This chapter introduces the main case of this study: the Bangalore export-garment cluster. Given the relational perspective adopted in this study, the Bangalore export-garment cluster is conceptualised as one specific node within the broader garment GPN. The next section (5.1) first characterises the garment GPN focussing on its vertical dimension value chain dimension. Thereafter, I shift the focus to the horizontal dimension of the GPN and give an overview of the historical and geographical evolution of the Indian garment industry, the Bangalore export-garment cluster and industrial relations in the Bangalore export-garment industry (Sect.  5.2).

1 The Vertical Dimension: The Garment GVC

For the purpose of this study, the garment GPN is conceptualised as the relational network that emerges around garment GVCs, representing the vertical dimension of the GPN. Garment GVCs have traditionally been set up, coordinated and controlled by large garment retailers or branded manufacturers with headquarters in the Global North. These retailers or branded manufacturers control the higher value-added processes of research and development, design and retail, and outsource the lower value-added, labour-intensive manufacturing process to independent suppliers located predominantly in the Global South. For this reason, the garment GVC has also been labelled as the prototype of a buyer-driven GVC, in which retailers or branded manufacturers act as ‘lead firms’ (Gereffi 1994).

1.1 Historical Development of the Garment GPN

GVCs in the garment sector first emerged in the 1970s, when US and EU garment retailers started to source garments from overseas manufacturers. During this time, Asia emerged as a central garment manufacturing hub for the global market (Gereffi 1999). Between the 1970s and the 1990s, the geographies of garment GVCs became increasingly fragmented due to two factors: the Multi-Fibre-Agreement and a dynamic of organisational succession among buyers (Gereffi 1999). The Multi-Fibre-Agreement, which was in place from 1974 to 1994, fixed quotas for the importation of ready-made garments produced in ‘developed countries’ into EU countries and into the US to protect the domestic garment industry in these countries. These import quotas led retailers to establish geographically fragmented supplier networks across Asia and the Caribbean, since the amount of garments that could be imported from each country was limited (Abernathy et al. 2006).

This dynamic of distributing sourcing activities over a range of countries was in turn characterised by a logic of organisational succession refers to the historical fact that usually retailers with lower quality and style demands—such as department stores with their own store brands—started to source from a specific country, with suppliers taking on the role of assemblers of inputs provided by retailers (Gereffi 1999). By carrying out assembly production, garment manufacturers learned the necessary skills of production planning, managing quality and dealing with overseas retailers. Thereby these garment manufacturers became attractive as suppliers for other retailers with higher quality and style demands, such as branded marketers and fashion retailers. Fashion retailers trained assembly manufacturers to also assume responsibility for sourcing production inputs and become Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM). In Asia, the so-called tiger states, i.e. Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, were the first countries to assume the role of OEM suppliers for European and US branded retailers and marketers (Gereffi 1999).

‘Upgrading’ of suppliers from mere assembly production to OEM production involved several shifts in the practices that construct and structure the relationships between retailers and lead firms as suppliers. As opposed to department store retailers, who usually relate to suppliers through buying houses or trading companies, branded fashion retailers (such as GAP, Inditex or H&M) or branded marketers (such as Nike or Adidas) established direct sourcing relations with their suppliers. In these relations, branded retailers and marketers provide the design as well as specifications regarding production inputs and quality while suppliers take over the tasks of sourcing of inputs, dying, cutting and trimming the fabric, and producing the finished garment. Suppliers’ upgrading process from assembly to OEM producers therefore enabled manufacturers to demand higher prices and thus increase their value capture. At the same time, however, suppliers’ need for more qualified and skilled workers led to wage increases. As a result, suppliers acting as OEM producers became unattractive to department store retailers who compete mainly by price with other retailers as opposed to design or quality. Hence, department store retailers such as Walmart shifted their sourcing activities to countries where wages were still lower (Gereffi 1994).

