In this chapter, I apply the practice-oriented, relational analytical approach for analysing labour control regimes in GPNs developed in Chapter 3 to the empirical case of the Bangalore export-garment cluster. I illustrate how the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment cluster emerges from the intersection of six different sets of processual relations with the labour process. These processual relations are (1) sourcing relations, (2) wage relations, (3) workplace relations, (4) industrial relations, (5) employment relations and (6) labour market relations. As laid out in Sect. 3.2, each relation is constituted through various networked practices that fulfil three functions regarding the labour process: They ensure the generation of surplus value in the labour process (➜ exploiting practices); they secure the smooth reproduction of the labour process by mitigating the class conflict inherent to capitalist production (➜ disciplining practices); and they create the broader social relations and conditions required for the continued reproduction of the labour process, e.g. through ensuring that adequate labour supply is available. In the following, I illustrate the practices through which the labour process and each set of processual relations are constructed in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. Moreover, I discuss implications for and interrelations with union agency. On the one hand, I show how the complex interplay of manifold exploiting and disciplining practices constrains the capacities of local garment unions to build and activate associational and institutional power resources and thereby to build sustained bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. On the other hand, I also shed light on the ‘small transformations’ that Bangalore garment unions have achieved so far through contesting and stopping selected exploiting and disciplining practices.

Section 6.1 introduces the practices through which the labour process is constructed in the Bangalore export-garment industry. It is followed by the analysis of the specific practices through which retailers construct sourcing relations with Bangalore export-garment manufacturers. These sourcing relations are characterised by asymmetrical power relations that enable retailers to unilaterally dictate terms and conditions of exchange (Sect. 6.2). Section 6.3 then lays out the various practices through which employers and state actors construct wage relations as de facto exploiting relations that ensure maximum surplus generation in the labour process through keeping wages low. Next, in Sect. 6.4, I discuss how Bangalore garment manufacturers construct workplace relations as de facto disciplining relations through constructing tightly controlled workplaces and through creating gendered and segregated shop floors. Section 6.5 then turns to industrial relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster and illustrates the interplay of employers’ union-busting practices at the workplace level, which are enabled by state actors’ pro-business practices when performing the legal-institutional industrial dispute settlement process. After that, Sect. 6.6 illustrates the various practices through which Bangalore export-garment manufacturers construct flexibilised and informalised employment relations. Lastly, in Sect. 6.7, I reveal the various practices through which Bangalore employers territorially expand labour market relations to secure adequate labour. The chapter ends with an interim conclusion summarising the main findings and discusses implications from the analysis of the labour control regime for union agency in the Bangalore export-garment cluster.

1 Labour Process in the Bangalore Export-garment Cluster

The labour process in the Bangalore export-garment cluster (i.e. the networked practices and relations involved in producing a garment) is highly localised since it is tied to the material setting of predominantly large factory buildings. Commonly, export-garment companies maintain local networks of several factories. Typically, each factory is specialised in a specific step of the production process, such as fabric dyeing and cutting, assembling the final garment, processing (involving, e.g. dyeing techniques to produce a ‘used look’) or finishing. However, over the past years also several ultra-large factories have emerged that centralise all steps of the production process—from fabric dyeing and cutting to assembling the final garment, washing and packing—within one building complex. In this sense, the spatiality of the labour process in the Bangalore export-garment cluster differs, for example, from the spatiality of the labour process in the NCR region. There, the production process is geographically more fragmented, linking workers labouring in-factories and piece-rate workers carrying out embellishment tasks from home or in informal workshop settings. In contrast, in the Bangalore export-garment industry, the labour process is constituted through practices and relations that link workers, managers and machines predominantly within factory buildings.

Within these factories, the labour process is generally structured according to practices of Taylorist work organisation. Taylorist practices include dividing the production process into various standardised steps. In Bangalore export-garment factories, the production process starts with designing marker patterns and cutting the fabric—which is usually bought from external suppliers—into specific pieces of cloth, such as bodies, sleeves, collars or cuffs. These pieces are then assembled by sewing machine operators (in the same or in a different factory building) in an assembly line system. In this assembly line system, each machine operator usually carries out only one specific task, such as sewing a shirt sleeve to the collar (see Fig. 6.1).

Fig. 6.1
A photograph of people sewing clothes in multiple rows of machines in a large garment factory.

Source Photo by Hubert Thiemeyer; stylised by author to ensure anonymity of depicted persons and company

Assembly line in Bangalore export-garment factory.

After the final garment is assembled, it may undergo another step of processing depending on the type of garment. For denim products, one main product category in the Bangalore garment export cluster, a common processing step is treating the garment with automated laser technology or manually with sandpaper to create a ‘distressed’ or ‘used’ look. In the final production step, ‘checkers’ then cut possible hanging threads and conduct a final quality check. From the checking station, approved garments are carried to the finishing section, where they are prepared for shipping. Preparing garments for shipping may involve various steps depending on retailers’ specific requirements. Generally, with fast-fashion retailers’ introduction of ‘lean store’ systems, Bangalore manufacturers have taken over increasing tasks to prepare garments for sale, such as attaching price labels and security tags, ironing garments and placing garments on hangers in some cases (INT53). As the last step, garments are ‘packed’ in boxes by packers and transported to a warehouse from where garments are shipped when a production order has been completed.

Given buyers’ price squeeze and demand for ever-shorter lead times, managers must maximise labour process efficiency to ensure the capture of surplus value. In this light, Bangalore manufacturers have, over the years, developed two sets of practices to maximise production efficiency in the labour process while at the same time keeping labour costs down: labour process automating and production targeting. These sets of practices will be introduced in the remainder of this chapter.

1.1 Hedging the ‘Indeterminacy of Labour’ Through Labour Process Automating

In the designing and cutting parts of the labour process, manufacturers have substituted significant parts of human labour through computer-aided design and cutting technology. Computer-aided design is used, for example, for marker making with software that automatically calculates marker patterns, which are then transferred digitally to semi-automated laser cutting machines. With the introduction of these technologies, manufacturers have not only been able to speed up the design and cutting process but to reduce labour costs as well, since marker design and cutting traditionally required relatively skilled workers with higher wages. With the introduction of computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies, the number of workers working in these departments could be significantly reduced. In the sewing process, which concentrates the largest share of workers, a complete substitution of human labour through automation is so far not viable due to the high investment costs. Manufacturers have, however, introduced semi-automated machines for complex stitches that require high levels of experience and dexterity, such as J-stitches for trousers, welt pocket stitches or bottom hemstitches. These machines require human operators to place the fabric correctly in the machine, which is then automatically moved under the needle. To place the fabric in the machine correctly, workers only require a short introduction instead of the extensive on-the-job experience needed to perform the earlier-mentioned complex stitches manually.

In this light, labour process automation fulfils two central functions with regard to ensuring the reproduction of the labour process in its profit-maximising form: First, by automating complex tasks within the labour process that are time-intensive and require high levels of tacit knowledge, garment manufacturers achieve to hedge the ‘indeterminacy’ of labour (c.f. Thompson 2010) by reducing human error rates and resulting disturbances to the production flow. Hedging the indeterminacy of labour is of particular importance for export-garment manufacturers in light of fashion retailers’ growing demands for shorter lead times, flexibility in styles and lower prices. To ensure that production orders are completed within the time frames set by buyers, manufacturers need to minimise fluctuations in productivity levels. In this light, (semi-)automation of complex production steps also helps manufacturers avoid fluctuations in productivity that may arise from workers’ learning curves and initially lower productivity when switching to a new style. In addition, (semi-)automation enables manufacturers to increase the speed of the labour process and thereby shorten lead times. Bangalore export-garment manufacturers’ practices of automating production processes hence need to be seen as being directly shaped by retailers’ sourcing practices (see Sect. 6.2).

Second, (semi-)automating production processes also enable garment manufacturers to reduce labour costs by hiring less skilled workers. Whereas skilled workers are needed to operate and maintain digital cutting machines in the automated cutting process, they are less in numbers. In the sewing process, the introduction of semi-automated sewing machines has enabled manufacturers to recruit more workers without previous experience in factory work, classifying them as unskilled workers (INT53). By reducing the number of skilled or semi-skilled workers in the factory, employers are, on the one hand, able to reduce wage costs and balance out statutory minimum wage increases. On the other hand, manufacturers can ensure continued labour supply through hiring migrant workers from rural areas in face of a tight local labour market. In this sense, the role of manufacturers’ automating practices in ensuring the reproduction of the labour process can be best understood when looking at the intersections of the labour process with wage relations (see Sect. 6.4) and labour market relations (see Sect. 6.7).

Nevertheless, it is important not to overstate the significance of automation processes in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. Up to day, in the sewing process comprising the highest share of labour in the production process, automation remains marginal and limited to the earlier-mentioned semi-automatic sewing machines for complex stitches. The gross of stitches continues to be carried out by workers on industrial sewing machines. Against this background, Bangalore garment manufacturers implement a set of practices summarised here under the notion of ‘production targeting’ to tightly monitor and standardise worker performance as a second strategy for hedging the ‘indeterminacy of labour’.

1.2 Controlling Worker Performance Through ‘Production Targeting’

‘Production targeting’ can be regarded as the central exploiting mechanism—i.e. the central mechanism for ensuring the extraction of surplus value from living labour—in Bangalore export-garment factories. Production targeting comprises a set of practices that structure the labour process, including production target calculating, monitoring and enforcing. Production target calculating firstly involves defining standardised performance times for each task involved in the garment assembly process. On the one hand, these standardised performance times align the various tasks involved in the assembly of a specific garment to guarantee a continuous workflow and minimise idle time for each worker (INT27). On the other hand, calculating standardised performance times for each task serves as the basis for defining hourly and daily production targets for workers to ensure that a previously fixed daily production output is reached. The specific practices through which production targets are calculated contribute to maximising surplus extraction from workers: Production targets are calculated based on the technical capacities of machines and standardised motion times for workers when doing a stitch, while additional working steps, such as placing the fabric aside, are not considered. As a result, production targets in most factories are impossible to achieve, as the quote of this garment worker illustrates:

The calculated production targets are kind of impossible to fulfil. For example, I stitch sleeves now. The production target is 60 per hour, so that is one per minute. But with putting aside the piece, I can actually only do 40 in an hour. But the supervisors won’t see that and they will scold us and say: “The production target has been carefully calculated, so it is possible, why can’t you do it? No other worker has problems, only you cannot do it.” (INT5, translated from Kannada)

In addition, production targets are calculated based on the unrealistic assumption of steady productivity levels for workers. This assumption ignores performance fluctuations due to learning curves and fatigue levels as well as due to workers’ varying experience and physical conditions. The following quotes from a group interview with Bangalore garment workers illustrate the adverse effects for workers resulting from the imposition of standardised production targets on workers:

  • Worker 1: I cannot move my right leg so well, so I have to work the machine with my left leg. But since the machine is made to be used with the right leg, the pedal is on the wrong side, and it is hard for me to use my left leg. And so, my left leg hurts a lot after some time. But even under these conditions, I still have to fulfil the same production targets as the other workers. (INT5, translated from Kannada)

  • Worker 2: Sometimes the supervisor will make us switch machines and then we have to do a new shape, so at the beginning, it takes longer. Also, often workers are only trained to do sleeves, for example. But then the supervisor will shift them to a machine where they have to do collars and, obviously, the workers don’t know how to do that. But still they have to fulfil the production targets. So, it is very stressful. (INT5, translated from Kannada)

As a result of this specific practice of calculating production targets based on machine times as a primary indicator, paired with unrealistic assumptions of uniform worker performance, workers usually have to skip breaks to finish their daily production targets within regular working hours. In a survey with 126 garment workers from the Bangalore area conducted by the Centre for Workers’ Management between December 2014 and March 2015, 60% of workers stated that they needed to work during their lunch break. Moreover, 97% of workers stated that they skip tea and toilet breaks to complete their production targets within normal working hours (CWM 2014: 23). If workers cannot finish production targets within regular hours, they are ordered to work unpaid overtime hours to complete their targets (INT34). The work pressure exerted on workers through the practice of ‘production targeting’ places workers under severe psychological stress and has detrimental effects on workers’ physical health. As a result of skipping breaks, many workers suffer from repetitive strain injuries or kidney damage.

Against this background, to ensure that workers reach their daily targets, tight production target monitoring and enforcing are necessary. Production target monitoring is performed in most Bangalore factories manually by counting the output of finished garments per batch, that is per production line. At the end of every working hour, the number of finished garments for each batch is noted on a board and visualised for all workers (see Fig. 6.2).

Fig. 6.2
A white board attached to the sewing machine has entries for buyer, date, style, O R- Q T Y, and a table with the column headers hour, target, achieved, and total. The entries for hour are from 1 to 8 and for target are 100. The entries for achieved and total in first row are 80 and 80. A column for M slash C breakdown is present below the table.

Source Photo by Hubert Thiemeyer; stylised by author to ensure anonymity of depicted persons and company

White board for documenting production targets in Bangalore export-garment factory.

To achieve the hourly production targets, there must be no bottlenecks in the assembly line to avoid a garment getting stuck due to individual workers not meeting the calculated processing time for this particular task. Hence, supervisors closely monitor workers’ performance by selectively measuring the time a worker takes to complete a specific stitch with a stopwatch, for example. Whereas manual worker performance monitoring is still the prevalent practice in Bangalore garment export factories, some factories have recently introduced digital sewing machine networks. In these digital sewing machine networks, each machine is equipped with a sensor that automatically records workers’ stitching and idle times and transmits this data to a central cloud via Wi-Fi. A software then automatically stores data from each machine and calculates dexterity and efficiency levels for each worker. By looking at this data, production managers can monitor production outputs and individual worker performance in real time, leading to enhanced control over the labour process (INT53).

However, production target monitoring is not enough. Given that production targets are usually impossible for workers during regular working hours, active practices of production target enforcing are needed. Production target enforcing is performed through various practices of exercising direct or indirect control over workers. Supervisors exercise direct control over workers through practices of penalising workers for not meeting production targets. A common practice by supervisors to penalise workers, known as ‘public shaming’, is to make workers who have not met production targets stand in front of the whole production line. At the same time, the supervisor makes a public announcement through the floor microphone that this worker has worked too slow. Another common practice of penalising repeated failure to meet production targets is demoting workers’ skill level classification. Sewing machine operators are assigned different skill levels based on their ability to operate only one or various different machines and to perform stitches of various levels of complexity. These skill levels are, in turn, linked to specific wage categories and bonus payments. Being demoted to a lower skill level classification hence results in monetary loss for workers (INT34).

Indirect control over workers is, in turn, performed through various practices of incentivising workers to meet their daily production targets. In many factories, workers receive incentives in the form of bonus payments: These bonus payments are granted to workers of a batch if the whole batch has achieved production targets on all days of the month. These bonus payments range from 200 to 400 Rupees and provide a vital wage component for workers, given the generally meagre wages in the Bangalore export-garment industry (see Sect. 6.3). In this light, giving the incentive not as an individual incentive but as a group incentive works as an indirect control mechanism in two ways: On the one hand, workers exercise social pressure on co-workers within their batch who are lagging behind to work faster. On the other, when workers in a batch are absent, the present workers usually try to distribute the workload of the absent worker among themselves to make up for the production loss (INT29).

1.3 Interim Conclusion

In summary, the labour process in the Bangalore export-garment cluster is linked to the material settings of large factory buildings and structured by a Taylorist workplace regime. This workplace regime is constructed through a tight network of interrelated labour process automating and production target calculating, monitoring and enforcing practices. These practices constitute and structure the labour process. Furthermore, these practices are directly shaped by retailers’ sourcing practices. To respond to retailers’ pressures for lower prices, shorter lead times and increased flexibility in styles, manufacturers need to hedge labour’s indeterminacy through standardising tasks and tightly controlling workers’ performance. Automating production and ‘production targeting’ are two central practices through which manufacturers in the Bangalore export-garment industry respond to these needs. Moreover, manufacturers’ practices of labour process automating and production targeting allow garment manufacturers to increasingly substitute (semi-)skilled workers with unskilled workers, who receive lower wages. Thereby, garment manufacturers can offset statutory minimum wage increases and hire migrant workers to balance out the local shortage of semi- and unskilled labour. In this sense, the labour process also intersects with wage and labour market relations (for a more detailed discussion of these intersections, see Sects. 6.3 and 6.7).

