By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, June 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Every morning since her factory reopened after lockdown in southern India last month, garment worker Radha has woken to the same dilemma; leave her two young children alone at home or miss out on a day’s pay.
Indian clothing factories resumed production eight weeks ago as the country’s coronavirus restrictions were eased, but they have kept their creches shut, leaving working parents in the lurch and forcing some to give up their jobs.
“Parents were called by the management and simply told to stop coming to work as creches would be closed… There was no discussion and many were forced to quit,” said Radha, 36, who goes by one name and works in Bengaluru, a major manufacturing hub in southern Karnataka state.
Radha, whose children are four and six, worked just 20 shifts during May and June – heading to the factory when her husband’s income as a daily wage worker was not sufficient to cover the household expenses.
“I stayed home for days but then there wasn’t much to feed my children and no money to pay rent and bills. So I left them alone, prayed they would be safe and went to work,” she said.
Besides shutting the creche, Radha’s factory is only using 30% of its normal workforce, partly due to reduced orders but also to comply with social distancing rules.
India’s multi-million dollar garment industry, which employs at least 12 million people, is reeling from the impact of the pandemic, which led many global brands to cancel orders or demand steep discounts as store closures battered their sales.
Across Asia, thousands of workers have suffered job cuts and unpaid wages as a result, with campaigners warning of a mass rollback of labour rights in the garment sector.
Factory bosses defend creche closures as a way to stem the spread of COVID-19, but union leaders say it is a convenient way for them to lay off workers – particularly working mothers – without having to sack them formally.
The vast majority of India’s garment workers are women, who generally take responsibility for childcare. Many are single mothers or get little babysitting help from their husbands.
“In the name of safety, managements have targeted working mothers and left many with no choice but to quit. The decision has pushed thousands of women with toddlers into deep crisis,” said union leader Saroja Kannappa.
“(The) closure of creches is illegal and violates a worker’s basic rights,” said Kannappa, who is general secretary of the women-led Garment Labour Union, which has some 6,000 members.
Manufacturers said the closure of on-site nurseries was a precautionary measure that responded to concerns about the safety of workers and their children.
“There is no formal directive given to factories but most feel that not running creches is a safer option. Health and safety is a priority,” said A Sakthivel, chairman of India’s Apparel Export Promotion Council.
‘STRESSED AND STRUGGLING’
Under Indian labour laws, factories with more than 30 women employees have to provide a creche for children under six, but it is unclear when they might reopen.
“It is mandatory and the government has not given any instructions to the contrary. We are trying to see how we can reconcile these problems,” said Maheshwar Rao, principal secretary of the Karnataka state labour department.
A helpline run by Karnataka’s labour department has received more than 4,000 calls from workers who have lost their jobs or have not been paid during the last two months.
The department has not recorded details of the callers but union leaders say they have seen an increase in distress calls from mothers who are out of work.
“Some women have left their children, some as young as two, with their family back in villages and returned to work,” said Ganga Sekhar, communications officer at charity FEDINA, which works on labour rights and supports unions.
Others are pleading with their managers not to give their jobs to someone else as they scramble to make alternative childcare arrangements, Sekhar said, adding that up to 100 women had contacted unions affiliated with the charity seeking help.
“Women are stressed and struggling,” she said.
‘NOWHERE TO GO’
Despite a rise in coronavirus infections following the lockdown’s easing in India, trade unions and workers say parents should be the ones to decide whether to run the risk of sending their children to a nursery run by their factories.
“If the management can sanitise and run a factory with social distancing norms, why can’t they do the same with the creche? They should provide the facility and give workers the choice,” said Radha, the Bengaluru seamstress.
In contrast to Radha, 26-year-old Farida Bano – who works at another garment factory in the city – has not worked since April because she does not know where to leave her four-year-old son.
“Since corona came, I have had nowhere to go,” she said.
“Schools are closed so I cannot enroll my son in one. My sister lives very far and I cannot commute every day to drop him there and then head to work. I was earning 8,000 Indian rupees ($106) every month and now nothing.”
($1 = 75.4890 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)