1.2 Geography of the Garment GPN

As a result, the garment GPN is geographically highly diversified and fragmented (Dicken 2015). Since the phasing out of the Multi-Fibre Agreement in 2005, three trends have shaped the geographies and nature of lead firm-supplier relationships in the garment GPN: As a first trend, sourcing locations for garment retailers have consolidated with a particularly strong growth of the industry in China and India (Frederick and Gereffi 2011; Rasiah and Ofreneo 2009). This geographical consolidation of garment retailers’ sourcing networks has also been driven by retailers’ shift towards a fast-fashion business model since the beginning of the 2000s. Under the fast-fashion model, retailers transform the latest catwalk styles into affordable garments for mainstream consumers, introducing up to 24 new collections per year (Tokatli 2008). The need for shorter time-to-market and higher cost-efficiency under the fast-fashion business model has led garment retailers to introduce lean and agile supply chain strategies, in which flexible and demand-oriented production allows retailers to minimise stocks (Christopher et al. 2004). In this context, retailers have increasingly sought to consolidate their production networks and to concentrate business on a smaller number of larger and more capable suppliers. As a result, over the past two decades, large tier one suppliers have emerged in established garment producing countries such as China or India (Appelbaum 2008; Merk 2014). These tier one suppliers usually maintain networks of a large number of company-owned or contracted factories in one or more countries and often take over key logistical tasks for retailers, such as managing inventories (Azmeh and Nadvi 2013, 2014).

With suppliers in consolidated garment sourcing destinations such as China and India increasingly taking on higher value-added tasks, wage levels have also risen in these countries. Therefore, as a second trend, over the past decade, we can observe the emergence of new low-wage sourcing destinations in South and South-East Asia, such as Myanmar or Vietnam, but also in Africa (e.g. Ethiopia) as new nodes in the garment GPN (Bae et al. 2021; Whitfield et al. 2020). Given the competition by these new players, garment manufacturers in established sourcing destinations are under increasing pressure to introduce more capital-intensive, semi-automated production models to remain competitive (see also López et al. 2021).

Third and last, most recently, the emergence of new ‘ultra-fast’ pure online fashion retailers using regional supplier networks close to consumer markets has further increased pressures on garment retailers to increase the time and cost-efficiencies of their supply chains. Against this backdrop, traditional fast-fashion retailers have recently also increased their ‘near sourcing’ activities from destinations closer to consumer markets for higher value-added, time critical fashion garments (Berg et al. 2017).

Despite the tendencies of the garment industry to diversify again in geographical terms after the initial trend for concentration in a few Asian countries, up to date, Asia remains the most important macro-regional hub for garment OEM production: China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Cambodia alone account for roughly 50% of global garment exports (WTO 2020).

After outlining the geographical evolution of the garment GPN, in the next section, I discuss the various power flows that structure lead firm-supplier relations in the garment GPN.

1.3 Power Relations in the Garment GPN

In light of the relational approach adopted in this study that understands GPNs as networks of relational processes structured by power flows (c.f. Dicken et al. 2001), in this section, I characterise the power flows inherent to lead firm-supplier relations within the garment GPN. To understand these power flows, we need to take a closer look at the specific practices through which retailers as lead firms set up, coordinate and control relationships with suppliers. In the garment value chain, retailers and brands as lead firms have the power to include or exclude suppliers from their networks of suppliers. To be included into the supplier pool of a specific retailer or brand, manufacturers need to undergo several technical and social audits. In these audits, auditors employed or hired by lead firms evaluate the production capacities of the manufacturers and assess whether the specific factory will be able to meet the required quality standards. Moreover, auditors assess whether suppliers meet specific minimum social standards that retailers define in their company-specific codes of conduct (Sum and Ngai 2005).

Relations between retailers as lead firms and manufacturers as suppliers are therefore characterised by largely unilateral power flows from retailers towards their suppliers, with retailers imposing a variety of technical and social production standards. Retailers can do so for two reasons: On the one hand, retailers concentrate and control essential resources—such as financial resources, access to consumer markets in the Global North, and specialised knowledge in international law, markets and management—enabling retailers to set up and coordinate global supplier networks. On the other hand, the widespread adoption of industrialisation strategies focussing on export-garment production by governments of newly industrialising countries allows retailers to shift their sourcing activities to lower wage countries, when wages in a specific country raise above a specific threshold and increased costs outweigh the benefits linked to the reliability of long-established supplier relations (c.f. Berg et al. 2017).

