

All stakeholders have a responsibility towards garment workers to protect them. They are the most vulnerable group in the global garment industry of this crisis who are facing a life-threatening situation. The needs of garment workers are urgent, and all stakeholders need to stand by them now.

Read more about the effect of Covid-19 in this Fair Wear partners’ letter to the Indian government, including the demands from the Tirupur Exporters’ Association. For specific brands’ guidance for India, please take a look at this chapter in the Fair Wear Covid-19 dossier