For unions, manufacturers’ practices of exercising tight control over the labour process create, on the one hand, several challenges that constrain unions’ abilities to build associational power within the workplace. Since worker performance is closely monitored and workers are frequently forced to skip breaks, there are little opportunities for worker activists to talk to co-workers inside the factory. Moreover, manufacturers’ practices of production targeting are closely intertwined with retailers’ sourcing practices. Consequently, unions’ attempts to negotiate wages or production target reductions are frequently fended off by managers, who argue that a reduction is impossible due to buyers’ demands. As a result, to formulate informed demands and to develop strong arguments in negotiations with employers, unions need to fully understand the complex intersections between sourcing relations and the organisation of the labour process. This involves acquiring an enhanced understanding of the prices paid by retailers as well as of the requested lead times and potential penalties for production delays. However, such an understanding is difficult for unions because they usually do not have access to information from sourcing contracts.

However, the harsh labour process conditions in Bangalore export-garment factories also provide opportunities for ‘hot-shop’ organising. ‘Production torture’—the term employed by workers to refer to abusive behaviour by supervisors—is one of the main issues motivating workers to organise collectively. Along this line, particularly harsh penalising practices by supervisors towards workers who have not met production targets have led to several worker sit-ins and day strikes in Bangalore garment factories over the past years, providing garment unions with opportunities for engagement. Building on such opportunities, Bangalore garment unions have managed to build a membership base in various factories and to establish an informal dialogue relationship with management to address workers’ grievances. Through these kinds of interventions, GATWU, for example, has stopped particularly abusive practices of penalising workers for not achieving production targets, such as public shaming or verbal and physical abuse, in factories with a strong presence. GATWU’s interventions hence provide an example of the ‘small transformations’ (Latham 2002) that unions can achieve. They can stop particular practices of labour control even in contexts where—due to constraints for building associational power—they do not have the strength to challenge broader processes and relations of labour control fundamentally.

2 Sourcing Relations

As mentioned in the previous chapter, practices of controlling the labour process in Bangalore garment factories are directly shaped by another set of networked practices that constitute and structure the relationship between lead firms and suppliers, which I call sourcing relations. Sourcing relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster link various actors in multiple countries and places: retailers’ sourcing officers in their US and EU headquarters, production managers in retailers’ regional production offices in Bangalore, social auditors working in various countries and garment manufacturers in Bangalore and Karnataka. Two main sets of practices structure the relationships between US and EU garment retailers and garment manufacturers in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. These sets of practices are retailers’ practices of managing supplier pools, on the one hand, and retailers’ purchasing practices, on the other. As lead firms, retailers have the power to perform these practices in ways that allow them to produce and perpetuate relationships of unilateral dependence with suppliers. Suppliers’ unilateral dependence on lead firms, in turn, enables retailers to define the terms and conditions of exchange with suppliers and thereby directly or indirectly influence labour processes, workplace relations and wage relations at specific nodes of a GPN. Retailers’ sourcing practices hence need to be understood as fulfilling several exploiting and disciplining functions since their main purpose is to ensure that retailers appropriate a large share of the surplus value produced by workers. In the following, I will demonstrate in more detail the various sets of practices through which global garment retailers construct sourcing relations characterised by asymmetrical power relations with Bangalore export-garment manufacturers. Furthermore, I will demonstrate how these practices impact territorially embedded labour processes, wage relations and workplace relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster.

2.1 Retailers’ Practices of Managing Supplier Pools: Establishing Control Through Tight Auditing Regimes and Spatially Asymmetrical Buyer–Supplier Relations

Managing supplier pools is a set of practices through which retailers set up supplier networks and manage supplier relations. EU and US garment retailers, who are the main buyers of Bangalore export-garment manufacturers, usually construct their supplier pools by building complex, networked relations with garment suppliers in a large number of countries, predominantly in Asia, Latin America, North Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. Relations between EU and US garment retailers and suppliers in these countries are constituted through various practices through which retailers exercise power over suppliers: First, retailers control the inclusion and exclusion of factories into their supplier networks through various practices of technical and social auditing. Auditing is performed either by auditors directly employed by retailers or by independent, globally acting auditing firms. The auditing process usually encompasses the following steps: After receiving a detailed briefing on the required technical and social standards, aspiring suppliers are granted a period of preparation, within which they need to ensure that the required technological and social standards are implemented in the factory. After this preparation period, an initial audit is conducted by a team of industrial engineers and social auditors. If a factory fails to meet one or more standards, a corrective action plan is developed. Thereafter, suppliers undergo regular follow-up audits, usually carried out by staff from retailers’ regional production offices or—in some cases—by external auditing firms. When external firms carry out audits, usually suppliers have to bear the costs (FN5). In many cases, practices of conducting audits are also combined with practices of counselling and capacitating suppliers to improve their production capacities and efficiency through restructuring production processes (INT53). Together, practices of defining technical and social standards, auditing and counselling hence constitute tight auditing regimes that allow retailers as lead firms to exercise significant control over suppliers by influencing and intervening in the organisation of labour processes at suppliers’ factories.

At the same time, technological and social standards prescribed by different brands and retailers often show great variations. Therefore, garment manufacturers in the Bangalore export-garment cluster usually seek to build stable and long-term relationships with a few core customers since buyer-switching entails significant transaction costs. These costs are associated with manufacturers needing to adapt their production system to the specific requirements of the new buyer. Examples of manufacturers having to tailor their production systems to buyer requirements include, for example, placing fire extinguishers at a specific height, abiding by overtime work restrictions or implementing specific workplace committees as part of buyers’ social standards (INT9, 27; see also Locke et al. 2007). A social compliance manager at a major garment export company in Bangalore explains that it is challenging for manufacturers to reconcile the varying technical and social standards set by different key buyers. He reports that the company’s key buyers—H&M, Walt Disney and Mothercare—set different standards regarding overtime work and worker representation. As opposed to the two other brands, Mothercare does not allow suppliers to habitually rely on overtime work beyond 48 weekly hours, which is the regular working time in Indian law. Walt Disney, in turn, requires all suppliers to establish separate grievances and works committees, whereas all other brands are satisfied when manufacturers install the legally prescribed works committee. To cope with these differences in buyer requirements, the garment manufacturing company has split up production for buyers across their various factory units, with each factory unit producing exclusively for one buyer (INT9). In addition to these social standards, retailers usually impose specific technical standards on suppliers, such as the introduction of specific machines or the obligation for manufacturers to source inputs such as fabric or buttons from specific producers (INT53). Manufacturers risk being excluded from retailers’ supplier networks when manufacturers do not fulfil these technological and social standards controlled by buyers in regular audits.

Asymmetrical power relations between retailers and Bangalore garment manufacturers due to tight auditing regimes and linked transaction costs for buyer switching have been further accentuated in recent years as retailers are making further efforts to enhance the speed, flexibility and responsiveness of their supply chains by digitising the sourcing process. In this light, over the past years, retailers have encouraged manufacturers to adopt digital technologies to enhance digital end-to-end supply chain integration. Among these technologies, 3D sampling and digital production systems using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology are the most prominent. According to an industry expert, in the face of pressures from retailers, Bangalore garment manufacturers are increasingly investing in these kinds of digital technologies, with about 10% of manufacturers having introduced these technologies currently (INT53). 3D design software allows manufacturers to create a digital sample of a specific garment and transmit it digitally to the retailer. By transmitting samples electronically, manufacturers and retailers avoid shipping a physical sample via courier, which may take up to two weeks. Hence, the sample approval process is significantly sped up, enabling manufacturers and retailers to reduce lead times for production orders and, thereby, time-to-market for new products. However, various types of 3D design software exist on the market that are incompatible. As a result, to share a 3D sample with buyers, manufacturers need to acquire the same software used by retailers. The same applies to RFID-based digital production systems that allow manufacturers and retailers to monitor the state of production orders in real time and enable automated replenishment orders. Against this backdrop, retailers’ practices of digitalising the sourcing process are further accentuating asymmetrical power relationships between garment manufacturers and retailers since the introduction of buyer-specific digital production technologies transaction further increases transaction costs for buyers switching (see also López et al. 2021).

In contrast, retailers keep transaction costs for supplier switching comparatively low through practices of maintaining large, geographically dispersed supplier pools. As mentioned earlier, notwithstanding US and EU garment retailers’ tendency to establish longer-term relationships with strategic suppliers (see Sect. 5.1.2), retailers usually still maintain large supplier pools. Retailers’ supplier pools typically comprise several hundred or more than a thousand suppliers in various countries. H&M and Inditex, for example, two leading global fashion retailers sourcing from Bangalore, maintain geographically dispersed supplier pools that comprise more than 700 tier one supplier companies and over 1,600 factories located in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America (H&M 2021; Inditex 2021). Consequently, whereas Bangalore export-garment manufacturers usually concentrate their business on a few core customers, US and EU retailers can flexibly switch orders between suppliers in various countries.

As a result of these spatially asymmetrical buyer–supplier relationships, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers are facing increasing competition from garment manufacturers both from within and outside of India. Compared to other garment clusters in South India and many newly emerging garment production locations in Asia and Africa, wages in Karnataka and specifically in the Bangalore urban areas are relatively high. Bangalore export-garment manufacturers are hence under increasing competitive pressures from emerging garment production hubs in Asian and African low-wage countries, such as Bangladesh, Myanmar or Ethiopia. On the other hand, Bangalore garment manufacturers are also facing increasing competition from other production hubs within India that are located in states with lower statutory minimum wages, particularly from the nascent garment industry in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. Competitive pressure from lower-wage countries is also higher for manufacturers in the Bangalore garment cluster compared to other Indian garment clusters due to the cluster’s specialisation in men’s wear. Men’s garments are characterised by relatively low complexity and low value added, and therefore represent entry-level products frequently offered by new, emerging garment production hubs in lower-wage countries.

Competitive pressure on Bangalore export-garment manufacturers is further exacerbated by the fact that—opposed to many other garment producing countries—India is not covered by the EU’s ‘Generalised Scheme of Preferences’ providing import tariff waivers for ‘vulnerable countries’. According to industry representatives, it is a common practice by retailers to exploit the competitive pressure resulting from the spatial asymmetries in buyer–supplier relations by using wage and tariff differentials as an argument for pressuring manufacturers from Bangalore into agreeing to lower prices and shorter lead times. This practice is illustrated in the following quote by the director of a Bangalore-based garment sourcing consultancy:

There is a lot of price pressure! One, because labour costs are higher than in the other countries, and two, because there is also the customs issue. So, the brands will use these arguments also to get lower prices from the manufacturers. They will be like “I am going to buy from you, but I have to pay these extra duty costs, so you have to help me with the piece price”. (INT44)

Along the same lines, a manager of a Bangalore export-garment factory states that:

[If we don’t agree to their conditions, buyers] will say: “Fine, Bangladesh will do it, we will give orders to Bangladesh’. So, buyers will blackmail us. Then we have to compromise and say ‘Okay, we will take the order”. (INT29)

The two quotes illustrate how the power imbalance created by retailers through constructing spatially asymmetrical buyer–supplier relations allows retailers to unilaterally define the terms and conditions of exchange and perform ‘predatory purchasing practices’.

2.2 Predatory Purchasing Practices

Drawing on Anner (2019), I use the term ‘predatory purchasing practices’ to refer to a set of practices that structure the sourcing process and through which retailers maximise their capture of surplus value generated by workers in the labour process. These practices include squeezing prices, shortening lead times, penalising late deliveries and irregular order placing. Interviewed managers and industry representatives report that over the past years, buyers have not increased prices paid for ready-made garments while at the same time demanding shorter lead times and increased flexibility in styles (INT 9, 27, 28, 29). In the same period, production costs for Bangalore export-garment retailers have significantly risen due to increasing costs for production inputs statutory minimum wages. Against this backdrop, retailers’ ‘price squeeze’ places significant economic pressure on Bangalore garment manufacturers. An industry representative summarises this dilemma in the following words:

See, the cost of living and everything is going up in fact. Unions as well as the government desire [manufacturers] to pay the minimum wages. The minimum wages have actually been rising with the cost of living index. But what is happening is, since the minimum wages are going up […] the cost of production is continuously going up right from the day […] the industry was started in India, till date. And it is only progressing. On the contrary, if you see the prices fixed by the buyers, it is under progressive. It is not at all going up. So how do you think the manufacturers do this? They cannot do any magic. See, when everything is going up, the buyers should also realise and support them with an increased price, but unfortunately, it never happened. (INT27)

Economic pressures on garment manufacturers have become further accentuated due to two further ‘predatory purchasing practices’ performed by retailers: penalising delayed deliveries and placing orders in irregular rhythms. With retailers shifting towards lean retailing business models that work with minimised inventory and stock levels, the punctual delivery of orders has gained importance since delays cause retailers opportunity costs from not selling out of stock garments. Against this background, it is a common practice by retailers to include penalties for late delivery of products into contracts with manufacturers. If production is delayed, for example due to production input delays, poor planning or overbooking of production capacities, manufacturers usually only have two options. Either manufacturers must take on the costs for sending garments via air freight—a very costly mode of transport—or they must accept price cuts defined in the contract (FN5). Meeting ever-shorter lead times is hence crucial for garment manufacturers to avoid further reductions of already low prices paid by retailers.

While demanding shorter lead times and punctual delivery by manufacturers, retailers do not assure manufacturers of a certain number of orders per year. This assurance would give manufacturers more economic stability and allow for enhanced production planning. Additional economic pressures on manufacturers result from retailers’ practices of placing orders irregularly, leading to periods with an accumulation of orders and others with order slumps. The fact that retailers do not place orders with Bangalore manufacturers throughout the whole year is also linked to the specialisation of production in the cluster on men’s wear. Whereas most retailers now produce new women’s collections throughout the whole year, men’s collections still tend to be lesser in number and more seasonal. As a result, interviewed Bangalore export-garment manufacturers report that they frequently face order slumps May till September when production for summer collections has already been completed, and production for the winter collections and Christmas sales has not started yet. During this time, many manufacturers report that they take on smaller production orders from non-key customer brands or even from domestic brands just to cover running costs, as exemplified by this quote from a Bangalore factory manager:

For example, the orders from H&M we do only during peak season. From May to September, we get only small orders. That means small quantities, maybe an order of 10.000 pieces. Then we work on that four weeks and then, after that, we have no more work. During that time, we also sometimes take on orders from local brands to cover the running costs for the factories and to pay workers’ wages, but we do not make any gains. (INT9)

As a result, to cope with retailers’ practices of squeezing prices, shortening lead times, penalising delayed deliveries and placing orders at irregular intervals, Bangalore garment manufacturers resort various practices to maintain tight control over production and labour processes (see Sect. 6.1) and keep wages low (see Sect. 6.3). As illustrated in the previous chapter, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers employ diverse practices of closely monitoring worker performance and enforcing daily production targets to avoid delays. When delays are caused by external factors, such as delays in the delivery of fabrics or other production inputs, workers are frequently forced to work overtime hours or Sunday shifts without receiving the legally prescribed double wage rate. Instead, workers receive a day off as compensation during periods with order slumps—a practice commonly known as ‘comp-off’ in Bangalore (for more details, see Sect. 6.3). Garment manufacturers hence transfer the economic pressure and risks from retailers’ predatory purchasing practices directly to workers. The intersection between sourcing relations and exploitation in the labour process is exemplified in the following statement by the HR manager at a major Bangalore garment export company producing for US and EU buyers such as H&M, Inditex, the G.A.P. and American Eagle:

When I am doing 60 per cent business with G.A.P […] the advantage is, I am assured of this business. But the disadvantage is that, every year, I have to compromise on price, you know. They reduce the price. Because they know [company name] can do it. [Company name] will not refuse. [Every year], we need to increase our volume, we need to increase our productivity. […] That is the challenge. That is the pressure we put on our people. (INT29)

The quote illustrates how power asymmetries between buyers and suppliers allow retailers to squeeze prices and thereby put manufacturers under economic pressure which is then transferred to workers.