In light of the above-mentioned emergence of large tier one suppliers, several scholars have argued that we can observe changes in the power flows between retailers and suppliers. As large tier one suppliers increasingly occupy strategic positions in retailers’ lean and agile value chains and take over strategic tasks (e.g. in design and logistics), researchers have proposed that we can observe a shift from largely asymmetrical power relations characterised by unilateral dependence of suppliers on retailers towards more balanced power relationships characterised by mutual dependence (see e.g. Azmeh and Nadvi 2014; Kumar 2019; Merk 2014). I maintain, however, that while this observation may apply to the relationships of lead firms with a limited number of core strategic suppliers, we need to be cautious not to over-generalise this observation for three reasons. First, there are indications that overall, power relations between garment retailers and their suppliers remain highly asymmetrical. Supplier relations in the garment GPN are still characterised by a state of hyper-competition in light of the general over-production in global garment markets where production usually exceeds demand (Anner 2019). This state of hyper-competition is further fuelled by the fact that—despite trends for consolidation—retailers’ supplier networks usually still encompass several hundred factories in various countries, allowing retailers to play suppliers off against each other based on price.

Second, the shift towards more balanced or ‘symbiotic’ lead firm-supplier relationships in the garment GPN needs to be understood as geographically differentiated. As mentioned earlier, in recent years, retailers have re-discovered ‘near sourcing’ locations for higher value-added, more time-sensitive fashion items. At the same time, however, retailers maintain distant sourcing networks for less time-sensitive basic items. In light of this ‘dual sourcing’ strategy (Andersson et al. 2018), it is likely that the degree of coordination and mutual dependence in lead firm-supplier relations varies between near and distant sourcing networks. Whereas for more fashionable items time-to-market and flexible production are the predominant sourcing parameters, for basic items price remains the most important parameter. Therefore, large tier one suppliers in established distant sourcing countries, such as India or China, compete with the emerging garment sectors in lower wage countries such as Myanmar or Ethiopia. Symbiotic relationships thus seem to be more likely to emerge between large, strategic suppliers in near-sourcing networks, where close cooperation and coordination between lead firms and suppliers is necessary to ensure flexible adaptation of designs according to customer demand and on-time delivery.

Third and last, even where relationships between retailers and strategic tier one suppliers are shifting from suppliers’ unilateral dependence on retailers towards mutual dependence, retailers as lead firms continue to dictate the terms and conditions that structure retailer-supplier relations. Retailers’ continued position to unilaterally define terms and conditions has been exemplified most recently during the COVID-19 crisis: In reaction to nationwide lockdowns in consumer countries, fashion retailers unilaterally cancelled orders under referral to a ‘force majeure’ clause in contracts with suppliers (Brydges and Hanlon 2020). As a result, suppliers had to bear the costs for already purchased production inputs and wages for already produced orders, in many cases without receiving any compensation from retailers (Anner 2020).

In summary, I argue that the emergence of strategic suppliers and the related shifts in power and dependence relations between retailers and suppliers need to be understood as shaped by two rather contradictory dynamics. On the one hand, large tier one suppliers benefit from their new position as strategic partners of garment retailers since establishing long-term business relations grants them economic stability in terms of continuous order flows. Moreover, due to their capacity to process larger orders, these tier one suppliers can enhance their position within retailers’ supply chains, e.g. by adopting new production technologies allowing for increased time and cost-efficiency. On the other hand, however, retailers largely maintain a position of power due to their ability to maintain large geographically dispersed supplier networks allowing them to unilaterally dictate the terms and conditions of exchange by keeping suppliers in a state of constant competition. Power imbalances between retailers as lead firms and suppliers persist for those suppliers concentrating on basic, less fashionable and lower value-added products, as is the case for manufacturers in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. In the Bangalore export-garment cluster, power relations between manufacturers and suppliers are hence shaped by two partially contradicting tendencies. On the one hand, the industry is dominated by large export-garment companies, which maintain factory networks of between 10 and 50 factories and act as strategic OEM suppliers for branded fashion and garment retailers. As a result, most companies in the Bangalore export-garment cluster have achieved relatively stable business relationships with retailers. On the other hand, power asymmetries, however. remain due to the specialisation of the cluster in casual men’s wear, which generally comprises less time-intensive and lower value-added products. Accordingly, barriers to shifting production to lower wage locations are relatively low, allowing retailers to exercise significant price pressure on Bangalore garment manufacturers.

