How is Covid-19 affecting workers in India?

How is Covid-19 affecting workers in India?

We have heard the phrase “we're all in this together’ many times in recent months. They are words we have often used ourselves, but it has become very clear that while we may be weathering the same storm, we are all experiencing the global pandemic in a very different way. Depending on your social, economic and geographical circumstances, the impacts are hugely disproportionate. In particular, this has been acutely felt by garment workers in India.

We recently posted a video about how COVID-19 is affecting our supply chain, and the importance of supporting our teams across the UK and in India. Today we wanted to share more about the impact of this in India and what we have been doing about it.

Community in India

On 24 March 2020, the India Government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, limiting movement of the entire 1.3 billion population as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Since then, the lockdown has been extended four times and it is now enforced until 31st May 2020.

Due to the impact of the lockdown, thousands of people emigrated out of the major Indian cities as various industries ground to a halt and they became jobless within hours. With factories and workplaces shut down, millions of migrant workers had to deal with the loss of income, employment, food supplies and became full of uncertainty about their future. A lot of labour workers in India work in states hundreds of miles from their home, so they had to find a way back within hours of the announcement. Many workers live day to day and have no savings, some are self-employed meaning they have no other support. While government schemes ensured that the poor could get additional rations due to the lockdown, the distribution system failed to be effective as the ration cards were area-specific and fair price shops were largely inaccessible. With no work and no money, thousands of migrant workers were seen walking or cycling hundreds of kilometers back to their native villages, some with their families, some on their own. Most did so while hungry and with no obvious way of how they were going to support themselves or their families once they got there.

If you have heard our story, you know that Ismail is the owner of our main factory near Pushkar, in India. We met Ismail whilst travelling and instantly hit it off; he shares our values and our ethos and we knew instantly he was the right guy for us to team up with. Ismail is now one of our dearest friends. During the lockdown, Ismail decided to keep the Brother's Collection factory (that makes the majority of our products) closed for a few extra weeks to ensure the health and safety of his workers. Ismail's tailors are all well and he is ensuring that they are able to look after themselves and their families through this time. Whether it is UK or India, the welfare of our teams is our highest priority.

But the impact of COVID-19 has reverberated across the whole country and also deeply impacted the local community near our factory. Having seen the hardship experienced by many families in the local Tillora village, Ismail has been using his spare time to personally contribute and help. Ismail runs the factory as a small family business but he will spend every penny he has looking after others; he is truly one of a kind with a beautiful soul and we have become like family now.

He started by immediately buying and supplying 30 local families with emergency food supplies who were without any food. Ismail then decided to look further; he travelled to neighbouring villages to look and help more people in the same situation.

We donated money to Ismail to help him support more families in need directly. When we shared this with you in a recent video, we had so many people asking if there was any way that they could also donate to help Ismail! So, as a result we set up a Just Giving page and set a target of £500. Food in India is not expensive compared to the UK and £1-2 would be able to feed a family for a day.

We knew this was a difficult time for everyone and we were only doing this because so many of you asked. We were absolutely blown away by your incredible generosity and kindness, it truly brought us to tears – you raised almost £5,000 in 48 hours! We can’t thank you enough for your kindness and thought.

As a direct impact of your fundraising efforts, Ismail has been able to massively increase the number of families that we can help and support. Alongside Sonia Sethi, our lovely Buyer and Production Manager based near New Delhi who works closely with Ismail and all our factories, they have been able to greatly extend the efforts across multiple regions; Tillora Village, Rajasthan and Gurgaon, a city just southwest of New Delhi in northern India and Sonia’s hometown.

While initially Ismail was only able to help 30 families from Tillora village, he is now able to help and provide for the unemployed and their families from the entire Pushkar region in Rajasthan. Ismail has converted his front office to a ration distribution centre, where he and his team work tirelessly to assemble ration packets for distribution in the region, and go to the hardest hit families in the district.

In Gurgaon, along with a community hub of residents, Sonia and the group have been providing meals to the families most in need and continue to supply home cooked food for 200 people every day. Along with the food, there is a steady supply of dry rations, water and juices to ensure that migrant workers are taken care of too. 6,000 sanitary and hygiene products have also been distributed to keep possible disease in check.

