Indian exporters continue to struggle with severe labour shortages after workers returned to their traditional village homes

Indian exporters continue to struggle with severe labour shortages after workers returned to their traditional village homes

Indian apparel exporters continue to face severe labour shortages, limiting the orders they can accept and undermining the quality of their work – even though the country's five months-long Covid-19 related lockdown has largely been lifted. 

This scarcity of trained and experienced labour is coming at a bad time for Indian manufacturers who have an opportunity to snatch business from Chinese competitors as Western buyers seek to diversify supply chains after the pandemic.

That is according to Raja M Shanmugham, president of the Tirupur Exporters Association, representing a major knitwear hub in south India, who warns that Indian clothing manufacturers are not hitting order requirements regularly enough.

"We are not [delivering a] promising record so far on quality, quantity and on-time deliveries," he told just-style. In his experience, at present around 10% of supplies are being rejected because of careless mistakes by Indian apparel manufacturing units.

And now is not the time to fail, says Shanmugham, given Western buyers want to stop relying on China for sourcing and are offering Indian manufacturers bigger orders, hoping that the industry will raise its game. "They know that our capacity has not been properly groomed. This is a silent challenge thrown to us and I am enlightening our members." 

Tamil Nadu's Tirupur is a case in point. This is a major hub, with exporting units spread over a 10km radius, generating an average monthly turnover of INR25bn (US$341m), employing 600,000 people in normal pre-Covid 19 times, Shanmugham says. 

However, with the coronavirus still spreading across India – with recorded cases currently exceeding 3.5m – half of Tirupur's regular workers are still at home in their family villages, often many hundreds of kilometres away from the hub. As a result, production is about 50% of usual, says the association president.

The situation is similar in the north Indian knitwear hub of Ludhiana, in Punjab, and apparel exporting areas around the capital New Delhi. 

Bussing back workers

Companies are hiring private transport to bring back workers from their far-off villages. Units in Tirupur are paying buses from Odisha, 1,700km to the north-east; and companies in Gurugram (Gurgaon), near New Delhi, and Ludhiana have sent buses to Bihar, 1,500km away and eastern Uttar Pradesh, 1,200km.

Vinod Thapar, president of the Knitwear Club of Ludhiana, another industry association, cites an example of how "workers were making excuses of shortage of funds for the return journey." He said his company Thapar Hosiery Mills had sent a 10-seater bus to a village in Bihar at a cost of US$400 to collect workers who had returned home at the start of the lockdown. The company also wanted to pick up a plant foreman (or 'master' locally), whose presence at work was important to maintain work quality and quantity. 

Such bussing could pay off – as workers cutting, sewing and tailoring are paid on a per piece basis, and "when there is a shortage of workers, they manage to collectively bargain for a better rate," Thapar explains. So far, pay rates have not changed much since February, he says, but the risk of under-manning exists.

Additional mechanisation is not currently an option for Indian garment manufacturers, claims Anjeev Dubey, manager at Trend Setters International, an apparel exporter in Gurugram.

"All the machines in our units are small and need an [individual] operator," he told just-style. This company is also facing labour shortages and has posted a 'Wanted' board for output 'checkers,' outside its factory gate to try to make up the number of workers required by his company.

In Tirupur too, checkers, tailors and helpers are in short supply as they are largely migrant workers earning between INR10,000 (US$135) and INR25,000 (US$340) a month, and tough to recruit, says Shanmugham. "The industry is not in a performance mode, it is in a survival mode," he warns.

Worker shortages are the latest troubles to hit Indian clothing suppliers. The country's apparel industry is thought to have lost shipments worth more than US$3bn due to order cancellations and delays during the coronavirus pandemic, while losses for India's footwear industry are understood to have amounted to around US$1bn. And brands including Adidas, Bestseller, Primark and Next are among a group of 49 companies concerned proposed changes to state labour laws.

That said, some Indian manufacturers see coronavirus as catalyst for good, with sustainability, innovation and digitalisation are all seen as key to helping the sector build back from the pandemic. While a recent op-ed on just-style argued Covid-19 is a wake-up call to improve protections for India's apparel sector workers, including the informal home-based women labourers who remain an invisible part of the supply chain.