2.3 Interim Conclusion

In summary, sourcing relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are characterised by network embeddedness since they link Bangalore export-garment manufacturers to sourcing and auditing officers of US and EU retailers located usually at retailers’ headquarters. The relations linking Bangalore garment manufacturers with these actors are constituted and structured predominantly through two sets of practices: retailers’ practices of managing supplier pools and retailers’ purchasing practices. In this section, I have shown that retailers’ value chain power stems from spatial asymmetries in retailer-supplier relations. These spatial asymmetries are actively constructed by retailers through practices of maintaining large, geographically dispersed supplier pools and tight auditing regimes. The resulting competitive pressures within supplier networks and high transaction costs for buyer switching lead Bangalore export-garment manufacturers to concentrate their business on a few core buyers. Consequently, sourcing relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are characterised by the largely unilateral dependence of manufacturers on retailers. Suppliers’ dependence enables retailers to secure a large share of the surplus value produced in the labour process through predatory purchasing practices. Manufacturers transfer economic pressures and risks to workers in the labour process and in wage relations through various practices directed at maximising worker productivity while keeping wages low. Consequently, territorially dis-embedded sourcing relations intersect directly with localised labour processes and territorially embedded wage relations.

This strong intersection of labour processes with wage and sourcing relations has constraining effects for Bangalore garment unions. The economic pressure exerted by retailers constrains the ‘wiggle room’ (Castree et al. 2004: xvii) for workers and unions for negotiating production target reductions or wage increases. Manufacturers depend on maximising labour productivity and minimising labour costs to respond to retailers’ ‘predatory purchasing practices’. Consequently, most manufacturers regard collective worker representation as a threat to their business model and refuse to engage in collective bargaining with unions. Instead, managers frequently actively undermine any collective bargaining attempts through various ‘union-busting’ practices (see Sect. 6.5).

On the other hand, retailers’ influence over manufacturers also opens up opportunities for unions to contest particularly cruel or illegal exploiting and disciplining practices in garment factories by framing them as violations of buyers’ social standards. In these cases, unions can use retailers’ leverage over manufacturers to achieve corrections of basic labour rights violations. However, as literature on private social regulation in GVCs has pointed out, retailers also have a limited interest per se in detecting and penalising violations of social standards at their suppliers since these violations ultimately enable manufacturers to comply with retailers’ demands for quick and flexible yet cheap production (see, e.g., Bartley and Egels-Zandén 2015; Locke et al. 2007). Therefore, to seize retailers’ leverage over manufacturers, local unions need to develop strategies of networked agency that activate the moral power of consumer campaigning networks in retailers’ most important consumer markets. Following such a networked agency approach, the local union GATWU has been able to harness retailers’ influence over Bangalore-based garment manufacturers in various labour struggles. By doing so, GATWU has, for example, achieved to stop large-scale minimum wage violations (for a more detailed discussion, see Sect. 7.1.1). Nevertheless, wages in the cluster currently remain below subsistence levels due to continued exploiting practices by Bangalore garment manufacturers directed at keeping wages low, which will be explored in more detail in the next chapter.

3 Wage Relations

Wage relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are constituted through a complex mesh of practices and relationships, including workers, employers, unions and state actors within the territory of the State of Karnataka. To ensure that the labour process is continuously reproduced in its profit-maximising form, employers perform two sets of practices to keep wages in the cluster low. On the one hand, employers perform various practices to undermine or circumvent the legal-institutional process of setting the statutory minimum wage for the garment sector in the State of Karnataka. On the other hand, employers perform various ‘wage theft’ practices at the workplace level to reduce labour costs. In the remainder of this section, I will introduce these two sets of practices and illustrate how they are enabled by state actors’ ‘pro-business’ practices. Moreover, I will illustrate how wage relations intersect with sourcing relations and industrial relations.

3.1 Undermining the Legal-Institutional Statutory Minimum Wage Setting Process

In the absence of collective bargaining agreements, wages in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are primarily defined by the statutory minimum wage for the garment sector. For each sector, statutory minimum wages in India are fixed at the state level. According to the Indian Minimum Wage Act of 1948,Footnote 1 minimum wages for a specific sector may be fixed through two types of practices. As a first option, the state government can unilaterally fix the minimum wage for a specific sector based on the recommendations for a general wage span made by a tripartite minimum advisory board constituted by employer, worker and state representatives. As a second option, the state government may convene a minimum wage board for a specific sector constituted of employer, worker and state representatives, who shall negotiate the minimum wages for the respective sector. In both options, board members and the government shall consider various factors when fixing the statutory minimum wage for a specific industry, such as the prevailing conditions of the economy, the skill requirements and type of work, and basic living costs (INT52). To reflect differences in skill levels and living costs, different minimum wages are fixed for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and for workers in urban, semi-urban and rural areas. Overall, the 15th Indian Labour Conference in 1957 and subsequent court rulings have defined and defended that statutory minimum wages should be calculated following a needs-based approach. According to this approach, statutory minimum wages should at least ensure workers’ reproduction costs by covering the average expenditure of a worker and his family consisting of one spouse and two children below the age of fourteen (Mani et al. 2018). These guidelines exemplify that legislators originally conceived the Indian legal statutory minimum wage framework as a protection mechanism for workers to avoid wages below a subsistence level. In this line, the Minimum Wage Act also defines that intervals between statutory minimum wages should not exceed five years to ensure that minimum wages increase proportionally to the cost of living.Footnote 2

However, the specific practices through which Bangalore-based manufacturers and state actors have enacted the legal-institutional minimum framework over the past decades undermine the historical purpose of the Minimum Wage Act. Manufacturers have, over the past decades, avoided or circumvented minimum wage increases through practices of delaying and challenging minimum wage revisions. These practices have, in turn, been enabled by state actors’ pro-business practices. In the following, I illustrate the interplay of various employer and state practices that, together, construct exploitative wage relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster, characterised by below-subsistence wage levels.

The first practice through which Bangalore garment manufacturers and Karnataka labour department officials have traditionally undermined the legal-institutional statutory minimum wage process is by deliberately delaying minimum revisions. As opposed to the legal provisions, minimum wages for the garment industry in the State of Karnataka have only been revised at intervals of 7 to 9 years from 1986 to 2010 (CWM 2014). Only since the emergence of independent unions in the garment sector—specifically since GATWU’s minimum wage campaign in 2009 and 2010 (see Sect. 7.1.3)—minimum wage revisions have been implemented within the legally fixed three- to five-year periods. Nevertheless, statutory minimum wages for the garment industry in the State of Karnataka still remain significantly below subsistence levels: Currently, the statutory monthly minimum wage for garment workers ranges from about 9,000 Rupees (approx. 123 US$) for an unskilled worker in a rural area to slightly above 10,000 Rupees (approx. 136 US$) for a skilled worker in the Bangalore urban area (Labour Commissioner Office, Government of Karnataka 2021). According to a study by labour researchers and unionists, to guarantee a decent standard of living for a worker and his or her family, wages, however, need to amount to 18,000 Rupees (approx. 238 US$) at minimum (Mani et al. 2018).

To ensure that minimum wage increases in each round of minimum wage revisions remained as low as possible, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers have employed a second practice of lobbying the state government to take back and reduce statutory minimum wage increases: In 2001, 2009 and 2018, following the declaration of a new, increased statutory minimum wage for the Karnataka garment industry by the state government, Bangalore manufacturers refused to pay the new, increased minimum wage rate. Instead, manufacturers lobbied the state government to withdraw the new minimum wage notice arguing that the increased wage rates will force employers to relocate factories to neighbouring states with lower-wage levels. Garment manufacturers’ lobbying practices are exemplified in the following quote from a letter by the owner of one of Karnataka’s major garment companies to the Labour Department after announcing new, increased minimum wage rates in 2018. In this letter published in a local online newspaper, the industry representative wrote in the name of all Bangalore garment manufacturers:

We are adversely affected by the abnormal increase in the minimum wages to an extent of 50% increase in wage bill in the case of highly skilled workers and 18% in the case of semi-skilled workers. Minimum wages in Karnataka were comparable with neighbouring states before the proposed increase. Hence, there was no need for the hike in minimum wages for this industry. (Letter to the Karnataka Labour Department by a representative of Himatsingka Limited, quoted in Bath 2019)

In response to manufacturers’ lobbying practices, it has been a common practice of the Labour Department to withdraw the original Minimum Wage Revision notification under the pretext of a ‘clerical error’ and to subsequently issue a new notification with a reduced minimum wage increase. Following legal complaints by local trade unions, the government’s practice of withdrawing the original minimum wage notification was declared illicit by the High Court of Karnataka in two rulings from 2013 and 2019. In both instances, the High Court, however, did not order the implementation of the originally notified minimum wage. Instead, it ordered the formation of a tripartite minimum wage committee for the garment industry to fix a minimum wage that should be acceptable to both workers and employers in the next revision. Given the low unionisation levels in the Bangalore export-garment cluster, ordering for a tripartite committee needs to be regarded as a practice that serves employers’ interests rather than workers’ interests. This fact is exemplified in the outcome of the last tripartite minimum wage negotiations in 2019, which fixed statutory minimum wages at around 9,000–10,000 Rupees. Thereby minimum wages, however, remain significantly below the original (subsequently withdrawn) minimum wage notification issued by the Karnataka State Government in 2018, which had fixed monthly wages at 14,000 Rupees (approx. 185 US$) for skilled workers and at 11,500 Rupees (approx. 152 US$) per month for unskilled workers.

In this light, the state government’s practice of withdrawing already issued minimum wage notifications and the high court’s practice of ordering tripartite wage negotiations need to be interpreted as ‘pro-business practices’ that support manufacturers’ interests. This alignment of state practices with the interests of manufacturers is indicative of a broader shift in the Indian state’s strategic orientation since the 1990s. Historically, the Indian state’s strategic orientation had been shaped by Fabian socialist ideals of strong state control over production and wages. However, with economic liberalisation, the role of the state as an active regulator of the economy shifted towards a focus on creating a business enabling environment for private capital actors. In this line, Indian state governments have been increasingly competing for national and foreign private investments understood as central conditions for fostering industrialisation and economic development. Due to its capacity to provide large-scale employment for low-skilled groups of the population and for attracting foreign currency, the export-garment industry has, in this context, been regarded as a sector of particular strategic importance by the Indian national and state governments. As a result, Indian government actors have sought to minimise state interventions in wage relations in the garment industry, as this labour researcher explains:

Regarding [the] garment [sector], because of its labour intensity and because it’s a huge potential of earning foreign currency through exports, the welfare of minimum standards of working or living conditions are getting compromised. […] [The] government basically now plays a passive role and withdraws itself from labour market interventions. Even with regard to the minimum wage, the government is not very clear about regulating the minimum wage, because […] foreign investments come when you have cheap labour. (INT15)

The quote illustrates how employer and state practices together construct exploitative wage relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster characterised by below-subsistence wages. Manufacturers’ practices of refusing to implement statutory minimum wages covering workers’ basic living costs are enabled by state actors’ practices of not enforcing subsistence level minimum wages. Instead, government actors leave it to unions alone to fight for wages that cover workers’ basic needs while knowing that given low unionisation levels in the Bangalore export-garment cluster, unions’ bargaining power is relatively limited.

In this sense, wage relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster also intersect with industrial relations (Sect. 6.5) and with workplace relations (Sect. 6.4). On the one hand, unions’ overall low membership compared to the total number of workers in the cluster constrains unions’ capacities to push for a living wage in tripartite minimum wage negotiations. Unions’ bargaining power in minimum wage negotiations is further constrained by the fact that they are independent unions. Bangalore-based unions organising garment workers have developed out of NGO-led community organising projects and therefore have no ties to any political parties. Hence, the three Bangalore garment unions also have little leverage vis-à-vis state actors in tripartite minimum wage negotiations. Moreover, the several thousand members that all three garment unions have together are distributed across a large number of factories, constraining unions’ capacities to negotiate bilateral collective wage agreements with individual employers that exceed minimum wage rates. Unions’ low membership levels inside specific factories can, in turn, be regarded as resulting from management practices of constructing tightly controlled and segmented workplace relations hampering unions’ abilities to build a strong membership inside the workplace. As a result of unions’ limited power to negotiate collective bargaining agreements at the workplace level, the legally prescribed statutory minimum wage at the industry level represents the de facto maximum wage paid by employers in Bangalore export-garment factories.

3.2 Wage Theft Practices at the Workplace

In addition to performing several practices directed at keeping statutory minimum wages at the state level low, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers employ a second set of practices of withholding a part of the wages that workers are rightfully entitled to. These practices are commonly subsumed under the notion of ‘wage theft’ practices. Common wage theft practices by Bangalore export-garment manufacturers include linking minimum wage increases to production target increases, stealing overtime wages and giving ‘comp-offs’. The first practice of linking minimum wage increases to production target increases is commonly employed by Bangalore garment manufacturers to compensate for higher labour costs due to statutory minimum wage increases: To offset higher costs, manufacturers push workers to deliver higher productivity. In this context, workers and unionists report that after each increase of the statutory minimum wage, managers also increased workers’ production targets. Similarly, when annually a legally prescribed wage component called ‘Dearness Allowance’ is increased to compensate for inflation, this increase also leads to a raise of production targets, as described exemplarily by this garment worker:

And then, once a year our wages increase, but then also our production targets increase and then we cannot complain because the supervisor will just say: “You get more wage, so you have to produce more. We must make more money to pay you a higher wage”. (INT5, translated from Kannada)

Since production targets in most factories are barely achievable during regular working hours, further production target increases result in de facto unpaid overtime work since extra time spent by workers to complete production targets is generally not paid. As a result, workers usually stay 15 or 30 min longer daily, amounting to almost two full days of extra unpaid work per month (INT47).

Besides linking wage raises to increases in production targets, employers use two other ‘wage theft’ practices directed at maximising productivity while minimising labour costs: stealing overtime wages and ‘giving comp-offs’. According to the Minimum Wage Act, all work hours exceeding the regular hours of 48 h per week must be paid with the double regular wage rate. Hence, overtime work is a significant cost factor for management and therefore avoided, if possible. However, particularly during the peak production season, managers frequently resort to ordering additional overtime work. To avoid paying the double wage rate, workers report that managers make workers check out with their time stamp card at the end of the regular shift to then continue working informally for one or two hours. In some cases, workers are compensated for these informal extra working hours in the form of a ‘productivity bonus’, which is significantly less than the applicable double wage rate. In turn, giving ‘comp-offs is used locally in Bangalore to refer to the practice of giving workers paid leave days during periods with little or no production orders, which must then be recovered through unpaid Sunday work during peak season (INT4,13; see also Jenkins and Blyton 2017). In doing so, workers are cheated out of the double overtime wage for Sunday work that they are legally entitled to, and of the half wages that workers are entitled to receive during lay off periods, i.e. periods when a factory does not have work. In some cases, managements go even one step further and deduct workers’ comp-off days from their regular contingent of paid leave days, thereby de facto making the performed Sunday work completely unpaid work (INT33).

As previously mentioned, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers’ wage theft practices are directly interlinked with retailers’ predatory purchasing practices in two ways. On the one hand, retailers’ practices of neutralising higher costs from wage increases through extracting higher productivity from workers enable manufacturers to ensure value capture despite retailers’ ‘price squeeze’. Accordingly, interviewed garment managers state that buyers do not increase their prices when the minimum wage is raised but rather expect manufacturers to make up for increased labour costs through heightened productivity (9, 27, 28). Only one manager states that their key buyer, with whom they have been doing business for many years, substantiates at least a part of minimum wage raises by paying higher prices (INT29). On the other hand, stealing overtime wages and ‘comp-offs’ is a strategic practice through which Bangalore garment manufacturers externalise the negative economic effects of unstable orders to workers. Through the practice of ‘comp-offs’, managers construct wage relationships as debt relations, in which workers owe employers working time for wages that have already been paid. In periods with low orders, workers consequently accrue a significant debt of hours to a managerially instituted ‘time bank’—as Jenkins and Blyton (2017) put it—allowing managers to flexibly dispose over workers’ reproductive time on Sundays and to transform it into productive time when orders are available.