2 The Horizontal Dimension: The Indian Garment Industry and the Bangalore Export-garment Cluster

2.1 Situating the Bangalore Export-garment Cluster within the Indian Garment Industry

India has become integrated into the production networks of major transnational retailers as a supplier of apparel since the 1980s (Ramaswamy and Gereffi 2000). Coming from a long tradition of weaving industries and possessing a large rural labour reserve, India was among the first Asian countries to be included in Northern retailers’ production networks after the initial East Asian Tiger States. Up until the 2000s, the export-garment industry’s growth was still rather limited due to the industrial quota regime under the Multi-Fibre Agreement. Under this regime, the government reserved production quota especially for small-scale industries to preserve the labour-intensive character of the industry and thereby promote employment generation (Mezzadri and Srivasta 2015; Mezzadri 2017). The quota regime and a series of further government policies favouring small factories, led to a development pattern in the Indian garment industry that is characterised in India with the term ‘unorganised’ (Singh Yadav 2020: 15f.). As an ‘unorganised’ industry, the Indian garment industry has been traditionally characterised by a large number of predominantly small, often workshop-like factories with less than 100 or even less than 10 workers. Working and employment conditions in these factories were largely unregulated due to various exemptions for the applicability of general labour laws to factories with less than 10 or 100 workers, respectively. According to the Indian Factories Act of 1948, production establishments with less than 10 workers have, for example, traditionally been exempted from labour regulations regarding legal minimum wages and bonus payments, working hours and health and safety provisions. Factories with more than 10 but less than 100 workers, in turn, have traditionally been bound by these provisions but still enjoyed certain exemptions such as retrenching or laying off workers and closing their operations without prior government permission.Footnote 1 As a result, employment in the garment industry under the quota regime tended to be largely informal, unstable and insecure, with factories frequently closing down when they had fulfilled their allocated quotas (Kumar 2014).

Since the 2000s, the Indian garment industry has, however, undergone a range of transformations and strong growth stimulated by a shift in national policies. With the introduction of the National Textile Policy in 2000, the Indian government abolished the reservation of production quota for small-scale industries and allowed 100 per cent foreign investment. In subsequent policies, the government further introduced several incentives for capital investments in the garment sector, such as the ‘Technological Upgradation Fund’ and a ‘Capital Subsidy Scheme’ (Kalhan 2008). As a consequence of these policy changes, the Indian garment industry experienced a steep growth. Whereas in the year 2000, India still ranked 9th on the list of the world’s top garment export countries, accounting for 2.8% of garments on the world market (WTO 2001: 154), in 2019, India was the 5th biggest garment exporting country in the world. Today, the Indian garment industry accounts for 3.5% of global exports (WTO 2020: 10) and employs over a million workers (ILO 2015). Besides having undergone significant growth over the past two decades, the Indian garment industry has also undergone a qualitative transformation. Since the end of the Multi-Fibre-Agreement, the industry has overall become more ‘organised’ due to increasing market consolidation and concentration. In this process, smaller factories have dwindled or shifted their business strategy to sub-contracted or domestic production and large business conglomerates owning several factories have concentrated increasing market shares in the export-garment industry. This increasing market concentration has also been driven by buyers’ efforts to consolidate their supplier networks in the face of increased demands for social and technical production standards (Merk 2014). Responding to these demands, garment manufacturers have increasingly reorganised production and labour processes inside factories. Whereas during the quota regime, one worker was usually in charge of assembling a whole garment piece, over the past two decades, most tier one garment suppliers have introduced assembly line production with lean or flexible production systems.

Nevertheless, the Indian garment industry remains highly segmented, and there are large differences between ‘organised’ tier one suppliers and often still workshop-like tier two or three sub-contractors. Large tier one suppliers commonly outsource particularly labour-intensive tasks such as embroidery and embellishment, and surplus orders that exceed a factory’s production capacity to networks of tier two and three sub-contractors (Mezzadri 2017: 34; AEPC 2009). As a result, the Indian Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC) found in a survey with garment manufacturers in ten garment export clusters that more than three quarters of all garment manufacturing units had less than 40 machines, usually equalling employment of less than 100 workers (AEPC 2009).

