The laid-off workers for an Indian garment factory that produces clothing for the multinational retail juggernaut H&M are holding sit-in protests against their former employer, claiming that Gokaldas Exports hid behind the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for getting rid of all 1,200 employees at the heavily unionized factory.
“They have closed this factory to get rid of the union. This pandemic is only a pretext to break our union,” Padma, a 50-year-old who worked at the factory since it first began operating 10 years ago, told VICE News. “We are being punished for our union work.”
Do you have a tip for VICE News? Reach us on Signal at (310) 614-3752.
On the surface, H&M’s coronavirus-related struggles seemed to have played some role in the June 6 layoffs at the Gokaldas Exports factory in the town of Srirangapatna, India, in the Mandya District in the State of Karnataka. Three months earlier, in March, H&M had publicly announced the pandemic made it necessary for them to cancel orders, while saying they would fulfill all contractual agreements with suppliers.
The retail giant had been the Srirangapatna factory’s only buyer for the previous year, factory workers told VICE News. And the day of the layoffs, management posted a notice after a work shift that claimed the factory had received a reduction in orders due to the pandemic.
But the factory workers said they believe their employer targeted the Srirangapatna factory for layoffs because of its union ties. H&M spokesperson Laura Engels told VICE News in a statement that the company’s “orders at this specific supplier are on similar levels as during the same period last year.” And while Gokaldas operated five factories that made clothes for H&M, and 20 in total, the company only laid off the workers at the Srirangapatna factory, where the majority of workers are union members, according to Prathibha R., the president of the Garment and Textile Workers Union in India.
“It's an unambiguous case of union busting,” said Prathibha R. “These workers are made to work on bare minimum wages on top of that they have not been paid full wages since the lockdown began. The management wants to starve workers to tire them out.”
The situation in Srirangapatna is far from anomalous. Recent disruptions to the international garment industry tied to the pandemic have led to layoffs and pay cuts as major brands have cancelled and ceased orders or insisted on discounts. But across Asia, unionized workers in the garment industry have claimed that employers are hiding behind the pandemic as they attempt to break up unionized workforces.
In March, the Indian government issued an order mandating that employers pay the full salaries and protect the jobs of workers during government-mandated lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Workers at the Srirangapatna factory said they have yet to receive all the money owed to them from during the shutdown and afterward, when they returned to work in May. The employees had worked eight hours a day, six a week, and made approximately $4.50 per day, slightly more than the national minimum wage of $3, according to workers who spoke with VICE News.
Gokaldas did not respond to multiple requests for comment. H&M said that the company is in “close dialogue” with both the supplier and the trade union to try and “resolve the conflict peacefully.”
“We are deeply concerned about the developments and are acutely aware that garment workers are in a vulnerable situation,” Engels said. “Since it’s an ongoing case, we cannot comment more at this time.”
The predominantly female Indian apparel manufacturing and export industry reportedly employs almost 13 million people. Those who lost their jobs at Srirangapatna, like Mahadevamma, 42, are protesting to demand their back wages and seek reinstatement.
“I have no other source of employment in my village. This factory job is all that I have,” said Mahadevamma. “Even with full wages we could barely meet our monthly expenses and now without a job my family will perish. We will be forced to beg on the streets.”
Padma, who also serves as vice president of the Garment and Textile Workers Union, said prior to the layoffs that management had placed significant pressure on workers to complete orders. “There was a lot of pressure on us to increase productivity. Work intensity and work pressure was increasing everyday,” said Padma.
One of the central disputes revolves around “different interpretations” of India’s national layoff law, according to H&M. Since the layoffs, workers have claimed that management has tried to force workers to formally resign from their positions and accept a settlement in an attempt to undermine the union’s negotiation efforts with the factory’s management.
“There is a process laid out in law that the management needs to follow before announcing a layoff. In this case no such procedure was followed,” said Padma. “H&M is supporting Gokaldas in this union breaking act.”