3.3 Interim Conclusion

In summary, wage relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster need to be understood as constituted through power-laden networked relationships between retailers, state actors, employers and workers. These relationships intersect with network sourcing relations (Sect. 6.2) at the global level and with territorially embedded industrial relations (Sect. 6.5) at the state level. Whereas retailers exercise pressure on manufacturers for lower prices by stressing competitive pressures from lower-wage locations, manufacturers pass this pressure on to the State Government of Karnataka by threatening to relocate production to neighbouring states if statutory minimum wages are raised beyond a certain threshold. The Government of Karnataka, in turn, responds to pressure from manufacturers by shifting the authority for fixing statutory minimum wages to tripartite minimum wage committees. Given the asymmetrical power balance characterising capital labour in the Bangalore export-garment cluster due to low unionisation rates, the last rounds of tripartite minimum wage negotiations fixed wages that remained significantly below a subsistence level. Economic pressures on workers are further increased by employers’ ‘wage theft’ practices at the workplace level. These practices neutralise minimum wage increases through increases in production targets and construct wage relations at the workplace level as time debt relations between individual workers and management through ‘giving comp-offs’.

The fact that exploitative wage relations in the Bangalore export-garment industry are constructed through networked state and employer practices poses significant challenges for Bangalore garment unions. ‘Pro-business’ state practices constrain the ability of unions to draw on the legal-institutional minimum wage framework as a source of institutional power. When the state acts as a regulator that actively ensures adequate wage levels, the presence of state actors in tripartite minimum wage negotiations can provide a counterweight to dominant employers and balance off capital-labour power asymmetries. When state actors, however, act primarily as business enabling agents—as is the case in the Bangalore export-garment industry—workers and unions need to activate associational power resources. To achieve significant wage increases, unions need to develop networked agency strategies that combine public campaigns pressuring the state to implement adequate minimum wages with collective action at the workplace to ensure that minimum wage increases neutralised through a raise of underpaid overtime work.

Following such a networked agency strategy, especially a large-scale minimum wage campaign conducted by GATWU from 2009 to 2010, has contributed to transforming some of the state and employer practices that have traditionally contributed to constructing exploitative wage relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. For example, GATWU has achieved that minimum wage revisions have since 2010 been undertaken within the legally prescribed periods of maximum five years. Moreover, GATWU has stopped the practice of giving ‘comp-offs’ in a selected number of factories where the union has a strong membership. In most factories without union presence, giving ‘comp-offs’, however, remains a common practice. The continued prevalence of ‘comp-off’ practices in Bangalore export-garment factories needs to be understood as also enabled by the fact that there is still a large number of factories in the cluster without union presence. Unions’ capacity for establishing strong membership bases inside factories is, in turn, constrained by the various disciplining practices through which Bangalore garment manufacturers construct tightly controlled workplace relations. These practices will be illustrated in more detail in the next chapter.

4 Workplace Relations

I designate as workplace relations the sum of relationships between workers and supervisors or management and between workers in a specific workplace. Similar to the labour process, workplace relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are tied to the material settings of large factories with several hundred or even thousands of workers and are, therefore, highly localised. Workplace relations represent a traditional domain of labour control. To ensure workers’ subordination under the labour process, managements need to construct workplace relations in a way that hedges or prevents potential labour resistance. In the following, I will demonstrate how managers in Bangalore garment factories construct workplace relations through various sets of disciplining practices that constrain opportunities for collective worker organising and (re-)produce asymmetrical power relations between supervisors and workers. These sets of practices include constructing the workplace as a tightly controlled space, segregating shop floors along gender lines and undermining workplace committees as spaces for collective dialogue.

4.1 Constructing the Workplace as a Tightly Controlled Space

The first set of practices through which manufacturers in the Bangalore export-garment cluster construct workplace relations as de facto disciplining relations is directed at constructing workplaces as tightly controlled spaces. Management and supervisors closely monitor workers’ movements and interactions within these spaces in two ways. First, Bangalore garment manufacturers already design the physical-spatial layout of factory buildings in a way that allows control over incoming and outgoing persons while at the same time shielding any interactions happening inside the factory premises from the outside world. To this end, each factory building is usually surrounded by high walls, and the gate is secured by guards and security cameras (see Fig. 6.3).

Fig. 6.3
A photograph of a factory with a board on its compound wall. The board reads for rent, 50000 square feet, ground plus 2 floors, electronic industry or pharma warehouse with 2 phone numbers.

Source Photography by Cosimo-Damiano Quinto; stylised by the author to ensure the anonymity of depicted persons

Export-garment factory compound on Mysore Road, Bangalore.

To enter the factory premises, workers need to present their ID cards, and visitors need to sign in stating their organisation and reason for the visit. In this context, unionists report that guards usually deny them access to the factory, making it impossible for unionists to meet and organise workers inside the factory. Managements’ efforts to control and restrict access of unionists to the workplace were also evident during my fieldwork, when visiting an export-garment factory located about 80 km outside of Bangalore with a group of German unionists and two union leaders of GATWU. Whereas the factory manager warmly welcomed our group of German visitors, the two local GATWU union leaders were denied access to the factory. Only after a lengthy discussion and the repeated assurance that they would refrain from any interactions with workers, GATWU leaders were finally allowed to enter the factory. Nevertheless, a manager followed the two unionists closely throughout the three hours factory tour and even waited in front of the door when they went to the washroom.

Besides controlling workers’ interactions inside the workplace, managers also restrict and prevent interactions between unionists and workers outside the workplace. In this context, unionists report that when approaching workers or holding meetings in front of the factory gate after the end of workers’ shifts, security guards frequently dissolve these interactions. Moreover, it is a common practice for managers to call workers who have been recorded interacting with unionists to the management office the next day. There, workers are advised not to engage with the union, as this union leader reports:

They [the management] keep on ‘advising’ the workers. They will call the workers, saying: “Any problem you tell us, you don’t go to unions”. [Company name] constantly does that. And they have cameras fitted at the gate. So, if workers are talking to anyone outside the factory, they will call them the next day and advise them on how they should behave and take care of them so that they don’t get ‘misled’. (INT 30)

Management practices of controlling worker interactions inside and outside the workplace that prevent worker engagement with unions can be classified as union-busting practices since they actively seek to prevent collective worker organisation. In this sense, workplace relations need to be understood as directly intersecting with industrial relations (Sect. 6.5) in that managements’ practices of controlling and preventing interactions between workers and unionists in the workplace significantly constrain unions’ abilities to build bargaining power vis-à-vis employers.

Control over workers’ interactions is, however, not limited to monitoring workers’ interactions with external actors, such as unionists. Also, inside the factory, supervisors tightly monitor and restrict workers’ movements and interactions. In this line, workers report that they are ordered to remain at their specific assigned workstations throughout the shift and are not allowed to leave their batch to talk to co-workers from another batch, even during breaks (INT36). Control over workers’ interaction inside the factory is also supported by the specific spatial arrangements of workstations in assembly lines, which provides little possibility for interactions between workers. The assembly line’s spatial arrangement moreover allows to construct spatial asymmetries between supervisors and workers. Whereas workers sit and have to remain in their designated places, supervisors walk around between the various lines and thereby oversee all activities on the shop floor. The spatial asymmetry between supervisors and workers hence helps to reproduce and reinforce hierarchical relationships between supervisors and workers.

Besides being supported by the factory floor’s spatial layout, workplace hierarchies are also further stabilised and reinforced by management’s practices of reproducing gendered power asymmetries through segregating shop floors along gender lines.

4.2 Segregating Shop Floors Along Gender Lines

The second set of disciplining practices through which Bangalore export-garment manufacturers construct workplace relations that ensure the subordination of workers under the labour process is hiring women, in particular for the large share of unskilled or semi-skilled tasks in the sewing process. As mentioned in Sect. 5.2.2, about 85% of workers in Bangalore export-garment factories are women. Hiring women can be regarded as a disciplining practice directed at preventing labour unrest and at ensuring the smooth subordination of workers to the labour process in two ways: First, by hiring women predominantly for lower-skilled tasks, power asymmetries enshrined in broader gender relations are reproduced in the workplace relations through intersecting lines of worker segregation according to gender and position. In most Bangalore garment factories, the unskilled or semi-skilled positions of sewing machine operator or helper are performed by women. In contrast, higher skilled positions such as operating digital printing or cutting machines and especially supervisor and manager positions are predominantly performed by men, as this NGO representative explains:

[…] we see that a large proportion of workers are women, at least, definitely in South India, whereas all the supervisors and managers and beyond are men. And even if a worker, a woman worker, sticks to the job, to the same factory, for five, ten years, whatever, there is no career mobility given to them by the industry, by the factory. It is also not in the thought because the industry has been there since so long. And we hardly see any women workers being promoted to supervisors. Or even hiring an outsider as a supervisor, a female supervisor, that’s also not done. (INT11)

By segregating shop floors along intersecting lines of gender and skill levels, managements replicate broader patriarchal structures inside the workplace to reinforce power asymmetries between supervisors and workers. These power asymmetries, in turn, enable managers and supervisors to suppress worker complaints about high work pressure and abusive behaviour by supervisors, as this worker describes:

We have high production targets and all workers must fulfil them, even if a person doesn’t feel well. Whenever we complain, the supervisor will tell us to pack our stuff and leave. […] Our […] HR manager is also not supportive at all to the workers. When we point these things out he will yell at us and say stuff like: “So you know what to do? You want to be HR? You know my job better than me? I am the manager here, and I know what to do, so you don’t worry. You go back and do your work, and you let me do my work”. (INT5, translated from Kannada)

Besides reinforcing power asymmetries between supervisors and workers, managers’ practices of creating largely feminised shop floors also serve as an indirect disciplining mechanism by preventing collective worker organising and unionisation in the workplace. Given the large factory set-ups in the Bangalore export-garment industry, which could potentially provide a breeding ground for unionisation, managers are particularly interested in hampering attempts at collective worker organising in the workplace. In this line, Bangalore garment managers frequently mention in interviews that they prefer to hire women over men since women are more ‘docile’ in nature and therefore less likely to join a union or to create other sorts of ‘trouble’ (INT9). This narrative of women as naturally more submissive than men is not exclusive to the Bangalore garment export industry but underpins the feminisation of the garment industry across Asia (Chakravarty 2007). Not at last, the spontaneous mass strike of about 450,000 Bangalore garment workers to protest against a new law restricting workers’ provident fund access in April 2016 has, however, debunked this narrative as socially constructed rather than based on biological facts.

Nevertheless, it remains a fact that the feminised nature of the workforce poses several challenges for unions with regard to organising workers. These reasons are, however, not linked to women’s supposedly ‘docile’ nature but rather to women’s embeddedness into broader patriarchal social relations that establish women as sole caretakers in the household. As a result, many female garment workers face the double burden of wage work and care work. Therefore, women workers are often unable to engage in union activities after work or on Sundays, as this unionist explains:

They [garment workers] are ladies who have little awareness [of their rights]. That is the main problem. After work, they have to go back home and do chores at home as well, so they won’t pay much attention to all these [gate meetings]. Men get easily attracted to the union, but women, even if they come to a meeting, they’ll be in a rush as they have chores to do at home […]. Management uses this as an advantage and hires only such women because they won’t have time to take additional responsibility within the union. (INT36)

In particular, married women workers report that they need to seek permission from their husbands or parents-in-law to leave the house for meetings. Given that many workers are first-generation industrial workers who have migrated to the city with their families from rural villages, husbands are often sceptical of unions. They do not allow their wives to join union meetings because they either regard it as a waste of time or fear that it might cause the wife to lose her job. Therefore, it is due to these kinds of asymmetrical power relations enshrined in gender relations that feminising shop floors in the Bangalore export-garment industry de facto serves as a disciplining practice.

4.3 Undermining Collective Dialogue in Workplace Committees

The last set of practices through which managers construct workplace relations as de facto disciplining relations is linked to various national and state legal provisions that prescribe the implementation of four types of workplace committees in industrial establishments.Footnote 3 These committees are: (1) a works committee for resolving grievances that may arise in the daily work between management and workers; (2) a safety committee responsible for carrying out health and safety surveys and raising awareness among workers for health and safety provisions; (3) a canteen committee that shall be consulted inter alia on the quality and quantity of food; and (4) an Internal Complaints Committee for processing any worker complaints related to sexual harassment (FWF 2018). The legal rationale for these committees is to provide an institutionalised space for worker-management dialogue in which workers’ grievances can be addressed in a structured manner. As such, workplace committees can potentially provide a source of institutional power for workers and promote collective worker organisation in the social dialogue process, e.g. when workers jointly identify collective issues to raise with the factory management. However, managers enact the legal provisions for workplace committees through practices that undermine the original purpose of workplace committees. Rather than constructing workplace committees as spaces for institutionalised social dialogue, managers have instead constructed dis-functional workplace committees that exist merely on paper. Dis-functional workplace committees are constructed by management through practices of holding committee meetings as short gatherings during lunch breaks reduced to making workers sign the attendance list. As a result, most interviewed workers show little awareness of the existence of any workplace committees in their respective factories. Workers’ little awareness of workplace committees also stems from the fact that usually there is no democratic election process for workplace committees. Instead, selected workers are called in an ad hoc manner by managers for committee meetings, as described by this unionist:

Committees should meet once every two months, usually. But those meetings are just for like 10 minutes. The management makes the workers sign the attendance list, and that’s it. We from GLU, we try to give the workers awareness about the committees and what they are for and that they can raise issues in the committees. But that is also not so easy. When workers raise questions or issues during a committee meeting, the management will not call them for the next meeting. (INT4, translated from Kannada)

Where workers are aware that workplace committees exist, they are usually unaware of the purpose of these committees, since appointed committee members receive no training or introduction regarding their role and the purpose of committee meetings. When actual committee meetings are held, managers construct these meetings as spaces of unilateral communication by addressing workers with ‘motivational speeches’ rather than engaging in dialogue, as exemplarily described in this statement by a union representative:

If the committee meetings really take place, workers often have no space or time to raise issues. It is just the management who gives a motivational speech. Like, they will tell the workers how important it is that they work fast and produce good quality to satisfy the buyers because workers’ jobs depend on buyers’ orders. Also, they will tell the workers not to speak about conflicts or negative things with anybody outside the factory, and especially with unions because that might put the factory in a bad light, and, then, they might not receive orders from buyers any more. […] So, what they do is really emotional blackmailing. They will say stuff like: “This factory is your house, this is your family. Your family is giving food for you and for your children, so you must not speak against the family”. (INT4, translated from Kannada)

The second quote illustrates once more the intersection of workplace relations with industrial relations. By undermining any worker-management interaction that might encourage collective organisation and using committee meetings to actively discourage workers from joining the union, manufacturers actively constrain unions’ possibilities of building bargaining power in the workplace and therefore, to engage in collective bargaining.

On the other hand, workplace relations intersect with sourcing relations and, more specifically, with retailers’ CSR practices: Many retailers have, over the last decade, set up so-called Social Dialogue Programs in response to criticisms from consumer organisations regarding abusive behaviour by supervisors and managers. Retailers’ Social Dialogue Programs prescribe detailed practices through which managers at suppliers shall establish or implement workplace committees as spaces for an institutionalised worker-management dialogue. These practices include training workers regarding the purpose and functioning of workplace committees, conducting democratic and secret elections of worker representatives, and liberating workers to participate in committee meetings during working hours. Retailers provide financial means for training that are usually conducted by external NGOs.