COVID-19 and impact on the supply chain

This brings us onto the question; what is the role of the fashion industry in this? As the lockdowns were enforced, retail stores and factories closed; major brands and retailers took decisions to cancel and postpone their supplier orders, risking the livelihoods of millions of garment workers in their supply chains.

Many retailers rely on physical stores to generate the majority of their income. With huge volumes of seasonal stock that would be difficult to sell out of season and enforced store closures, many businesses were forced to take this difficult decision.

As a result, suppliers in garment-producing countries such as India, have had to deal with a huge amount of order cancellations, reduced order volumes and extended payment terms, which have left many having to reduce operations or stop them altogether, unable to bear the financial burden.

It is standard practice for brands not to pay for products until after they are shipped; the terms can often extend further than this and sometimes can stretch to 30 or 60 days after receiving the garments. This arrangement also means that many small brands are able to start their businesses before being in a position to fully fund their new ventures – so it does have some positives.

However, this effectively leaves the suppliers hugely exposed; it means they have to pay for the fabric (the most expensive part of the process), the manufacture of the garment, workers’ salaries and all transport costs, before they receive payment from the retailer. When an order is put on hold, discounted or cancelled, payments are also held, discounted or cancelled – with a direct impact on all aspects of the factory set up.

On a big scale, it leaves the suppliers in a very difficult financial position and many are forced to lay off or suspend millions of workers, without pay or severance. This means that the most vulnerable in the supply chain are affected the most, leaving workers without income or means to support themselves and their families.

In the UK, the retailer’s legal responsibility is with their direct employers; there is no legal responsibility with international suppliers unless there are strict contracts in place, however, there tend to be clauses that make changes possible and many have used the ‘force majeure’ clause. It means when an extraordinary event or circumstance is beyond their control it prevents one from fulfilling the agreed obligations.

According to the Business and Resources Human Rights Centre, exporters and manufacturing associations have appealed to buyers asking them not to cancel orders and fulfil existing contractual obligations, to urgently mitigate impacts on the 60 million garment workers bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis.

Many brands have now confirmed they will honour their orders. Worker Rights Consortium is also tracking brand commitments and Labour Behind the Label is also tracking how UK brands are protecting supply chain workers.

What are we doing about Lucy & Yak orders?

As a young start up in its third year, it has also been challenging time for Lucy & Yak. As with everyone else, we have been doing our best to navigate a global pandemic; something that none of us have directly experienced first-hand. However we have not and will not be cancelling any orders with an impact on our suppliers.

The relationships with our suppliers is extremely important to us – we have worked hard to find them; build relationships and we see them as an extension of our UK team. Ismail, our partner and friend who runs the Brother’s Collection factory in Rajasthan (and makes 70% of Lucy & Yak products) has become one of our dearest friends over the last 3 years.

From the beginning we decided that we would start small and grow within our means; we made 30 pair of dungarees that we sold and then re-invested in another batch. And so on. This means that we are now in a position to pay a deposit of 30-50% upfront for all our orders and 100% when they are shipped from our suppliers. We also appreciate that every business is different, and many are not in a position to work like this and as such have had to make difficult decisions based on current circumstances. Just because orders may be cancelled or postponed, it does not necessarily mean that a business does not care.

We also made the decision last year to create mainly cross seasonal collections. This means that we would not be left with out of season stock that had to be discounted at the end of each season – less stock would go to waste and we would be able to follow a more sustainable way of manufacturing. Even though much of out spring / summer stock has been delayed, we will still be able to launch it later in the year – bar a few pieces - bright, joyful colours and comfy pieces work all year around!

We have also been less exposed with physical stores; we closed our Brighton long-term pop-up before the official lockdown started and have been an online only business since. We have been focusing on our incredible online community and re-imagining what the future holds.

While it has been (and continues to be) an incredibly difficult time for many, it has given us all an opportunity to consider and imagine what a better future may hold for people and the planet – what is the new normal that we want to create together?

Blog complied by Amra Sariya, with contribution from Sonia Sethi, Country Manager (Buyer & Production) in New Delhi, India.

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