Furthermore, the Indian garment industry is geographically fragmented, with high levels of regional specialisation that also coincide with levels of ‘organisation’ of the industry. India’s export-garment industry is concentrated in various local clusters, with the four biggest and most significant clusters being located in the New Capital Region (NCR) in and around New Delhi as well as in and around the cities of Chennai, Tiruppur and Bangalore located in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Together, these clusters account for over half of India’s garment exports (AEPC 2009: 8f.). Each cluster specialises in a different product type and shows distinctive industry organisation and workforce. Whereas the NCR garment cluster is specialised in embroidered women’s clothes (Mezzadri 2008, 2012), the Tiruppur cluster in the state of Tamil Nadu is specialised in knitwear (Chari 2000; Neve 2012). In contrast, production in Chennai and Bangalore focusses predominantly on casual and formal men’s wear, such as shirts, trousers and denim products (Mezzadri 2017: 80ff.). Product variations are also linked to different models of industrial organisation. In the NCR region, a smaller number of large tier-one factories co-exists with a large number of small, often informal workshops and home-based piece-rate workers carrying out manual embroidery and embellishment work for tier one suppliers. In Tirupur and Chennai, conversely, production is carried out predominantly in small and medium-sized factories, of which 80% have less than 100 workers and can therefore be characterised as unorganised (AEPC 2009: 12).

In comparison to the other three major export-garment clusters, Bangalore therefore stands out with a particularly high share of large tier one factories, which has earned it the reputation as India’s most ‘organised’ garment cluster (RoyChowdhury 2005). According to a survey by Anner (2019), tier one suppliers in Bangalore employ, on average, 881 workers—a much higher number compared to tier one factories in the NCR region, which had an average of 361 workers according to the survey. Workers employed in Bangalore's tier one export-garment factories usually receive formal employment contracts and are paid according to the legally fixed minimum wage. In total, around 450,000 workers are directly employed in the Bangalore export-garment industry. As opposed to the NCR cluster where most workers are male migrant workers, in Bangalore, 85% of garment workers are women (Mezzadri 2017). Garment companies in Bangalore produce for all major US and EU branded fashion and garment retailers from the mid-price segment, such as American Eagle, G.A.P., H&M or Zara, but also for some higher priced brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss or Calvin Klein (Kumar 2014). Given its specialisation in casual and formal men’s wear, which are relatively low value-added products, the Bangalore export-garment cluster has been facing increasing competition from other Asian countries such as China and Bangladesh over the past years (AEPC 2009: 37).

2.2 Historical and Geographical Development of the Bangalore Export-garment Cluster

Bangalore has traditionally been a centre of large textile mills for silk and fabrics, making the city an attractive sourcing location for US and EU retailers in the emerging stages of the global garment industry in the 1980s. Besides the presence of a skilled workforce, its mild climate and convenient location with an international airport and relative proximity to the container shipping harbour of Madras (today Chennai) contributed to Bangalore’s early inclusion into the global garment GPN. With rising globalisation and the first round of outsourcing in the garment industry driven by large retailers in the 1970s and 1980s, a ready-made garment sector started to evolve in Bangalore. The rapid development of the ready-made garment sector in subsequent decades was further catalysed by the decline of the textile mill industry: Due to the beginning economic liberalisation, which also included the liberalisation of import regulations, garment manufacturers were able to import cheaper fabrics and yarns from China, where automation had already progressed. In light of this new competition from China, many of the bigger branded textile mill companies started to shift their business towards garment production while outsourcing fabric production to small production centres run by formally self-employed workers (Kumar 2014). In the early years of the Bangalore garment industry, garment factories were generally still rather small—with usually less than 100 workers—and located in the central area of Bangalore. The workforce in these early garment factories was composed predominantly of men from the Bangalore urban area since industrial work was still a predominantly male domain (RoyChowdhury 2005).

With the economic liberalisation in the 1990s, which involved India’s opening towards foreign direct investments, the Bangalore export-garment industry, however, underwent a first round of significant organisational and geographical restructuring. With the lift of the quota regime and buyers’ increasing demands for shorter lead times and lower prices in the context of the shift towards a fast-fashion business model, garment production shifted from smaller workshops to larger factory settings with several hundred workers. The shift towards larger factory settings was also linked to a shift in production organisation towards semi-automated and assembly-line production models. In Bangalore’s large tier one supplier factories, the pre-production steps of design, marker making and cutting have been increasingly automated and digitised through computer-aided technologies. At the same time, the sewing process is organised in a tightly controlled assembly line production model (Kalhan 2008). This organisational shift of the industry also went hand in hand with an increasing market concentration within the Bangalore export-garment sector, giving rise to a dozen large garment export company conglomerates dominating the market in the Bangalore export-garment cluster.