Workers, unionists and managers report that in Bangalore garment factories where Social Dialogue Programs have been implemented, these programs have transformed managers’ practices of conducting committee meetings. As an outcome of the training conducted in the Social Dialogue Program, workers report that workplace committee meetings are not held during lunch breaks anymore but that workers are liberated during their regular working hours to participate in committee meetings. Moreover, they report that managements now allocate sufficient time, i.e. 30–40 min, for committee meetings. Workers and unionists also find that overall worker awareness about committees as institutionalised spaces for addressing workers’ individual or collective grievances has increased (INT9).

At the same time, workers’ and unionists’ reports, however, illustrate that the success of retailers’ Social Dialogue Programs ultimately depends on the power relations between management and workers in a specific factory. Workers report that in factories with low unionisation levels, only non-controversial issues can be addressed during committee meetings, such as the provision of clean drinking water or decisions over which holidays should be leave days for all workers. More controversial issues—such as sexual harassment by supervisors, excessive production targets or unpaid overtime work—are fended off immediately by management as not falling under the scope of workplace committee discussions. Workers report further that where individual workers have tried to raise such controversial issues in committee meetings, these workers were simply not called for the next committee meeting (INT4, 5). In one extreme case, several GLU worker activists who had been voted into the works committee at their factory were even dismissed after repeatedly addressing labour rights violations in the works committee (INT36). Barriers to the effectiveness of Social Dialogue Programs resulting from power asymmetries and hierarchies in the workplace are illustrated in the following observations of an NGO representative who had participated in a newly set-up Internal Complaints CommitteeFootnote 4:

When I was there, no complaint came. Also, because I was in one of the first few meetings, in fact in the first, or the second meeting of the ICC [Internal Complaints Committee]. And the welfare officer was the senior woman from the factory. And she would just make some gestures, no, [just] give some signs from the eyes. And then no one would… I mean, they would start and then, they would look at the welfare manager and they would keep quiet and not say [anything]. […] I mean for everything that they had to say, they were first looking at the welfare manager and then saying it. And she would nod or not nod. And then they would get the message of whether they should go on or be shut. (INT11)

Therefore, where asymmetrical power relations between managers and workers exist, these power asymmetries significantly limit the potential of workplace committees to function as spaces for management-worker dialogue even after the implementation of Social Dialogue Programs.

4.4 Interim Conclusion

In summary, workplace relations in Bangalore export-garment factories are constructed as de facto disciplining practices through various management practices of constructing workplaces as tightly controlled spaces, reproducing patriarchal power asymmetries in the workplace and undermining workplace committees as spaces for social dialogue. As such, workplace relations directly intersect with broader industrial relations (Sect. 6.5) and with sourcing relations (Sect. 6.2). Intersections of workplace relations with industrial relations result from the fact that power asymmetries between management and workers in the workplace hamper unions’ capacities to build a strong membership and engage in collective bargaining with employers at the workplace and industry level. Intersections with sourcing relations, in turn, result from the fact that practices of enacting legal provisions for workplace committees are, in some factories, shaped by the guidelines of buyers’ Social Dialogue Programs. Whereas in these cases, opportunities for social dialogue at the workplace are improved, managers nevertheless make sure to limit the scope of manager-worker dialogue to non-controversial issues that do not imply significant costs for employers.

For unions, the tight control exercised by management over workplace relations presents a great challenge since it constrains opportunities for union organisers to engage with workers and thereby build associational power at the workplace level. As a result of the significant barriers for organising workers inside the workplace, Bangalore garment unions have for a long time relied on alternative organising strategies that focus on organising garment workers in their communities (see Chapter 7). This strategy has, however, been increasingly challenged through the increasing geographical fragmentation of the workforce resulting from employers’ practices of expanding labour market frontiers by recruiting workers increasingly also from villages in the rural areas surrounding Bangalore (see Sect. 6.7).

Nevertheless, in some cases where unions have—through strategic organising practices—been able to form strong worker leaders and build a membership inside the factory, unions have shifted the capital-labour power balance in the workplace and constructed more collaborative worker-management relations. This is highlighted for example in the following experience of GATWU worker leaders at an export-garment factory located in the rural town of Srirangapatna in about 150 km distance from Bangalore. At this factory producing exclusively for H&M, GATWU had organised the majority of the 1100 workers and pushed for democratic elections to the workplace committee. In these elections, GATWU worker leaders were elected committee members with 800 out of 900 total votes. According to GATWU, this overarching victory led the management to recognise GATWU worker leaders as workforce representatives and to engage in regular dialogue with them about worker grievances.

It is important to note, however, that while the management recognised GATWU worker leaders as elected worker representatives in the works committee, they still refused to recognise GATWU as a collective bargaining partner. Consequently, discussions with GATWU worker representatives in the works committee strictly excluded any issues referring to a change in service conditions, such as bonuses or wages. According to Indian labour law, works committees do not have the competence to negotiate on these issues since these issues belong to the sphere of industrial relations—that is to relations between employers and unions. Whereas in works committees, workers—unionised or not—can address problems at the factory, improvements for workers that go beyond the legally prescribed labour standards can only be negotiated by unions and management as part of industrial relations. Against this background, managers in the garment industry in Bangalore have a great interest in preventing collective bargaining and seek to maintain capital-labour power asymmetries in industrial relations through various union-busting practices. These practices will be illustrated in more detail in the next chapter.

5 Industrial Relations

I use the term industrial relations here to refer to relationships between employers, unions and state actors in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. Whereas industrial relations include relationships between unions and employers at the workplace level, industrial relations stretch beyond the workplace since they also involve practices of industrial dispute settlement and collective bargaining at the industry and state levels. These practices are constructed around various legal frameworks that have traditionally instituted workers’ rights to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining and laid out several rules that facilitate interactions between unions, employers and state actors in industrial disputes. These legal frameworks are: (1) the Indian Constitution, 1949, granting all workers the right to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining; (2) the Indian Trade Union Act, 1926, specifying the criteria and process for union formation and registration; and (3) the Indian Industrial Disputes Act, 1947,Footnote 5 specifying the procedure and practices for settling industrial disputes between employers and workers or unions. According to the Trade Union Act, workers have traditionally been able to register a union at the factory or industry level when their membership comprises either 100 workers or at least 10% of the workforce in a specific factory or industry.Footnote 6 Registered trade unions may then act as official representatives of the workforce and negotiate with employers regarding any issues related to working conditions and economic benefits for workers, including inter alia wages, bonus payments, leave days, lay-offs, production norms and the terms and conditions of service. To enter into bilateral negotiations with an employer or group of employers, the respective management needs to recognise the union as a bargaining partner. Indian labour laws, however, do not legally oblige employers to recognise a trade union as bargaining partner. Hence, recognition as collective bargaining partners is usually a contested issue, which requires unions to exercise associational power through industrial action to receive the management’s recognition. Suppose a union has no membership base in the workplace and is, therefore, unable to exercise associational power in the workplace: In that case, it is virtually impossible for a union to realise the management’s recognition and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement at the company or factory level.

Manufacturers employ two sets of practices to avoid collective bargaining processes in the Bangalore export-garment industry: discursively constructing the garment sector as exempt from industrial relations and union-busting practices. Manufacturers’—mostly illegal—union-busting practices are in turn enabled by a set of ‘pro-business’ state practices that undermine unions’ opportunities for leveraging institutional power in the industrial dispute settlement process. These three sets of practices together lead to the construction of industrial relations characterised by employer dominance and a passive state. In the following section, I will illustrate these three sets of practices in more detail.

5.1 Discursively Constructing the Garment Sector as Exempt from Industrial Relations

In interviews, Bangalore garment factory managers give various reasons why the concept of collective bargaining is not feasible or applicable to the garment industry. The most frequent argument is that collective bargaining that leads to wage increases would ruin the industry in light of buyers’ price squeeze and competition from other lower-wage garment production clusters in India or other Asian countries (INT1, 9, 27). This discursive construction of the garment industry as a unique sector to which industrial relations are not applicable is exemplified in the following quote from a Bangalore garment factory manager:

I think unions are only mandatory for other industries. There are a lot of unions in, for example, the automotive sector and in the engineering industry. But these are capital-intensive industries. So, they have more machines and less people. In the garment industry, for 200 machines, you employ 500 people. So, if you provide unions for the textile industry, all the factories will probably have to close because buyers will go to other places. You see, the mindset of the workers is different. They don’t understand this. They will ask for too much. (INT9)

As the quote illustrates, industrial relations in the Bangalore export-garment clusters intersect with wage and sourcing relations. The economic pressures for lower wages resulting from buyers’ predatory purchasing practices provide additional incentives for Bangalore garment manufacturers to undermine unionisation and collective bargaining processes present in many other industrial sectors in India.

Managers’ narrative of industrial relations and collective bargaining not being applicable to the garment industry is further underpinned by the discursive framing of unions as ‘troublemakers’, who seek to ‘create problems’ and disturb the industrial peace. As part of this narrative, Bangalore garment managers frequently refer to buyers’ social standards and regular audits as substitutes for industrial relations since these mechanisms supposedly ensure acceptable working conditions and therefore make collective bargaining obsolete. This discursive framing is highlighted in the following statement of an HR manager at one of Bangalore’s leading garment export manufacturers:

You know, in theory, unions and collective bargaining are good concepts. But bargaining is supposed to happen when there is a problem, when minimum standards for working conditions are denied. But if nothing is denied, what should we bargain about? With the brands coming in, we got that whole regime of codes of conduct and audits and now the situation is much better [than in the beginning of the export-garment industry], we have really achieved a lot. I mean nobody is perfect, but we have achieved 90%. So why would you turn the whole thing upside down just for 10%, which has not been achieved? (INT1)

The discursive construction of unions as ‘troublemakers’ whose demands for better working conditions are harmful to the industry is manifested in the following quote by this regional representative of a national garment industry association as well:

Unions are required for the industries, no doubt about it. For developing, for the sake of staff welfare. No doubt. But what happens is, everything is not taken in the right sense by the union, also. People should be more… they should also understand the ground realities. Unfortunately, […] [in the export-garment sector] the role of the union is misunderstood. The union does not look into the […] requirements of the industry. […] it is misunderstood by the unions that it is only for the sake of workers. Unions should also go one step further then [and] make the employees understand the need of the day, that is, higher productivity and higher quality. […] See, when the union is able to create an impact with the employees, that means they are powerful. So, with the same power, they should also start spreading some positive attitudes among the employees. (INT27)

The two manager quotes exemplify the overall ‘anti-union’ stance common among Bangalore export-garment managers and industry representatives. This stance also informs other sets of practices by managers directed at avoiding unionisation and collective bargaining at the workplace level.

5.2 Union-Busting Practices at the Workplace Level

As mentioned in the previous chapter, industrial relations directly intersect with workplace relations through ‘union-busting’ practices that are usually performed in the workplace. I use the term ‘union-busting’ to refer to a set of practices directed at repressing, mitigating or preventing collective worker organisation and collective bargaining. Union-busting practices performed by Bangalore garment manufacturers include leading an anti-union discourse, closing down factories with high unionisation levels and various practices of victimising union activists.

Leading an anti-union discourse refers to managers’ widespread practice to discourage workers from relating to union members or activists by discursively framing unions as an external threat in interactions with workers. As the following quote by a Bangalore garment union leader illustrates, when unions intensify their organising activities in a specific factory, managements seek to intimidate workers and make them refrain from interacting with unions:

They [the management] tell them [workers] that if you keep doing this union thing, the factory will close down. […] see, [in that factory] there’s a considerable number of workers who are not unionised yet. So, although we are saying we have the majority, the management doesn’t accept that […]. But the other workers who are not part of the union have all been kind buying the management narrative that union is bad for the industry. So, that also works as a pressure tactic. (INT50)

This practice of framing unions as a threat that will cause the factory to close and workers to lose their jobs is particularly powerful in the Bangalore export-garment industry due to the specific local historical context. The image of the garment industry and unions prevalent among workers is still shaped by the historical practice of Bangalore garment factories under the quota regime just to close down after production quotas had been met (see Sect. 5.2.1). Moreover, many workers still remember an incident from the 1990s when a central trade union conducted a strike at a garment export factory for several months forcing the factory to close down (see Sect. 5.2.3). As mentioned in Sect. 5.2.2, today, tier one supplier factories in the Bangalore export-garment industry are predominantly owned by larger export-garment companies with several production units. These large export-garment companies have a higher economic capacity to withstand strikes by unions or economic slumps. Nevertheless, the historical fear among garment workers that union activity may lead to factory closures persists and is further reinforced through continued management practices of discursively framing unions as external threats to the factory. As a result, unionists report that many workers are afraid to engage with unions, which presents unions with severe challenges for organising and constrains their ability to build associational power resources.

Workers’ fear of engaging with unions is further reinforced by management’s practices of closing down factories with high unionisation levels. In this context, GATWU leaders report several incidents where, when their membership had reached a significant level inside a factory, the management closed the factory and reopened it in rural areas, sometimes up to 100 km outside of Bangalore (INT46). According to legal provisions, management is obliged to offer laid-off workers employment in the new factory in case of a factory relocation. In practice, long commuting times, however, often make it infeasible for most women workers to work in the new factory, given their double burden of wage work and care work. Hence, workers usually prefer to seek employment in another factory closer to their living areas or even in the growing service industry, offering growing job opportunities for unskilled workers. As a result, the union membership base often built in year-long organising work can be effectively destroyed by management through factory relocations. That managers deliberately select factories with high unionisation levels for relocation has become particularly obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, several large ‘mega-suppliers’ owning between 10 and 50 factory units in and around Karnataka seized the slack in orders to restructure their operations by closing down unionised factories in and around Bangalore and reopening these factories in remote, closed-off apparel parks with restricted access for unions (ExChains 2020).

In addition to reproducing an anti-union discourse and closing down factories with high unionisation levels, managers in Bangalore garment factories seek to prevent the unionisation of workers through various practices of victimising active union members or union worker leaders inside the factory. A common practice of victimising active union members or worker leaders is locking them out of the factory or not giving them any work for several days. This often happens under the pretext of some excuse, as exemplified in this quote from a unionist and former garment worker:

In our factory, we have founded a factory-level union committee about two years ago. […] But it was not an easy process. There was a lot of harassment from the factory management. They tried to intimidate workers with different means. For example, there were 34 colleagues who are also union members who had been in the cleaning team. But when we founded the factory union, those workers were “promoted” to tailors, but they did not receive any training. So, they were not prepared for the job and made mistakes. Because of that, they were left out of the factory for 27 days and not allowed to work. (FN4, translated from Kannada)

Locking workers out of the factory is an effective disciplining practice for two reasons: First, it takes an emotional toll on workers due to the insecurity of whether they will be able to work in the factory again and due to the embarrassment of having to wait in front of the factory. Second, it puts workers under economic pressure since being unable to work for several days causes significant wage losses for workers, given the already meagre wages in the garment industry.

The most extreme practice of victimising union members is dismissing union members permanently. According to the Indian Industrial Disputes Act, any worker who has served in a factory for longer than one year cannot be dismissed without reasonable justification and prior government permission. When firing union activists, managers construct false allegations against the worker to circumvent this legal provision. This management practice is illustrated in the following report by a worker and active union member:

I am a union member, but the management does not know. If they find out, I will suffer. […] The management already has an eye on me because I participated in the strike on 2 September. I am a tailor, and I make collars for shirts. […] At the end of the day, I store the collars at my workplace. From there, they are collected every morning and brought to a different department where the collars are sewn to the shirts. One morning, when I came to my workplace, the collars were not there anymore. So, the management said it is my fault, and I must bring them back or they will fire me. (FN4, translated from Kannada)

Hence, victimising active union members and union leaders needs to be understood not primarily as a practice directed at preventing these workers from doing union work but rather to make them leave the job. In many cases, union leaders inside the factory succumb to managers’ harassment and resign due to the emotional stress, as this unionist reports:

In [factory name], they have also targeted our worker leaders. In the cutting section, they made five of our workers who are very active in the union stand for three days. They were so humiliated […] they were made to stand, and they were not even given chairs. They are senior workers in the cutting section, and they are men. So, they felt very humiliated [to stand] in front of thousands of people. When such things happen and when they feel humiliated, they leave the job. Such cases are increasing. (INT36, translated from Kannada)

To further intimidate fired unionists and prevent them from appealing the dismissal, workers and unionists report that managers frequently hire groups of ‘rowdies’. These rowdies wait for the dismissed worker in front of the factory or even visit the worker’s home telling him or her to stay away from the factory. ‘Union-busting’ practices by managers are hence not limited to the workplace but also stretch into workers’ reproductive spaces.

