Home >Politics >These garment factories don’t need tailors

New Delhi: When Santosh Kumar Kaushal came to Delhi from Allahabad 20 years ago, he found a job easily. He was a competent tailor, having worked in a small tailoring workshop back home for nearly a decade.

After a few years in similar units in the neighbourhood, he settled down in a “fabricator" workshop, a 30-person unit where tailors lived and worked, being paid according to the number of pieces they produced. Till 10 years ago, says Kaushal, he’d make Rs150 a day tailoring coats. “We worked to our own schedules," he says wistfully, “the atmosphere was friendly and newcomers learnt on the job."

But time and the garment factories of Udyog Vihar in Gurgaon, where he now works, have been cruel to him. His job in the sampling department (which creates the first few samples of every new design) of a large garment manufacturer and exporter fetches him Rs5,700 per month.

“That’s a Rs1,700 increase in 10 years," he says despondently, “while the price of atta has gone from Rs8 to Rs18."

Ironically, business is better than ever before in Udyog Vihar, one of the largest garment manufacturing hubs in the country. Exports of readymade garments, the mainstay of the manufacturing here, are again on the rise.

In 2009-10, India exported garments worth $10.64 billion (Rs50,008 crore today). This year the Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC), a trade body, expects growth of 10-15%.

The garment industries of the National Capital Region, spread across Gurgaon, Faridabad and Noida, contribute more than 28% of India’s total exports; and of this the largest contribution is from the 2,500 manufacturing units of Udyog Vihar.

These units, says Darlie Koshy, director general of AEPC, make higher-end “fashion" garments for companies such as Gap Inc., JCPenny Co. Inc., Ivy Co., etc.

Among them they employ around 200,000 workers, and are always on the lookout for more.

A skilled tailor such as Kaushal should not find it difficult to get another job. But a series of changes in the manufacturing process over the last decade have made his skills as a tailor redundant.

It started with the flood of readymade garments from China and South-East Asia. Fabricator workshops found themselves outpriced and started shutting down.

Manufacturing shifted to factories, where the tailor went from being a craftsman to an employee. Where once a tailor would work on a single garment at a time, now the work was split up among three or four tailors. Productivity went up, and though payment continued to be at “piece rate" or per piece, the charges dropped.

Then about six years ago came the assembly line or the “chain system". Processes were standardized, and new machinery was brought in to do everything from cutting cloth to sewing on labels and buttons.

An army of 30-40 workers would now work on a single garment. One would do just the hem, the other the zip and the third the collar, etc.

Manufacturing costs came down even further, and a flood of international orders started pouring in. Suddenly there was a huge demand for workers, but they didn’t need to be craftsmen.

Skilled tailors were relegated to small sampling departments and a new kind of labour started taking over in the factories.

These were unskilled workers brought in by contractors from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. While it would take a tailor a year to acquire the skill to stitch a “full piece" or entire garment, these workers were pushed onto the assembly line after two weeks of training.

They settled in vast sprawling tenements in areas such as Kapashera, near Udyog Vihar.

The nali wali gali (street by the drain), which meanders off from the main Kapashera-Gurgaon road, is one such tailors colony in an area infamous for its filth. Local landowners here have created large compounds with hundreds of windowless, matchbox-sized brick rooms that they let out to the garment workers. In the heat of the Delhi summer, the rooms are baking and oppressive.

The only access to the compounds is over a concrete beam that spans an open drain clogged with sewage and plastic bags. Four-five workers cram into each windowless room, for which they pay Rs1,000 a month.

In the warren of mud lanes, the conversation is about the wages being offered at different factories. The workers stay with a factory for five-six months, before returning home to their families. When they come back, they find work in another factory.

Their wages are around Rs3,600, just above the minimum wage in Haryana. But the work hours are long, stretching at times to 15 hours. They’re paid overtime, they say, but only at their average hourly pay, not double that, as is customary.

Dozens of small “tailoring centres" have come up in these colonies to train workers for the assembly line.

Zakir Siddiqui’s centre is a dusty room, open on two sides, with six electric sewing machines. His paan shop sits by the entrance.

Siddiqui does not have time for ceremony. The rates for the tailoring courses are scribbled on the wall. A two-hours-a-day tailoring course that teaches workers just a little more than how to sew a straight line, but enough to get them into the factories, costs Rs300. The training for a “checker", short for a garment inspector, costs Rs800.

The centre currently has 80 students.

The tuition is brutal. Siddiqui paces between the machines shouting at the students, rapping them occasionally on the knuckles. “I need to train them with a stick," he says, loud enough for all the students to hear. “If I train a student in 15 days, I make a profit of Rs100, if they take a month to learn, I make a loss."

Malti, a middle-aged woman from Bihar, dressed in a bright polyester sari, is staring intently at her machine. She’s worked in Udyog Vihar before, but as a thread cutter. Now she wants to get on the tailoring assembly line. That she hopes will get her a better wage.

Students at the centre are guaranteed a job with the caveat that they will only work for a single company that Siddiqui has an arrangement with. The agent from the company, he claims, gets Rs250 for every worker he brings. How much Siddiqui gets, he doesn’t want to disclose.

Virender Kumar, a worker from Uttar Pradesh, is the product of one such “tailoring centre". He now works on the skirt manufacturing line of a company. Each individual assembly line has 42 workers, six helpers and one master craftsman. Kumar is responsible for the zips.

In the years that he’s been working in Udyog Vihar, the number of machines on the assembly lines has gone up dramatically, as has the production. “Five years ago, a single assembly line would have put out 150 pieces a day," he says. “Today we make 400."

Kumar’s salary in the meantime has increased from Rs2,800 to Rs3,604. Unfortunately for him, while the minimum wage in Delhi was increased by 33% in February, wages in Gurgaon remain the same.

The increasing mechanization in the garment factories is being driven by clothing companies. In an effort to improve and standardize manufacture across units that are spread around the world, the companies have started stipulating the machinery a unit should use. “That way at least 70-80% of the quality is assured," AEPC’s Koshy says.

Kaushal, meanwhile, has reconciled himself to becoming completely redundant. It’s only a matter of time before even the handful of skilled jobs in the sampling departments are taken away by sophisticated computer-controlled cutting, or CNC (computer numerical control) machines that have just started appearing in the factories.

“Soon there will be no difference between us and the assembly lines," he says stoically. Would he join a tailoring shop? “There’s no work to be had there." An assembly line? “Never."

“Gurgaon," Kaushal says with a wide sweep of his hand as he prepares to leave, “is no place for tailors."

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