This restructuring of the market and of production organisation also had important implications for the required skill profile and hence for the social and geographical composition of the workforce. In the ‘unorganised’ workshops, workers usually assembled the whole garment and therefore required high levels of dexterity, skills and experience. In contrast, in the assembly line production system, each worker carries out one only specific stitch, such as sewing a sleeve or collar of a shirt to the body. Whereas skilled workforce is still needed in the pre-production process, e.g. to program and maintain computer-aided cutting machines, the largest share of the workforce employed in the assembly-line sewing process is now classified as unskilled or semi-skilled. This skill segmentation has also created new gender divisions in Bangalore garment factories. While higher-skilled tasks in the pre-production process are predominantly carried out by men, the larger share of unskilled or semi-skilled tasks in the sewing process are usually carried out by women (López et al. 2021).

Simultaneously with the shift towards large factory set-ups, the Bangalore garment industry underwent a geographical restructuring process. Due to the general expansion of the city and the bigger spaces needed for larger factory set-ups employing several hundred workers, the export-garment industry started to concentrate along major traffic axes leading out of Bangalore and in sub-urban industrial areas that were left vacant with the decline of public sector manufacturing (Kumar 2014). Therefore, today, factory units in the Bangalore export-garment clusters are located predominantly at the outskirts of the city along the major traffic axes Mysore Road and Hosur Road and in the industrial areas Peenya and Yelahanka. Figure 5.1 illustrates the geographical agglomerations of factories within the Bangalore export-garment cluster. The figure distinguishes between manufacturing factories that carry out all production steps from fabric cutting to assembly and processing factories that concentrate on dyeing, printing, washing or bleaching fabrics or finished garments.

Fig. 5.1
An enlarged map of Karnataka locates the processing factories and manufacturing factories using legends of varied sizes representing different values. It highlights the factories without information on size and type using circles, urban area of Bengaluru using lines. The legends are given on the right.

Source Data from own research/ H&M 2021; elaboration: Wilhelm Felk/ Tatiana López/ QGis

Geographical sub-clusters of the garment industry in the Bangalore urban area.

As a result of this organisational and geographical restructuring, the workforce composition in the Bangalore export-garment cluster gradually shifted from skilled workers from the Bangalore urban area to include an increasing number of unskilled or semi-skilled women workers from rural areas. Today, most garment workers labouring in Bangalore’s export-garment factories are women originating from rural areas in Karnataka, who have moved to Bangalore alone or with their families in search of employment. Most of these women are first-generation industrial workers with limited formal school education—usually no further than the 8th or 9th grade. Age-wise, the average age span of women workers is 18 to 40 years since the high work pressure and repetitive movements usually make it impossible to work in the industry for a very long time.

Over the past decade, the Bangalore export-garment cluster has entered a second round of geographical and workforce restructuring characterised by two trends. First, increasing land and rent prices in the greater Bangalore area and the rapid growth of the service sector absorbing unskilled workers, have led garment manufacturers to move production facilities further out of the city. Garment factories have thus been increasingly shifted to semi-urban or rural areas along the major transport axes connecting Bangalore with smaller towns in rural Karnataka. Furthermore, various state subsidies aiming to foster industrial development and generate employment in the rural, so-called ‘backward areas’ of Karnataka have incentivised export-garment companies to set up large factories in various rural towns within the State of Karnataka or in newly created Textile and Apparel parks in up to 150 km distance from Bangalore. Seizing economies of scale and cheap land prices, these factories in rural towns and apparel parks are usually very large, employing more than 5000 workers (see Sect. 6.7).

As a second trend within the most recent round of industry restructuring, the Bangalore export-garment industry has seen an increasing influx from migrant workers not only from rural Karnataka and from the neighbouring Southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh but also increasingly from the poorer Northern Indian states Odisha, Assam and Jharkhand. These migrant workers are predominantly young women who migrate to Bangalore under the government-sponsored Skill India Program. As part of this program, the Indian government has since 2011 set up training centres in rural areas classified as ‘economically backward’ with a focus on the Northern states. In these training centres, young women are trained as sewing machine operators and then sent to the major urban export-garment production hubs where they stay in hostels (see Sect. 6.7).