Since freedom of association and collective bargaining are legal worker rights in India, managers’ union-busting practices represent de facto labour law violations. Hence, unions can file a complaint with the labour department and seek rectification of these violations through the legal-institutional dispute settlement framework laid out in the Industrial Disputes Act. However, pro-business state practices constrain unions’ possibilities for activating institutional power resources, as illustrated in the next section.

5.3 Undermining the Industrial Dispute Settlement Process

In case of conflicts between workers and employers, the Indian Industrial Disputes Act of 1948 has introduced an institutionalised tripartite settlement process. The legal framework for industrial dispute settlement foresees three practices: (1) filing a complaint at the labour department to settle the dispute, (2) conducting a tripartite conciliation process involving a labour department officer, management and union representatives, and (3) adjudicating the dispute in the labour court. As such, the legal framework for settling industrial disputes can represent a potential source of institutional power for unions. However, in the Bangalore export-garment cluster, unions’ opportunities to use this legal framework as a source of power vis-à-vis employers—especially to contest illegal dismissals—are constrained by the specific practices through which labour department officers and judges enact the framework.

Unions’ possibilities for filing a complaint at the labour department against the illegal dismissal of a union activist are constrained by labour department officers’ practice of insisting on the provision of proof that the dismissal was indeed unjustified. For unions, it is, however, difficult to provide such proof since managers frequently bribe or intimidate co-workers into giving false statements supporting management’s version of events. At the same time, labour officers seldom make use of their right to conduct an independent inspection of the case that could refute management’s false allegations. Hence, when filing a complaint, usually the union’s version of events stands against the management’s word (INT15).

Furthermore, when conciliating a dispute, union representatives report that state officers tend to take on a passive position. Instead of demanding evidence from management representatives for their allegations against a dismissed worker, labour officers usually limit their intervention to facilitating dialogue between the parties to arrive at a compromise. As a result, power asymmetries between management and workers are reinforced through the intervention of labour officers. The leader of a Bangalore garment union attributes this relatively passive role of labour officers in industrial disputes to a very peculiar interpretation of their official mandate to resolve the conflict peacefully:

The management will present their version of events, and the conciliation officer will say “Yes, yes”. Because their mindset is also to promote the ease of doing business and, you know, not to cause unrest so that the industry doesn’t get affected. So, they’ll try to pacify the workers […] It’s very rare that an officer has the guts to say “I’m sorry, I’ll take more action. I’ll come and take all your records and verify it”. Most of the industrialists already have some political cloud and the labour commissioners know that if they wag their tail too much, then managers will go beyond them and get the issue resolved somewhere else. So, they [labour commissioners] are very limited in their abilities to actually push them [management] in the conciliation. The mandate for the conciliation is to resolve it [the conflict] peacefully. And peacefully would mean that you have to somehow compromise the interest of the workers. (INT48)

As a result of this particular interpretation of resolving a conflict peacefully, the conciliation officer in charge seldom declares the dismissal of a union activist as illegal nor orders management to reinstate the fired worker. Instead, labour officers seek to promote a settlement between management and the worker—a settlement that, however, usually compromises the workers’ and unions’ interests, given the asymmetrical capital-labour power relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. Union leaders report that, in this vein, labour officers often propose that management merely pay the dismissed worker a compensation or reinstate the worker in a different factory unit. In the latter case, managers often deliberately select a factory unit far away from the original, knowing that the worker won’t be able to commute there. This practice of labour department officers pushing for a compromise between unions and workers, therefore, de facto, enables management to effectively deploy illegal dismissal of union activists as a union-busting practice. By removing the worker from the factory, management effectively breaks the unionisation process in the factory. Moreover, the fact that the union activist could not be reinstated even after the union filed a legal complaint enables management to use the dismissal as a showcase to discourage other workers from joining the union. When the worker and the union consequently refuse management’s offers for a compensation payment, the individual case is referred to the labour court for adjudication.

The practice of adjudicating a labour dispute involves convening court meetings, conducting hearings for evidence-taking and issuing a ruling. Due to severe understaffing with vacancy rates of about 50% in Indian labour departments and labour courts, the rhythm with which hearings for evidence-taking are held is, however, very slow, with several weeks or months passing between two hearings. As a result, it takes, on average, seven years until a ruling is made. This delay often results in fired union activists taking on a job in a different factory or industry, given that unions usually do not have the financial means to support fired activists for such a long time. Accordingly, it is a common practice of employers to drag on or block the conciliation process so that the case is transferred to the court for adjudication, as this labour researcher explains:

Normally, the management knows that the judiciary is overburdened. So, they know, they keep on lingering the cases so much that it automatically ends at the court […] For the court, labour laws or the workmen are not a priority. So, they are almost at the bottom of the pyramid at the court. So that is the problem that workers face, that trade unions face. (INT15)

Labour researchers and unionists argue that state actors’ pro-business practices in the industrial dispute settlement process need to be understood as shaped by the general neoliberal policy turn in India since the 1990s. The industrial dispute-settling process and Indian labour laws, more generally, were designed post-independence as frameworks for worker protection and ensuring workers’ well-being. Whereas the legal-industrial frameworks have not significantly changed since the Indian post-independence period, the atmosphere for implementation, however, has, as this labour rights researcher explains:

In India’s industrialisation, collective bargaining has played a huge role. And I think that has helped both industrials as well as workers. It is only post-liberalisation, that the atmosphere for labour rights has changed. And that is largely through this idea of flexible labour which is propagated in India through the Washington Consensus. It is exactly part of the augmented Washington Consensus, which some people called ‘Post-Washington’. And even though laws were not amended, the atmosphere for implementation completely changed. (INT34)

With the shift towards neoliberal policies, the role of the Indian state has shifted from an enforcer of law to a facilitator of the ease of doing business. As a consequence, legal mechanisms and institutionalised processes for settling industrial disputes have lost their function as institutional power resources for unions, as this unionist explains:

Actually, there was a time when the labour commissioner had a lot of…quite a bit of the industries used to be frightened to come to the Labour Department. There was at least the security that violations will need to be rectified. But ultimately, even the judiciary has changed. Earlier […] lots of judicial decisions went in favour of the workers. So, the atmosphere was in a sense that there was almost neutrality. But now it is definitely biased against the workers’ interest and pro-management and corporate interests. And that actually also affects unionisation, because workers don’t want now a long-drawn process which ultimately ends up in some defeat. (INT48)

Most recently, the neoliberal shift in India’s state apparatus’ practices has also been complemented by several pro-business amendments to the long-standing labour laws as part of India’s latest labour law reform. In 2019 and 2020, the Indian government passed four new Labour CodesFootnote 7 that subsume existing labour laws intending to make labour legislation more comprehensive and easier to apply. In this context, the new Industrial Relations Code has introduced several provisions that constrain unions’ institutional power resources. As such, whereas unions could formerly, under the Trade Union Act, form a factory union and engage in collective bargaining with employers when they had organised 10% of the employees in a specific factory, the new Industrial Relations Code foresees a threshold of 20% of worker organisation in a specific factory. In addition, the new Industrial Relations Code curtails workers’ right to strike by introducing a fourteen-day notice period for any strike. Moreover, the new Industrial Relations Code prohibits strikes while a conciliation or adjudication of a matter is in place. This restriction was only applicable to workers in public utility services before the reform. As a result, workers and unions in the Bangalore garment export sector have been confronted with increasing constraints on their legal-institutional power resources over the past years due to pro-business state practices on the one hand and recent pro-business reforms of labour laws on the other hand.

5.4 Interim Conclusion

In summary, industrial relations in the export-garment industry in Bangalore link unions, employers and state officials within the State of Karnataka. In particular, industrial relations are shaped and constructed through various employer union-busting practices in the workplace, which are, in turn, enabled by pro-business state practices in the legal-institutional industrial dispute settlement process. Employers’ union-busting practices constrain unions’ capacities to build a solid membership base in the workplace. State actors’ pro-business practices in turn constrain unions’ capacities to contest employers’ union-busting practices through complaints at the labour department or legal appeals. While India has traditionally had strong labour laws, conceived to offset employer dominance through strong state engagement, over the past two decades, pro-business state practices are increasingly undermining labour law frameworks as sources of unions’ institutional power. In the Bangalore export-garment cluster, employer union-busting practices and pro-business state practices construct industrial relations as conflictive and antagonistic relations characterised by strong employer dominance.

To understand state actors’ and employers’ interest in creating antagonistic industrial relations and suppressing collective bargaining, it is important to understand the interrelations of industrial relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster with two other sets of relations: sourcing relations (Sect. 6.2) and wage relations (Sect. 6.3). In light of retailers’ practices of ‘squeezing prices’ combined with the highly labour-intensive nature of the production process, employers and state actors seek to construct the garment industry as a union-free space to prevent potential wage increases resulting from collective bargaining.

Against this background, engaging employers in collective bargaining represents a major challenge for Bangalore garment unions. In this context, all three local garment unions have sought to develop networked agency strategies over the past five to seven years, focussing specifically on building associational power and advancing collective bargaining processes in selected target factories (see Chapter 7). A significant challenge for unions to build a stable membership base in selected factories, however, results from the highly volatile employment relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster and resulting high turnover rates in garment factories. The following section sheds light on the various employer practices creating volatile employment relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster.

6 Employment Relations

Employment relations are an essential element of the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. They are constituted through various networked practices performed by employers to keep labour costs down and outsource economic risks to workers. Employment relations in the Bangalore garment cluster link workers, garment manufacturers and temporary employment agencies in Bangalore and across the State of Karnataka. Employment relations are primarily constructed around specific territorially embedded workplaces. At the same time, employment relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are also shaped by sourcing relations at the vertical dimension of the GPN. Since retailers do not guarantee a minimum of orders per year even to their core suppliers and place orders at irregular intervals, Bangalore garment manufacturers employ various practices to flexibilise employment relations to avoid excessive labour force during periods with low or no orders. These practices usually circumvent India’s relatively strict legal frameworks regulating employment relations: Traditionally, Indian labour laws have not provided employers with the opportunity to hire workers with fixed-term contracts. Moreover, as illustrated in Sect. 6.5, employers traditionally needed to seek prior permission from the labour department to dismiss workers. Against this backdrop, Bangalore garment manufacturers have established two major practices to circumvent these legal restrictions, leading to a de facto flexibilisation and informalisation of employment relations. These practices are: (1) ‘hiring and firing’ and (2) using contract labour.

6.1 Flexibilising and Informalising Employment Relations Through ‘Hiring and Firing’

‘Hiring and firing’ refers to a common practice performed by employers in the Bangalore export-garment cluster of hiring and firing workers without following legally prescribed procedures. Unions report, for example, that—despite legal provisions and buyer requirements—workers traditionally did not receive a formal appointment letter or contract. This practice of informally hiring workers was widespread in the cluster until some years ago. However, due to various legal complaints filed by unions, this practice has become less prevalent. Nevertheless, informally firing workers is still a prevalent practice by Bangalore garment manufacturers. As mentioned in Sect. 6.5, managers in Bangalore garment factories frequently dismiss or retrench workers without seeking the approval of the labour department and without giving workers a formal letter of termination. Instead, workers are just denied access to the factory one day. Managers use this practice of informally dismissing workers for several purposes, from undermining unionisation processes (see Sect. 6.5) to avoiding legally prescribed benefits and gratuities for workers. Managers informally dismiss workers to avoid paying maternity leave benefits or gratuities accruing to workers for continued service (INT21). In the latter case, workers and unionists report that workers are often locked out of the factory for one or several days shortly before completing five years of service. Once workers are allowed back into the factory, their social security ID number has changed, meaning they have been registered as newly employed. Thereby, employers circumvent the provisions installed by the Indian Gratuity Act of 1972: According to this law, employees are entitled to a gratuity of 50% of the monthly wage for each year of completed service after five years of continued service with a company when leaving the job.

Illegal practices of ‘hiring and firing’ have led hence not only to the flexibilisation but also to the de facto informalisation of employment relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. For workers, the informalisation of employment relations means having to live with high levels of insecurity regarding social benefits and regarding employment, as the experiences described by this worker illustrate:

There was a case of a worker who had worked for five years at the factory. Then she resigned because when you quit after five years, you are entitled to a gratuity. And she is from a poor family, so she could really use the money. But then she rejoined the factory. So, until today she has never received her gratuity. […] Also, there have been several cases where workers have been fired all of a sudden. So, we are all afraid of this. Because today we work at this factory, but we never know if we will still have our job the next day. (INT5)

This de facto informalisation of employment relations also constrains unions’ potential for worker organising and building associational power resources in two ways. First, workers are generally afraid of being fired for becoming a union member and, therefore, harder to organise, as illustrated in the previous section. Second, since workers generally perceive their employment as insecure and unstable and expect no benefits from working at a factory for a prolonged time, they frequently quit their jobs for various reasons. These reasons include taking a prolonged leave to return to their native villages during harvest, accessing provident fund contributions, taking on a new job with slightly higher wages in another factory or avoiding particularly abusive supervisors or managers. As a result, attrition rates in Bangalore export-garment factories range around 10% per month, meaning that, on average, the whole workforce of a factory changes within a year. High attrition rates and an unstable workforce in Bangalore garment factories consequently constrain unions’ capacities for building a stable membership and associational power at the workplace level, as this garment union leader explains:

We have been organising garment workers in Bangalore city since 2006. With the growth of the industry, organising in the city has however become more difficult. There are so many garment factories now in the city area, and there is a high turnover rate of workers at the factories. When we start organising at a factory, and we have been organising there for one year, then in the second year most of the workers with whom we started working in the beginning won’t be there anymore. If workers in the city are facing problems within their factory, instead of struggling, they rather leave the factory and search for a job somewhere else since it is easy to find work in another factory. (FN1)

Whereas employers have traditionally used ‘hiring and firing’ practices to circumvent legal restrictions for fixed-term employment and worker lay-offs, several pro-business labour law reforms have recently provided legal ground for ending workers’ services after a certain period of time without justification. In 2016, the Indian government passed a reform of the Indian Industrial Employment Act of 1946, introducing the exclusive option for employers in the garment sector to hire workers based on fixed-term employment. The government justified the reform with the need for garment manufacturers to cope with order fluctuations and retailers’ seasonal sourcing practices, requiring higher employment flexibility than other sectorsFootnote 8 (Business Standard 2018). Since the reform, unionists and labour researchers report that manufacturers have further reduced the number of permanent workers while hiring additional workers with fixed-term contracts, specifically during peak season. More recently, the Indian government passed a new Industrial Relations Code that merged several older acts in labour legislation, including the Industrial Disputes Act and the Industrial Employment Act. As part of this reform, the government raised the threshold of employees above which employers need to seek approval from the labour department in case of factory closure, lay-offs or retrenchments from 100 to 300 workers. A unionist comments that it is an increasingly common practice for export-garment companies to register the different departments within the factory, such as the cutting department, the sewing department and the washing department, under different companies belonging to the same company group (INT13). In doing so, manufacturers can avoid seeking government approval when closing down or moving factories—a fact that further increases employment insecurity for workers.

6.2 Using Contract Labour to Reduce Permanent Labour Costs and to Undermine Unionisation Processes

Besides ‘hiring and firing’, employers in the Bangalore export-garment manufacturing cluster flexibilise employment relations through a second practice: using contract labour. The Indian Contract Workers Act (1977) has traditionally restricted employers’ use of contract labour in two regards. First, employers may only employ contract labour in non-core activities. Second, contract workers can work only up to 240 days per year at the same factory. If a contract worker completes more than 240 days of work at a factory, he or she should automatically become a permanent employee. De facto practices of using contract workers in Bangalore export-garment factories, however, circumvent these legal provisions: Garment manufacturers tend to rely on using male contract workers, in particular for the lower-skilled segments of the finishing process such as ironing or packing. Unlike permanent employees, contract workers tend to be paid by a piece-rate system and can be laid off quickly so that employers avoid having to pay these workers during periods with few orders.

