It was the summer of 2014. I was on a bus with a group of young students headed to Kapashera, where we hoped to meet some apparel industry workers. We were going on a Sunday because it was a weekly holiday for most workers. Halfway through the journey (more than an hour from the starting point of the bus at ISBT, Kashmere Gate), we realised that some of our co-passengers were garment workers.

I heard my young friends squealing in delight when they realised that these workers produced garments for Abercrombie & Fitch, a high-end casual wear brand. I was tutored about the details and nuances of this brand.

Amongst those on the bus was Ramesh, a 35-year-old worker. He and the other workers were returning from Chor Bazaar (a well-known flea market in old Delhi). They had used their holiday to travel more than 30 km to the flea market to buy second-hand clothes for their children. The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Having spent their lives draping the world in some of the most famous brands, these workers could only afford old T-shirts worth Rs 35 for their children. Contrast this with the price of a flannel shirt from A&F, which retails for Rs 8,000 online in India.

I met Jairam Pandit, a garment worker from Bihar, whose job as a sampler got him higher wages than most of his colleagues. He told me, “In the last 20 years, I have not bought a single shirt for myself. I always buy second-hand stuff from street vendors for 30-35 rupees. Sometimes I buy them for my children. We make expensive shirts but cannot afford to buy them ourselves.”

Why couldn’t Ramesh, with a significant number of years working in the garment industry, afford new clothes for his children? Why couldn’t Jairam Pandit? They hadn’t expected to be able to shop at the glittering malls behind which they worked. However, why were new clothes simply out of reach for their families?

Wages are not only the means for meeting the essential and not-so-essential needs of the worker and his family but also the medium of rising and moving beyond the station of birth. Only adequate wages can ensure the same in a world where education and health must be bought. Can adequate wages or at least the minimum wages be quantified?

Ingrained in the vision of industrialisation as a path to economic progress is the idea of a country moving beyond agricultural subsistence: of the bulk of its citizens benefitting from higher incomes and rising wages leading to social mobility. Of workers no longer tied to the vagaries of an unpredictable crop yield; instead enjoying the job security of a steady income and predictable work life.

This is the promise not just of the higher-end of manufacturing, but even of sectors at the lower end of manufacturing, like garments. The garment industry’s path demonstrates that journey. As country after country saw an increase in the living standards of its citizens, the garment industry’s search for cheaper labour moved manufacturing to countries with lower standards of living.

The logic of this course suggests that India, too, would have emerged initially as a source of cheap labour and increasing wages would, in turn, ensure a higher standard of living for its people. However, government policies have focused on keeping India competitive in the garment industry based on cheap exports. This was achieved primarily through reduced labour costs, mainly by maintaining low wages. But how low is too low, and how is this determined?

India passed the Minimum Wages Act in 1948 to ensure a minimum level of wage protection for workers. The spirit was carried forward from the resolution passed at the Geneva Convention of International Labour Conference of 1928. The resolution stated: If the labourers are to be secured the enjoyment of minimum wages and they are to be protected against exploitation by their employers, it is absolutely necessary that restraint should be imposed upon their freedom of contract and such restrictions cannot be in any sense be said to be unreasonable. On the other hand, the employers cannot be heard to complain if they are compelled to pay minimum wages to their labourers. Even though the labourers, on account of their poverty and helplessness, are willing to work on lesser wages.

The 1970 Minimum Wage Fixing Convention emphasised this, stating, “Minimum wages, where they exist, should have the force of law and should not be subject to abatement; failure to pay minimum wages should be subject to penal or other sanctions.” The basis for determining minimum wages is as important as the concept itself. Are the currently determined minimum wages sufficient to meet the basic needs of the workers? Rent, food, travel, clothing, education, health, and maybe some leisure? How many of these minimum needs can be met with the wages received?

There is little in the public domain about the costs of living for workers in the manufacturing sector. Most public literature is about the poverty line or helpful information on the cost of living geared towards the middle-class with salaried jobs. The information about industrial workers is made as invisible as the workers themselves.

Jagdish, from Bihar, is a 35-year-old regular worker at a reputed garment unit in Udyog Vihar. When I met him in 2018, he earned Rs 8,828 per month. With overtime, he earned up to Rs 13,000 to Rs 14,000 per month. Of this, he paid Rs 2,150 as rent for an 8 by 10 feet room which doubled up as a kitchen. The room is one of the ten rooms in a compound with shared toilets and a shared tap for washing. The landlord charged electricity at Rs 8 per unit, and the electricity bill averaged Rs 700-800 per month. Jagdish paid Rs 500 per month for water. He bought drinking water from the market. Since his immediate family – wife and infant child – stayed with him, he had no savings to send home to his parents in Bihar.

Ashok had a similar story to tell when I met him in 2013. Like Jagdish, he too comes back to a dank and cramped room in Kapashera after a long day’s hard work. The landlord forced him and other tenants to buy groceries and daily necessities from his shop. Failure to do this would lead to eviction. Everything is more expensive in the landlord’s store. For example, atta is Rs 22 per kg, whereas the market price is Rs 19 per kg. Ashok spent about Rs 1,400-1,500 every month on rations, and Rs 800 on rent and electricity. This is his share of the total expense for a room shared with two other workers. After skimping and scrounging, his monthly expenditures come to around Rs 3,000, including expenses like mobile phone. He saves Rs 3,000 from his salary, and the rest of the savings come from overtime work. Ashok’s father owns 15-20 bigha (approximately 9-12 acres) of land in Bulandshahar, which he and his elder son cultivate. “I cannot do agricultural work because I do not know how to do it. I was studying in school and did not do anything apart from studying. Education was of no use to me. Illiterate people manage to earn better than us. Vegetable vendors and chole-kulche (bengal gram curry with and bread) sellers earn more than us in a day.”

Excerpted with permission from Labouring Lives: Industry and Informality in New India, Archana Aggarwal, Leftword.