2.3 Industrial Relations in the Bangalore Export-garment Cluster

The continued restructuring of the cluster’s geography and workforce since the 1990s has also had consequences for the industrial relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. Whereas the textile mill industry in Bangalore still had a strong union presence, unionisation rates in the textiles and garment sector drastically decreased with the decline of the textile mills industry in the 1980s and the emergence of ready-made garment factories for the global market. Under the quota regime, the ‘unorganised’ character of the Bangalore export-garment industry posed significant challenges to India’s central trade unions. Being affiliated with India’s major political parties, central trade unions have traditionally focused on legal mechanisms such as tripartite industrial dispute settlement mechanisms to gain improvements for workers in ‘organised’ industrial sectors with formal employment and stable workforces, first and foremost in the public sector. However, with the economic liberalisation starting in 1991 and the related deregulation and flexibilisation of labour markets, central trade unions found themselves confronted with a growing number of ‘unorganised’ industries characterised by rather unstable and informalised employment—such as the textile and garment sector (Kumar 2014).

In Bangalore, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All India Trade Union Confederation (AITUC)—two of the more militant trade unions among India’s central trade unions, with political affiliation to the Indian communist parties—had undertaken various attempts to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with garment manufacturers in the 1980s and 1990s. However, none of these attempts were met with success for two reasons: First, given the regulatory void for small production units with less than 100 workers, manufacturers could quickly close down production units and re-open them in another location in response to unions’ organising attempt. Second, given the lower market concentration in the early decades of the export-garment industry, even larger garment companies with more than 100 workers did not have the financial capacity to survive a prolonged strike by workers. Accordingly, in the collective memory of Bangalore trade unions, even today the case of a month-long strike organised by CITU in a garment company called ‘Asoke’ is present which ended in the company closing down (RoyChowdhury 2005).

With the consolidation of the industry and the emergence of larger production units starting from the 2000s, companies had increased financial resilience. However, new challenges for organising workers arose due to the geographical sprawl of the industry and the increasing de-skilling and feminisation of the workforce. Firstly, the low skill requirements of assembly line production systems and new labour supply from rural women entering the labour market decreased workers’ marketplace bargaining power. Second, the social profile of women workers as mostly first-generation industrial workers from rural areas who were unfamiliar with unionisation made it difficult for established, central trade unions to organise women workers. In light of these challenges, central trade unions ceased active organising efforts in the Bangalore garment industry after several unsuccessful attempts in the 1990s (Kumar 2014).

Given the lack of involvement from established trade unions and a deliberate ‘laissez-faire’ approach by the Indian government towards the garment industry, work in the Bangalore export-garment industry was characterised by large-scale labour rights violations in the 1990s and early 2000s. Basic legally prescribed labour standards, such as payment of minimum and overtime wage, and basic facilities, such as creches, medical centres or drinking water, were non-existent in many factories. These conditions were, however, not unique to the Bangalore export-garment industry but rather prevalent in most Asian garment-export industries. Against this background, by the end of the 1990s, anti-sweatshop movements in consumer countries started to attract international attention to exploitative working conditions in the Asian garment industry, forcing garment retailers and brands to introduce social standards and auditing mechanisms. With this international attention to working conditions in the garment industry, a market was created for local NGOs in production countries to engage in social activism in the garment sector through projects sponsored by Northern NGOs. In this context, two local NGOs called Cividep and FEDINA started organising garment workers in Bangalore through a community organising approach (see also Jenkins 2013).

The community organising approach, however, had limits for creating better working conditions since, as NGOs, Cividep and FEDINA could not legally represent women workers before the management or state organs in work-related conflicts. Consequently, in 2006, NGO activists and garment workers registered the first trade union in Bangalore with the specific mandate to organise workers in the garment sector: the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU). As a union that grew out of an NGO-led organising project, GATWU is exemplary of a new type of ‘independent’ trade union in India that is neither affiliated to nor financed by a political party. GATWU, as a union at the state industry level, is affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) at the national level—India’s first independent trade union federation characterised by a broadly socialist ideology but without ties to any particular political party (Gross 2013). In 2009, and 2012, two further independent trade unions for the Bangalore export-garment sector were created through splits from GATWU: the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KGWU) and the Garment Labour Union (GLU), respectively. Whereas KGWU is not affiliated with any trade union organisation at a higher level, GLU has affiliated itself with the central trade union federation Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) in 2017. Initially founded by the Socialists in 1984, today, HMS considers itself politically independent and committed to democratic socialism. It is considered India’s most pragmatic central trade union federation (Höllen 2010).