In addition, employers are also increasingly using contract workers as an additional labour force for night shifts during peak order periods. According to the Indian Factory Act of 1948, it was traditionally prohibited for women to work shifts between 6 pm and 7 am. The Government of Karnataka has introduced the possibility for women to work nights in 2020. However, barriers to women working night shifts persist due to social norms and women’s care responsibilities. Therefore, employers rely on male contract workers to maximise productivity during peak order periods. By relying on contract workers for specific tasks such as ironing and packing, employers can reduce the permanent workforce and thereby avoid paying workers during unproductive times when no orders are available or during times of sickness or annual leave.

Besides using contract labour to flexibilise employment, using contract labour is also performed by employers in the Bangalore export-garment cluster as a deliberate disciplining practice to gain concessions from workers and to undermine worker organising. In this manner, workers at the warehouse of a major export-garment company report that the management strategically increased the share of contract labour following the unionisation of the warehouse to divide the workforce and weaken worker organising. Since contract workers are formally employed by a contract labour agency (and not by the garment manufacturer), they cannot join the same factory union committee representing workers directly employed by the company. Moreover, since contract workers in this warehouse are employed on a piece-rate system, they can earn higher wages than regularly employed workers. Hence, the use of contract labour creates tensions and new lines of segmentation along the lines of employment type and payment among the workforce. During an international union meeting, a union activist describes management’s use of contract labour as a disciplining practice in the following words:

Since workers have started to organise, the management has been hiring more and more contract workers to split up the workforce. Before we founded the union, all workers were paid per hour. Now the unionised workers are being paid per hour, while new contract workers are being paid per unit, and they can make a lot more money. While the workers who are paid per hour make around 7,000 Rupees per month, the workers paid per unit can make up to 20,000 Rupees per month. This splits the group of workers and makes joining the union unattractive. But the group of contract workers is also divided. At our warehouse, we have around 200 workers, but they are employed by three different firms. (FN3, translated from Kannada)

The union activist’s statement illustrates how Bangalore garment manufacturers employ contract workers to undermine unionisation processes at the workplace, thereby constraining unions’ capacities for building bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. In this sense, employment relations also intersect with industrial relations (Sect. 6.5). The specific practices through which employment relations are constructed contribute to reproducing employer dominance and hamper unionisation and collective bargaining processes.

6.3 Interim Conclusion

In short, manufacturers’ practices of hiring and firing and using contract labour contribute to the construction of employment relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster as de facto informalised and flexible relationships between employers and workers. These relations are frequently mediated by contract labour agencies as third parties. Employment relations are constructed first and foremost around national legislation, with manufacturers taking advantage of provisions allowing for labour flexibilisation while circumventing restricting provisions. Therefore, employment relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are territorially embedded. However, employment relations also intersect with sourcing relations characterised by network embeddedness (see Sect. 6.2). The main arguments with which employers and legislators justify informal practices and formal labour law reforms to flexibilise employment relations are retailers’ seasonal sourcing practices and the resulting order fluctuations, requiring employers to adapt the size of the workforce flexibly. However, coping with order fluctuations is not the only motive for Bangalore garment manufacturers. As illustrated, manufacturers also employ practices of ‘hiring and firing’ as and of using contract labour to reduce labour costs by avoiding paid maternity leave or seniority benefits for workers. Lastly, manufacturers also employ these practices as deliberate disciplining practices to instil fear among workers of being fired for joining the union or to divide the workforce. Therefore, employment relations also intersect with industrial relations (see Sect. 6.5) because they reproduce employer dominance and hamper unionisation and collective bargaining. As illustrated, the specific practices through which employers construct flexibilised and informalised employment relations lead to high attrition rates and workforce segmentation along lines of contract. These conditions, in turn, constrain unions’ capacities for building a stable membership inside specific factories.

7 Labour Market Relations

Labour markets are an essential part of any local labour control regime. Ideally, labour markets fulfil the crucial function of ensuring adequate labour supply—an essential precondition to guarantee the continuous reproduction of the labour process. To fulfil this function, labour markets, however, need to be actively constructed by capital and state actors through training and skilling practices as well as through recruiting and placement practices. In the Bangalore export-garment cluster, labour market relations link garment manufacturers located in the State of Karnataka with workers, training centres and recruitment agencies located in Bangalore and in the broader State of Karnataka and other Indian states. Labour market relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster have traditionally been highly localised, linking workers from Bangalore and surroundings with factories in urban Bangalore (see Sect. 5.2.1). However, over the past decade, employers have implemented various practices to expand labour market relations. These practices need to be understood as responding to a growing shortage of unskilled or semi-skilled labour in the Bangalore urban area. At the beginning of the 2000s, the labour market in the Bangalore metropolitan area still provided an abundant supply of unskilled workers due to the incorporation of women into the labour market. However, with the rapid growth of the IT industry and other international industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry, and the rapid development of the service and transport sector, many alternative jobs have emerged for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in Bangalore.

Given the low wages and high work intensity in the garment sector, many former garment workers from Bangalore now prefer to seek work in the growing service sector, offering more attractive conditions. The minimum wage for messengers—an unskilled position—in the Bangalore urban areas, for example, is around 13,300 Rupees (approx. 176 US$). However, a semi-skilled shop assistant in Bangalore already earns roughly 14,500 Rupees (approx. 192 US$). In contrast, the minimum wage for semi-skilled garment machine operators in Bangalore is only roughly 10,000 Rupees (approx. 132 US$) (Labour Commissioner Office, Government of Karnataka 2021). In addition to offering better wages, work in the service sector is characterised by less rigid performance control and less physical strain on workers compared to the garment industry, where work is characterised by rigid production targets and monotonous tasks (see also Sect. 6.1). As a result, Bangalore-based garment manufacturers report a labour shortage of around 10 to 20%, meaning that 10 to 20% of installed sewing machines are not operated due to a lack of operators (INT9, 28). The factory manager of an export-garment factory located in the industrial area Yelahanka near the airport even estimates a labour shortage of around 50% if the factory had to recruit workers exclusively from Bangalore:

In Bangalore, we can’t get manpower anymore. See, here, a helper gets 299 Rupees a day. The shopping malls give a better wage, and there, the worker can even sit in the AC. Even here in our factory in Yelahanka, we have almost no workers from the city. Most of them come from outside. In Bangalore city, it’s like this: We maybe have capacity for 1000 workers, but we can only get 500. (INT 9)

In the face of these increasing challenges for recruiting workers from the Bangalore urban labour market, Bangalore garment manufacturers have, over the past years, developed various practices directed at territorially expanding the labour market frontier. These practices have, in turn, been enabled by the various intertwined state policies and practices by employer associations and training and recruiting agencies that, together, have constructed a complex training and migration regime for the Indian garment industry. In the following, I will first illustrate the policies and practices underpinning this regime and afterwards lay out the various practices through which Bangalore garment manufacturers draw on the rural and migrant workforce trained under the regime to territorially expand labour market relations beyond the Bangalore urban area.

7.1 Constructing a Complex, Multi-Level Training and Migration Regime for the Indian Garment Industry

To ensure continued labour supply in the Bangalore export-garment industry (and in other major garment clusters), the Indian government and industry associations have established a complex vocational training regime to train the rural population—especially women—to become machine operators in garment factories. In this context, the Government of Karnataka and the Apparel Training and Design Centre (ATDC), the training arm of the Indian Apparel Export Promotion Council, have since the late 2000s set up a large number of apparel training centres in rural parts of Karnataka as part of the state government’s Textile and Garment Policy. These training centres are part of a broader landscape of vocational training centres in India that are run by public and private agencies as well as through public–private partnerships and that fulfil the function of providing basic skills for India’s vast rural population (Ramasamy and Pilz 2020; Wessels and Pilz 2018). In this context, apparel training centres offer various courses to train high school dropouts or graduates for employment in the garment industry. The most widely offered course is a course for sewing machine operators that has a duration of six to eight weeks and only requires the completion of the 5th grade. The majority of trainees are women between 18 and 35 years. In apparel training courses, trainees learn how to operate industrial high-speed sewing machines, including various machines for specialised operations such as making button holes. In addition, workers are prepared for the work in a factory environment through lessons in social skills and professional ethics, as this Karnataka state government representative from the Department of Handlooms and Textiles explains:

So, [trainings are] regarding punctuality, then safety measures. How to treat the industry as their own industry. Like, if the workers treat the industry as their own, they will work more. The efficiency will be more. They [the trainers] will make them understand the industry better. The atmosphere, friendly atmosphere. So, they have to be cordial with the hierarchy, cordial with the co-workers, like that. (INT 38)

As this quote shows, a vital part of the training is to hedge the ‘indeterminacy of labour’ by preparing women from rural areas, who are usually first-generation workers, for subordinating themselves under the labour process in a factory environment.

In addition to short-term courses for semi-killed sewing machine operators, selected training centres also offer courses of longer duration (six months or one year), enabling trainees to work in skilled or high-skilled positions related to programming, operating and maintaining computer-assisted design and manufacturing machines. Currently, the Government of Karnataka and ATDC maintain roughly 300 garment training centres all over Karnataka. Government-sponsored centres are run either directly by government agencies or by private training and placement agencies acting as contractors. The number of training centres has been significantly boosted between 2010 and 2017 with the introduction of the Integrated Skill Development Scheme (ISDS) by the Indian National Ministry of Textiles. The ISDS represents one of several schemes that the Indian government has introduced over the past 15 years to provide basic skills to (primarily rural) population segments with lacking or low formal education. Thereby, the government aims to boost employment while at the same time producing labour supply for the country’s growing urban industrial sectors (Pilz and Regel 2021).

In this context, the Indian Ministry of Textiles has introduced a subsidy under the ISDS that covers 75% of the costs per trainee undergoing short-term vocational training as a sewing machine operator. The Government of Karnataka funds the rest of the training costs plus an additional transport stipend for workers coming to the training centres from other villages. Agencies carrying out training, in addition, receive a financial bonus if 75% of candidates from a training batch are employed within three months upon completion of the course. Whereas training centres provide trainees with the basic technical and social skills required to work in a factory, workers usually undergo an additional in-company training of four weeks after being placed in a factory. In this in-company training, workers’ motor skills are assessed and workers receive further, specialised training for the machines used in the factory (FN5, INT32).

In addition to establishing regional training regimes in states with major garment clusters, under its PAN India component, the ISDS has also incentivised the construction of an inter-state training and migration regime. This regime links manufacturers in major garment clusters with rural youth in the Northern and North-Eastern states of India. For-profit agencies play a central role in training and recruiting young, unmarried women between 18 and 23 years from rural villages in Northern and North-Eastern, predominantly agricultural states such as Odisha, Assam and Bihar. In addition, these agencies facilitate the trainees’ placement in a garment factory in one of India’s major garment industry clusters, organise their migration process and, in some cases, maintain hostels to accommodate migrant workers when arriving in the garment cluster. To receive training under the PAN-India component of the ISDS, young women need to give their consent to migrate to a different city and work there for at least six months. The training consists of a two-month course in a training centre in the trainees’ home state and one additional month of on-the-job training at the factory (Gram Tarang 2020). The emergence of a complex training and migration regime at the state and national level has hence laid the relational base for Bangalore garment manufacturers’ practices of expanding the labour market frontier, which will be described in the next section.

7.2 Securing Adequate Labour Supply Through Expanding the Labour Market Frontier

The complex vocational training regime has enabled Bangalore export-garment manufacturers to compensate for the labour shortage in the Bangalore cluster by expanding the labour market frontier through three sets of practices: (1) recruiting workers from rural villages within Karnataka, (2) moving production facilities for garment assembly to rural villages and textile parks and (3) hiring inter-state migrant workers originating from Northern and Eastern, economically weaker states of India such as Odisha, Assam and Bihar.

First, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers have started recruiting workers from rural villages up to 80 km away from Bangalore, who have undergone training in one of the numerous garment training centres. To ensure that workers can commute daily to the factory, garment companies provide company transport for workers from these areas. To recruit workers from villages, Bangalore garment manufacturers actively carry out recruitment campaigns in rural areas, as this HR manager of a major Bangalore export-garment company explains:

So, there is a lot we do in terms of providing transportation. We carry people from distant locations, sometimes up to 80 km away. That is because locally, in the city, people are not available. So, we have to get them from distant places. We do job mailers, we have to work on rest days, go search for people, do road shows, get people to sell the company to them, so that they say ‘Okay, this is a company I will work for’. We have to woo them. If we don’t poach them, we woo them. (INT29)

As a result, a significant part of the workforce in Bangalore export-garment factories today comes from villages around Bangalore and is transported to the factories and back home in company-provided buses. This spatial division between workers’ living areas and workplaces poses new challenges for unions’ organising work: since most workers now have a long commute ahead of them, especially women workers have little time to engage with union organisers for a chat or meetings after work, given their care work responsibilities at home. As a result, organising workers has become more difficult for unions, as the following statement by the leader of a Bangalore garment union illustrates:

Earlier we would go and talk to workers while they were walking back after work, but nowadays, the management has put them in buses, so we can’t do that. […] Even if we try to meet them at the gate, workers cannot talk as they are in a rush to board the bus, because there are never enough seats for everyone […]. Also, workers don’t stay close, they come from different communities, and the van will go drop them off one after another. The minimum journey in the van is 30 minutes, but it might also be an hour or more. So, it is also difficult for our worker leaders to search the communities where workers from a particular factory live to go meet them there. Because all these workers live in different locations, in different areas. The workers’ leaders won’t be able to gather them all in the same place. (INT36, translated from Kannada)

Export-garment companies’ practices of recruiting and transporting workers from rural villages around Bangalore hence fulfil the strategic function of ensuring labour market supply. In addition, these practices have a de facto disciplining effect since they hamper union organising and thereby mitigate the conflict inherent to production.

As a second practice of expanding the labour market frontier, Bangalore garment manufacturers are increasingly moving production facilities for labour-intensive steps from the Bangalore urban area to rural areas. Over the past decade, Bangalore export-garment companies have opened up many new factories in villages located in rural areas, towns and industrial parks up to 150 km away from Bangalore. These new factories are connected to the Bangalore urban areas—where most garment companies in the cluster have their national or regional headquarters—through central highways, ensuring good connectivity for buyers, auditors and central management. By setting up these new factories, in many cases, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers have established a regional division of labour that coincides with urban–rural geographical divisions. In this division of labour, more capital and skill-intensive steps of the production process, such as sourcing, designing, sample making, dyeing and washing are carried out in a centralised manner for all factories in Bangalore. In contrast, the labour-intensive and rather low-skilled cut-make-trim process is relocated to new factory units in rural villages. This practice of setting up a new regional division of labour has two important benefits for garment manufacturers: On the one hand, manufacturers can tap into rural labour pools located too distant for workers to commute. On the other hand, employers can save labour costs since minimum wages in rural areas are lower than in urban or semi-urban areas.

