Neethi Padmanabhan

Indian academic

Neethi Padmanabhan is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India.


  • Low labour cost, along with flexibility in labour use, has become a key source of competitive advantage for firms. As external competition intensifies, the domestic industry has come under great pressure to restructure itself, to become more competitive and to adopt flexible policies with regard to production and labour. With a view to increasing global competitiveness, investors are moving more towards countries that either have low labour costs, or are shifting to informal employment arrangements. These changes create an entirely different political-economic environment for workers around the world. Greater international mobility of capital relative to labour puts workers from a given location at an immediate disadvantage, both in terms of bargaining power with the owners of capital (whose threat to move gains greater credibility) and with respect to the State. Thus the removal of domestic entry barriers and movement of capital to areas of cheap labour have caused intensification of domestic competition in many developing countries— especially those with surplus labour supply and those where labour is a major factor of production. This has been accentuated by potential investors citing the lack of flexibility in hiring and laying off workers as a concern, while targeting a developing country in which to invest.
  • Trade unions do not consider workers from smaller units as workers in the formal sense, or they often cannot access workers inside special industrial zones, behind walls of security. Workers too sometimes do not accept the unions even as they find themselves vulnerable. But if they find their existence is under threat, they will come out and protest. [...] Workers' issues get space if things turn violent. Here, for instance, if the women workers had simply come out of the factories and sat on a dharna, they would not have got so much television coverage.
  • On November 20, the Karnataka government issued a notification allowing women to work night shifts (7 p.m. to 6 a.m.) in all factories registered under the Factories Act, 1948. [...] In principle, this is a welcome move. However, several concerns have been voiced by women garment workers who are estimated to constitute over 90% of the five lakh garment workers in Karnataka (according to data by Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a global coalition of trade unions). The amendment suggests that night shifts for women will only be allowed if the employer ensures adequate safeguards concerning occupational safety and health, protection of dignity and honour, and transportation from the factory premises to points nearest to the worker’s residence. The amendment stipulates 24 points related to occupational rules and regulations, most of which have been in existence for years. Yet, women workers fear that when there is no safety or dignity in the workplace even during daytime, how will employers ensure all this during night shifts?
  • In a sector where there is systemic failure and worker-management relations are turbulent, putting the onus of worker safety and security in the hands of the management alone can be risky. Moreover, it is well-known that in supply chains the brands call the shots. Involving them in discussions on worker dignity and equality is important. Omitting workers and trade unions from discussions about the amendment is also seen by the workers as a short-sighted measure. Women garment workers are concerned that while the amendment has stipulated many ‘new’ guidelines amidst the plethora of unaddressed concerns, allowing night shifts would only extend daytime exploitation.
  • Clearly, the disparity between the prospects of win-alls and lose-alls maps perfectly with their respective general socio-economic conditions as determined by class, caste and gender identities. The current pandemic can significantly worsen the existing and expanding inequalities in Indian economy and society. Inequalities of health, income and employment even within the informal workforce can expand, with some informal workers at lower risk and others at higher on the three counts. This is as much a socio-economic inequality issue as much as a public health dilemma. After the dust settles and restrictions are relaxed, the win-alls as well as others lying towards the more privileged end of the means spectrum should be able to hop straight back to their routines with their health, wealth and job security intact. The lose-alls and those proximate to that extreme will be more susceptible to illnesses, loss of income and job insecurity – and quite likely all three together. The latter group is trapped in an adverse equilibrium with the unjust choices of risking their health if they go to work, risking their income if they don’t go to work, and risking their employment if the COVID-19 lockdown continues.

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