Saturday, May 13, 2006

The other boom in Bangalore

Disclaimer: This post is based mostly on my observations. I have not found data on the web to substantiate it.

Everybody knows about this boom - which I call the other boom in Bangalore. And I am not talking about real estate. The first boom, as we all know is in the IT/ITES/BPO sector which is talked about, has a section for it, another section against it and what not. But this one is about the boom that started much before the IT boom in Bangalore. Yet, it is small - not perhaps in terms of the business that it generates, but in terms of its overall impact on the people who work for it. I am talking about the garment industry boom in Bangalore.

Each day on the outskirts of Bangalore, on almost all sides, but concentrated on the Hosur side of Bangalore (and well into TN) one can see hordes of young ladies (and a few men) make their way in crowded public transport or in the back of trucks or in almost broken down mini vans. They work long hours, sit in front of well lit sewing machines in crowded factory like environs and just work work and work from morning till late evening. Sewing is a primary qualification, though I am not aware if there is any trainig imparted to these women. They need very little educational qualifications apart from sewing and perhaps opearting a few other machines.

There is a big section of the organized sector in this industry, notably, Arvind, Gokaldas exports, but theres also a bigger section of unorganized garment makers here - the ones which qualify as sweatshops.

Garment exports out of Bangalore is an old story, much older than the IT boom, yet the lot of these workers never seems to improve. They work in dingy buildings, they dont have campuses and they dont have creches for their babies. Most of them have no transport to take them to their places of work, though some of them do have ramshackle vans that transport them like cattle and cabbage. Their workspaces, unlike cubicles (yes) are tiny. They start as a worker, some of them end up as supervisors, but most of them seem to quit before they have families because of the working hours. Precious little seems to be done for their development. The workforce being relatively uneducated, it perhaps goes unnoticed. Like I said earlier, it is possible that they might be organized into SHGs and so on, but that is something I dont know.

If the IT industry followed this pattern, we would still have ony bodyshoppers, instead of a business created around IT services as a model. (Many people do not believe IT services is a model, but a later post will deal with that.)

I believe and this is wholly my conclusion, that garment sweatshops, as sweatshops are wont to be, do not share any of their profit with the workers. Also, like the IT industry which is doing well the world over, most of these sweatshops live off (presumably for) government export subsidies and benefits. Many of them can be found arguing for duty cuts, tax breaks and suchlike so that they can make more profits. It is their view, of course, that these duty cuts and export subsidies are to make them more competitive in the international market. But truth is that most of these sweatshops havent moved beyond sweatshops. The textile industry is a ruthless industry, with stringent quality conditions and virtually no space for goof ups or any slackness especially when you supply to international brands. (Having played a small role in an organized textile sector a while back, I know this much - plus having a friend who was in the quality department of a biggie in textiles once upon a time helps).

The industry, bar a few, has never risen beyond the obvious sweatshop mentality. Most of them have shied away from investing in their workforce or looking beyond their nose.
The IT industry is a shining example of how we have tweaked resources to get the best possible advantage. The garment boom is about how we missed that bus.


Abi said...

Neelakantan: Just saw this in today's NYTimes, and thought you might find it interesting. The report is about India's industrial renaissance, and among other things, it has this to say about the Victoria's Secret factory in Chennai:

[Quote]At the Victoria's Secret factory, 2,600 workers, mostly women, are picked up near their homes by 78 company buses so they do not have to live in dormitories or commute by foot and bus. There are other perks: a day care center, a morning energy drink, an air-conditioned factory floor and meals tasty enough that the factory boss eats them, too. Workers are sold bras at a discount.[End Quote]

Neelakantan said...

Thanks for this link! I have used it in another post.