A central issue for the split of the three unions was their dependence on financial means from NGOs to support full-time union organisers: Whereas GATWU decided to cut all financial ties with international and local NGOs in the form of project work in 2011, KGWU and GLU continued maintaining close ties with local and international NGOs. The latter provide the primary financial means for their organising work through project funds. According to their own accounts, at the time of data collection, GATWU, GLU and KGWU together had a membership of about 19,000 workers in the garment industry in Karnataka (see Table 5.1).

Table 5.1 Overview of main characteristics of three Bangalore-based garment unions

Given that around 450,000 workers are directly employed in the Karnataka garment industry, the overall membership of the three garment unions amounts to a unionisation rate of around 4%. Despite this relatively low unionisation rate, the three garment unions have achieved significant improvements for Bangalore garment workers. By exerting pressure on politicians and employers to implement legally prescribed regular minimum wage revisions, trade unions have achieved significant wage increases for workers over the past years. Moreover, by negotiating with management and filing complaints to the labour and factory departments, unions have achieved basic health and safety standards, such as drinking water, ventilation and medical facilities in most factories. Nevertheless, wages in the Bangalore garment sector remain at around 10,000 Rupees per month (approx. 130 US$)—representing the legal minimum wage for the Karnataka garment industry—significantly below a subsistence level.

The Indian Trade Union Act of 1948Footnote 2 allows trade unions to negotiate individual collective bargaining agreements with managements in which wages beyond the legally prescribed minimum wage and other gratuities beyond the legally mandatory ones may be fixed. To date, the only collective bargaining agreement in the Bangalore export-garment industry has been signed by GATWU with the multinational garment label producer Avery Dennison. Generally, in most workplaces, relationships between unions and management are rather informal, with unions not being recognised as official bargaining partners by management. Moreover, union busting practices such as victimising or dismissing union members or worker leaders at the workplace are widespread in the cluster, hampering unions’ abilities to build associational power resources (for more details, see Sect. 6.5). As a result, in the few cases where unions have established (albeit informal) working and bargaining relationships with the management, these achievements have, in most cases, been won with help of additional extra-local pressure from transnational consumer networks and brands.

It is important to note that the three unions in this case study represent a specific type of union within the broader Indian union landscape. Traditionally, the Indian union landscape has been dominated by five large central union federations: the left AITUC and CITU, the social-democrat HMS, the centrist Indian Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS, engl. Indian Workers Union) (Höllen 2010). Except for the HMS, these unions serve as labour wings of specific political parties. Close relations with politicians have historically represented a key source of power for India’s biggest trade unions to extract concessions for workers from the state as a provider of social welfare and as an employer in India’s large public sector. With the shift to neoliberal policies in India’s post-liberalisation period and the privatisation of large parts of India’s public industries, the central trade union federations have, however, been confronted with a decline of their historical political power and of their membership base (Ferus-Comelo 2007). The ‘laissez-faire’ attitude of the state towards employers in the export industries and the overall weakening of public labour institutions have eroded the traditional power sources of India’s central trade unions. In the face of their traditional focus on the public sector and often strongly hierarchical and bureaucratic organisational structures that are frequently dominated by male and rent-seeking leaderships, central trade unions were ill-equipped for organising the growing share of first-generation industrial workers from rural backgrounds in India’s growing export-garment industry (RoyChowdhury 2005; see also Sherlock 2003).

Against this backdrop, the three local garment unions in this case study were founded by local civil society and worker activists as independent trade unions without political ties and instead with strong ties to local labour rights NGOs. The independent character of the three case study unions opened up new opportunities for developing alternative organising strategies that were not centred on economic and workplace issues but instead addressed garment workers problems more holistically (Jenkins 2013). On the other hand, these unions also face heightened challenges for building bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and the state due to their lack of political influence and limited financial resources. As a result, all three Bangalore-based garment unions have developed networked agency strategies and built alliances with worker organisations and NGOs from the Global North to harness coalitional power resources.

With this taken into consideration, in the next chapter, I analyse the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment industry to illustrate the various conditions that constrain unions’ capacities to build bargaining power in more detail. I demonstrate how the biggest constraint for unions to build bargaining power vis-à-vis employers results from the complex nature of the labour control regime, which emerges from a web of intersecting social and economic relations that connect actors across various distances.