Managers’ practice of setting up new factories in rural villages is further incentivised by the Government of Karnataka through various types of subsidies. These subsidies are granted to new factories in so-called industrially backward areas. Subsidies were first introduced in the state’s Textile Policy for 2008–2013. They include inter alia a subsidy of up to 50% of the employer’s contribution to the Employee State Insurance and Provident Fund and an investment subsidy covering up to 25% of all investments made into a factory set-up, including costs for construction or machinery. In addition to the various financial subsidies, the Government of Karnataka actively develops land slots for industrial use through the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board, which buys plots of land, develops them and then leases them to companies for industrial use. Given these incentives combined with pressures from the increasing labour shortage, Bangalore-based garment companies have increasingly closed down factory units in the Bangalore urban area over the past ten years and opened new factory units in rural villages. As this officer of the Apparel Export Promotion Council explains, this spatial expansion strategy benefits Bangalore garment manufacturers not only in terms of availability of labour supply but also in the quality of labour attained:

Various companies […], are now taking the production centres to the villages. So, it is like a ‘walk-to-factory’. But they have not taken the whole production there. They have only taken cut, make and trim there. The other issues like logistics and fabric issues are still maintained from their central offices, but the more labour-intensive parts they have taken to the villages. So, they say ‘we find workers coming with fresh faces. A worker travelling for one or 1.5 hours and a worker that has just walked to the factory for 10 minutes are two different workers’. (INT42)

For unions, the spatial proximity between workers’ workplaces and living areas characterising new factory set-ups in rural villages also brings benefits since it allows unions to gather workers from the same factory more easily in one place. In addition, workers in rural villages are more likely to see their work in this specific factory from a long-term perspective, given the lack of alternative employment opportunities. Employers’ practices of setting up new large-scale factories in remote rural villages can open up new opportunities for unions to build a stable membership in these factories and thereby enhance their associational and bargaining power in the workplace. Besides moving factories to rural villages where the local population provides the workforce, Bangalore export-garment companies have also been setting up new large, technologically upgraded factory units in the growing number of Textile and Apparel Parks in rural areas of Karnataka. These so-called mega factory units house all production steps under one roof, from fabric dyeing, over cutting to cut-make-trim, washing and packaging. In these textile parks, access for unionists is highly restricted, and workers are transported to the factories in company-provided buses from villages in up to 100 km distance, limiting opportunities for unions to engage with workers outside the factory. Hence, garment manufacturers’ practice of expanding the labour market frontier by setting up new factories in rural areas within the State of Karnataka has both enabling and constraining implications for union organising.

Third and last, Bangalore export-garment manufacturing companies are increasingly seizing the mobile workforce created through the national training and migration regime under the ISDS PAN India program through practices of hiring inter-state migrant workers. Unionists estimate that currently, about 20% of workers in garment factories in the Bangalore urban area are inter-state migrant workers. In the Bangalore export-garment industry context, hiring inter-state migrant workers needs to be understood as a practice that combines exploiting and disciplining elements. On the one hand, unionists report that inter-state migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to various exploiting practices performed by managers. Being predominantly young women with no prior work experience, no social networks in the city and no knowledge of the local language Kannada, inter-state migrant workers usually have little capacities to interact with local co-workers or labour rights organisations. Moreover, inter-state migrant workers tend to have more limited capacities for protesting or resisting illegal exploitation practices by managers, since they cannot complain or look for a job in another factory due to their limited local language skills. As a result, unionists report that inter-state migrant workers are frequently made to stay about 60 minutes longer than local workers without receiving extra payment for that time. In this light, hiring inter-state migrant workers represents an exploiting practice since it serves not only to ensure labour supply but also to maximise surplus value extraction from labour power. Moreover, manufacturers’ practices of hiring inter-state migrants also fulfil strategic disciplining functions since these migrant workers usually live in hostel accommodations representing tightly controlled spaces where outsiders are not allowed access and workers’ interactions with externals are strictly monitored.

7.3 Interim Conclusion

In summary, labour market relations in the Bangalore export-garment cluster link employers, workers and state-led and private training and recruiting agencies within the State of Karnataka and across India. In the face of the increasing shortage of unskilled labour in the Bangalore urban area, garment manufacturers have over the last five to seven years implemented various practices to ensure adequate labour supply. Through these practices, manufacturers aim to territorially expand the labour market frontier and tap into rural pools of unskilled workers outside of Bangalore. In this context, Bangalore garment manufacturers have, firstly, started to hire workers from rural areas within Karnataka in up to 80 km distance and to transport these workers to Bangalore factories daily with company-owned buses. Second, Bangalore garment manufacturers are increasingly relocating the labour-intensive cut-make-trim part of the labour process to rural villages within Karnataka. There, manufacturers are opening new, large factories employing workers from the village and surrounding villages. Lastly, Bangalore garment factory managers have been increasingly hiring migrant workers from the ‘poorer’ Northern and North-Eastern Indian states. Employers’ practices of expanding labour market relations have, in turn, been enabled and supported by various policies and initiatives under the national Integrated Skill Development Scheme and the state-level Karnataka Textile and Garment Policy. These policies have supported and incentivised the construction of a complex vocational training and migration regime through subsidising practices of setting up specialised garment training centres in rural areas within Karnataka and across India.

For unions, employers’ practices of expanding labour market relations have had ambiguous consequences: On the one hand, practices of recruiting and daily transportation of workers from and to rural villages have created a division between workers’ working and reproductive spaces. This separation creates significant barriers for garment unions’ traditional community organising strategies. Moreover, employers’ practices of hiring inter-state migrants who do not speak the local language, Kannada, and stay in tightly secured hostels have created further organising challenges for unions. However, on the other hand, employers’ practices of opening up new factories in rural villages have also opened up new opportunities for garment unions, who have expanded the territorial reach of their organising activities. In rural factories where the workforce comes from the local area, employment relations tend to be more stable than in the Bangalore urban area. Workers have greater social capital due to their stronger community embeddedness. Therefore, garment unions have been able to build associational power resources in the form of strong membership bases in various rural factories. As a result, garment unions have established working relationships with the management stopped various exploitation practices such as ‘production torture’ (see Sect. 6.1) or ‘comp-offs’ (see Sect. 6.3) in these factories.

The following section summarises the exploiting and disciplining practices and labour control relations that constitute the labour control regime in the Bangalore cluster. Moreover, it highlights how the labour control regime constrains unions’ capacities for building and activating power resources in various ways.

8 Interim Conclusion: Networked Labour Control and Resulting Constraints for Local Union Agency in the Bangalore Export-garment Cluster

In this chapter, I have illustrated how the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment industry emerges from the intersections of various networked labour control practices and processual relations that ensure the reproduction of the labour process in its profit-maximising form. I have shown how the relations and practices that are intertwined in the labour control regime link actors across various distances. Processual relations of labour control encompass the highly localised labour process and workplace relations within garment factories, labour market relations linking workers, managers and recruiting and training agencies across Karnataka and India, and sourcing relations linking Bangalore garment manufacturers with retailers’ sourcing offices in Europe and the US. In this light, the analysis of the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment cluster has highlighted that the place specificity of the labour control regime results not primarily from the localised nature of the practices and relations that constitute it. Instead, the place specificity of the labour control regime results from the place-specific articulations of a multitude of practices and relations of varying territorial extension.

Moreover, the empirical analysis has demonstrated that the labour control regime as a structural framework for surplus extraction and capital accumulation is relatively stable due to the routinised nature and complex interrelations of the practices and relations that constitute it. These practices are, in many cases, directed at circumventing or undermining specific legal-institutional frameworks originally conceived to protect workers’ well-being, such as the Indian Minimum Wage Act or the Industrial Disputes Act. Hence, many practices that constitute the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment cluster are rather informal. Nevertheless, the complex interrelations between various sets of labour control practices and relations constituted through them make it difficult for workers and unions to transform single sets of practices.

Two types of interrelations have figured particularly important in the empirical analysis. These are, on the one hand, interrelations where one set of practices shapes the nature of another set of practices. On the other hand, practice interrelations were salient in which one set of practices enables another set of practices. As illustrated, retailers’ predatory purchasing practices at the vertical dimension of the GPN directly shape the practices through which manufacturers construct territorially embedded labour processes, workplace relations, wage relations, employment relations and industrial relations at the horizontal dimension. Retailers implement various ‘predatory purchasing practices’ (Anner 2019) directed at maximising their value capture, including price squeezing, placing irregular orders and demanding shorter lead times and increased flexibility from manufacturers. These practices in turn shape the practices through which Bangalore garment manufacturers construct the labour process as well as wage, workplace, employment and industrial relations. To comply with retailers’ demands while at the same time ensuring surplus production and capture for themselves, Bangalore export-garment manufacturers employ various exploiting practices directed at maximising surplus value. In addition, manufacturers employ various disciplining practices directed at mitigating the conflict inherent to production.

Employers, for example, perform tight control over workers’ performance in the labour process through practices of production targeting and digitising the labour process with smart sewing machine networks. Moreover, to keep labour costs down, workers employ various practices to keep wages down, such as lobbying governments for lower statutory minimum wages at the state level or giving ‘comp-offs’. To respond to retailers’ demands for flexibility and to cope with irregular orders from retailers, Bangalore garment manufacturers, in turn, construct flexibilised and informalised employment relations with workers through ‘hiring and firing’ practices. Lastly, to prevent collective bargaining and wage increases, employers construct workplaces as tightly controlled spaces and perform various sets of union-busting practices to undermine collective worker organising and unionisation. Through these practices, employers construct workplace and industrial relations characterised by high power asymmetries and employer dominance, allowing employers to fend-off unions’ attempts to negotiate wages beyond the statutory minimum wage.

Bangalore garment manufacturers’ exploiting and disciplining practices are in turn enabled by ‘pro-business’ state practices (Pattenden 2016) performed by labour department officers and judges at the state level as well as by national legislators. Karnataka labour department officials and judges have, for example, repeatedly enabled employers’ practices directed at keeping minimum wages low by withdrawing notifications of statutory minimum wage increases and by making ineffective rulings in response to unions’ legal complaints. Similarly, when unions file complaints against illegal union-busting practices by managers, such as firing union activists, labour department officials seldom order an independent inspection of the case during the conciliation process. Instead, labour officers tend to push workers and unions to accept settlement offers. By not enforcing legal-institutional frameworks conceived originally to protect workers’ rights, Indian state actors’ pro-business practices enable employers to perform de facto illegal exploiting and disciplining practices. Going even further, at the national level, legislators have passed various labour law reforms that formally legitimise various employer practices of disciplining or exploitation. Recent national labour law reforms have, for example, introduced fixed-term contracts specifically for the garment industry and raised the threshold for mandatory prior government approval for worker lay-offs from factories with more than 100 workers to factories with more than 300 workers. These labour law reforms have provided legal ground for Bangalore garment manufacturers’ long-standing practices of ‘hiring and firing’.

Difficulties for unions to challenge the exploiting and disciplining practices that constitute the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment industry do not exclusively result from the intertwining of the various practices and relations of labour control but also from the intersections between employers’ labour control practices with broader social power asymmetries along the lines of age, gender and migrant status. Employers deliberately reproduce wider social power asymmetries linked to these categories within workplace, employment and labour market relations to secure employer dominance and to prevent collective worker organising. In this vein, employers deliberately hire women for the lower-skilled tasks in the labour process since women are less likely to speak up to supervisors or to engage in collective organisation—albeit not due to their inherent ‘docile’ nature but rather due to broader patriarchal structures and the double burden of care and wage work. Moreover, employers have started to recruit young, female inter-state migrant workers through regional and national vocational training and migration regimes constructed by state and private actors under the national Integrated Skill Development Scheme. Whereas hiring inter-state migrant workers is in the first place a practice through which employers seek to cope with an increasing local labour shortage, intersections with relations of age, gender and migrant status also make hiring inter-state migrant workers a de facto exploiting and disciplining practice. Since inter-state migrant workers are predominantly young women who do not speak the local language and stay in tightly controlled hostels, inter-state migrant workers are harder to approach by unions. As a result, migrant workers are also more vulnerable to employers’ exploiting practices such as forced unpaid overtime work.

In summary, the complex intersections and interdependencies between the various relations and practices of labour control that constitute the labour control regime in the Bangalore export-garment cluster constrain the terrain and capacities for the agency of local garment unions in three critical ways:

  • First, the specific ways in which retailers construct spatial power asymmetries in supplier relations and the relatively low-skilled nature of the majority of jobs in Bangalore garment factories constrain workers’ structural power resources. In light of retailers’ practices of maintaining large supplier pools, employers use competitive wage pressure as an overarching argument for fending off any collective wage bargaining attempts by unions. Competitive wage pressures are also higher in the Bangalore export-garment cluster compared to other Indian clusters. Production in the cluster specialises in men’s casual wear, characterised by less time-sensitive, lower value-added products that less experienced suppliers can produce in lower-wage locations. At the same time, producing men’s wear requires mainly unskilled and semi-skilled labour due to the lower complexity of products. Lower-skilled workers are, in turn, more easily replaceable through intra- and inter-state migrant workers who receive a short training of only three months duration. Hence, both dimensions of workers’ structural power—labour market power and workplace power—are constrained due to workers being relatively easily replaceable and to workers’ limited capacities to cause broader disruptions of the production network. Workers’ limited capacity to cause disruptions to the production process is a result of workers’ limited capacity for constructing stable membership bases inside factories that could be mobilised for industrial action.

  • Second, the various direct and indirect disciplining practices performed by employers pose significant constraints on unions’ capacities for building associational power at the workplace or industry level: At the workplace level, employers’ practices of constructing garment factories as tightly controlled spaces, for victimising union supporters, and of flexibilising and informalising employment relations pose significant constraints for unions’ capacities to build strong and stable membership bases in specific workplaces. At the same time, employers’ practices of expanding labour market frontiers and the resulting increasing geographical separation of workers’ working and living spaces make it harder for unions to organise workers in their communities and thus to build associational power at the industry level.

  • Third, state actors’ pro-business practices hamper unions’ capacities to activate institutional power resources. Traditionally, labour inspectorates and institutionalised industrial dispute settlements have represented a source of institutional power for worker and unions in India. However, these sources have been unravelling over the past three decades in the context of the economic liberalisation and shift towards neoliberal policies. In the post-liberalisation era, the state’s role has shifted from regulating the economy to securing business enabling conditions for national and foreign private investors. Within this neoliberal framework, the garment industry has traditionally enjoyed a special protective status due to its capacity to provide mass employment for India’s unskilled or low-skilled rural ‘reserve army of labour’ (Breman 1996; see also Ramasamy and Pilz 2020). Against this backdrop, labour department officials rarely take a proactive worker stance in institutionalised tripartite industrial dispute settlements or collective bargaining processes. Moreover, due to the chronic understaffing of the Indian labour judiciary, court cases take, on average, seven years until a ruling is made. As a result, workers’ and unions’ capacities to exercise institutional power through invoking legal frameworks and institutionalised procedures for settling disputes or negotiating statutory minimum wages are significantly constrained. Unions’ constrained institutional power, in turn, also further limits unions’ capacities to challenge employers’ union-busting practices that constrain unions’ capacities for building associational power resources.

In summary, the various interrelations and interdependencies between employers’ exploitation practices and state actors’ pro-business practices make it harder for unions to challenge, stop or transform labour control practices and achieve lasting improvements for workers. Due to the intersections of the labour process and wage relations with sourcing relations, for example, to stop or transform ‘production targeting’ practices or achieve significant wage raises, unions need to tackle employer and retailer practices simultaneously. While constraining the ‘wiggle room’ (Castree et al. 2004: xvii) for workers and unions, retailers’ power over manufacturers can serve as an enabling factor for unions as well. Unions may seize retailers’ leverage over manufacturers, for example, in cases where manufacturers’ exploiting and disciplining practices also provide violations of local labour laws and of retailers’ codes of conduct. In these cases, unions may be able to push retailers to enforce manufacturers’ compliance with the code of conduct. Since retailers’ central managements are usually located in geographically distant places in the Global North, it is difficult for unions to push retailers through direct interactions. Consequently, as literature on networks of labour activism (see Sect. 2.2.4) has pointed out, local unions need to develop networked agency strategies that target multiple actors in various places simultaneously and that make use of coalitional power resources through building alliances across borders. Through such networked agency approaches, Bangalore garment unions have achieved numerous ‘small’ and not so small transformations (Latham 2002) of exploiting and disciplining practices in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. For example, garment unions have achieved to stop employer and state practices of delaying minimum wage revisions as well as employers’ practices of giving ‘comp-offs’ in factories where unions have established strong membership bases through networked agency strategies.

The next chapter examines the networked agency strategies that Bangalore export-garment unions have developed over the past 15 years and assessed the potential of different strategies for building sustained local union power. To this end, I draw on the relational framework for analysis developed in Chapter 3, which proposes to analyse the agency strategies of local unions through the lens of intersecting spaces of organising, collaboration and contestation.