Shiva, 38, has only known the life of a garment factory worker. He wakes up at 5 am each morning, and takes the 60 kilometer bus ride from his village in the Ramnagar district of Karnataka to the garment factory in Bangalore. He works on a low-grade industrial sewing machine until late in the evening, and returns home before another long day. He does this six days a week.
Shiva singlehandedly provides for his family of eight in Ramnagar. He barely makes enough to cover his family's rent. And his income is far from stable. None of the 10 jobs he has held in the past 15 years have paid him overtime or granted any medical leaves. And it doesn't look like anything will change. Having only completed SSC level of schooling and no vocational training for his job, Shiva's future looks bleak.
"[Raw] materials are plentiful. There is an extremely low unit cost of labour, and there is an enormous pool of workers... The problem then is underutilisation of resources."
Shiva is one of 35 million workers currently employed by the textile and apparel industry, the second-largest industry in India after agriculture. Despite its size, India's US$40 billion industry only accounts for 5% of world trade. Moreover, it suffers a 10% monthly attrition rate. By comparison, Bangladesh's industry employs only 4 million people, but has already passed India in apparel exports. And Vietnam's industry occupies a 4% share of the world trade, yet only employs 2.75 million people. So why is India lagging?
It's not a problem of resources. In fact, raw materials are plentiful. There is an extremely low unit cost of labour, and there is an enormous pool of workers. India has the highest youth share in the world with 40% of the population ages 13-35. The problem then is underutilisation of resources.
To keep costs low, textile employers hire thousands of unskilled workers like Shiva who are willing to travel to the city and work for minimal payment under poor conditions. As a result, not only have skilled workers migrated out of the industry, but the unskilled workers are also returning to their villages to take up agricultural work. This lowers production levels in the factories, causing employers to cut wages and employment benefits further, resulting in a vicious cycle of constant industry attrition.
These employers rarely provide training to their workers. Concerned only with financial stability, the industry has overlooked the value of investing in employees like Shiva. In response, the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC), a public-private Partnership (PPP), has been set up to address these issues. NSDC has partnered with LumStic, an Ashoka India initiative, to map thoroughly the textile industry and better understand its shortcomings through employee surveys. This is a novel data-driven approach to identifying the industry's problems.
"To improve the textile industry, we need to understand [the worker] as a person: what skills he possesses, what training he requires, his family situation, and his aspirations."
LumStic conducted the first of these surveys in New Delhi and Bangalore. More than 1100 garment factory workers were individually interviewed regarding living conditions, job specifications, education levels, and other important factors contributing to their lifestyles.
The data will be presented at a July 24 workshop: "From Outputs to Outcomes: A new framework for skilling in the Apparel Industry." Held at the UChicago Center in New Delhi, the workshop introduces sustainable skilling practices and directs the current discussions toward a long-term solution to the textile industry's challenges.
The survey data uncovered key insights into the core issues facing the textile industry today. Perhaps the most striking result was the fact that 89% of survey responders originally came to the city due to lack of employment opportunities at home. Of these responders, 61% have actually returned home.
Unsatisfactory working conditions lead to high attrition rates. The data indicate that the average wage is under Rs. 7000 per month, but that is not the main problem. This wage barely increases during an industry worker's career. In fact, each additional year of work only gives a Rs. 48 increase every month (Figure 1).
Employers don't pay workers more because they aren't adding value or increasing productivity. That's simply because only 15% of them are trained, and only 6% of them believe their work requires formal training. The lack of training is best understood by analysing the education levels of the workers. Out of all thousand-plus survey responders, only 15 pursued an education past high school (Figure 2). With the exception of these workers, there was no correlation between education level and success in the industry (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Histogram representing level of education vs. wage. Before Post-HSC education, education doesn't seem to make much of a difference (HSC graduates make less money than SSC). However, those who have continued studies after HSC make on-average Rs. 1000 more per month.
A data-driven approach provides a better understanding of these workers. Take Shiva, for example. No one is aware of his dire family situation. No one is aware that despite working for 15 years in the industry and for 10 different factories, his salary hasn't risen. And most importantly, no one is aware that he has never had any training or vocational education. To improve the textile industry, we need to understand Shiva as a person: what skills he possesses, what training he requires, his family situation, and his aspirations. Only then can the industry efficiently allocate financial and social resources towards making Shiva a satisfied worker who contributes to a more productive industry.
This article has been written by Anindya Biswas and Kavirath Jain, Ashoka - Innovators for the Public.