It was Saniaro Barjo’s turn to cook dinner. After a 10-hour work day at Cocoon Apparels Pvt Ltd, the 22-year-old hurried home, almost running down the winding road, clutching her little blue handbag to her chest.

Her stark hostel in a Bengaluru suburb is the grey full stop to a residential street, overlooking a large drain. It towers, bare and impersonal, above smaller, bright, garden-rich neighbours. Barjo ran through the open gate, past a stream of more than 60 young women, all of whom work at Cocoon. It is almost 7.30pm. In a balcony above, one girl stuck her hand out to check if it was drizzling. “Pull the clothes in!” she yelled to someone in Odia.

Barjo bounded up the stairs to her quarters on the first floor, where she lives with six flatmates, all from Jharkhand. In the kitchen, 20-year-old Sushita Kumar was already cutting onions, tears streaming down her face. “Come, make dal – I’ve soaked the rice already,” she said in Sadri, an Adivasi lingua franca in Jharkhand. Barjo changed out of her salwar kameez into a skirt and blouse, scrubbed her feet and hands, and started to cook.

Finally, at 9 pm, she flopped to the floor with her plate of rice-dal-lauki. From 8 am, when she left for work, she had not had a chance to sit down all day. Barjo works as a helper in Cocoon Apparels, handing tailors like her friend Kumar, fabric, buttons, and thread. “I usually have a 30-minute lunch break, but there was no time today,” said Barjo in halting Hindi. She is exhausted but upbeat. “In two months, I’ll have enough to send money home.”

Barjo, who belongs to the Oraon tribe, is the youngest in a family of six in Sarudah village, Singhbhum district, Jharkhand. She had quit school in Class 11, and was running the house when a friend’s brother enrolled her for sewing classes at a centre in the capital Ranchi, about 150 km away. “That’s the first time I saw continuous electricity!” Barjo said, describing the paralysing fear of putting her hand on a running sewing machine for the first time.

After a month, when the training centre offered her a factory job in Bengaluru, her family was torn. “We really needed the money, but my father was scared to send a girl so far away,” said Barjo. “He finally agreed when I told him I’ll try it out for six months.” She has now been here four years.

All the young women in the hostel have journeys similar to Barjo’s – they share a rural, poverty-ridden past and an unflinching hope for prosperity through hard work. Today in Bengaluru, they are sought by garment factories that are increasingly recruiting women from far-flung districts through agencies.

“Back home now, Bengaluru means garment factory,” said Sushita Kumar, who estimated that she might be the 15th Munda girl from her village to leave for the city in the last three years. “At home, even a degree holder has to pay a lakh to get a peon’s job. We get employment and better wages here, and even companies seem to prefer us over the Kannada aunties.”

After a long day at work, young garment workers from Odisha cook dinner in their hostel in Bengaluru. Photo credit: Rohini Mohan.

About 80% of garment workers in Bengaluru have always been from rural areas, but now there are more interstate migrations. In the past five years, the fashion industry’s requirements for cheaper and faster labour have prompted garment companies to focus on rural India – by recruiting migrant workers from distant villages in eastern and central India, and relocating Bengaluru factories to villages in South India.

“Global brands hunt for poorer countries with cheapest labour and most flexible conditions,” said MC Dinesh, president of the Federation for Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “Within India, manufacturers copy the same hunt – among states offering cheapest labour or easiest conditions.”

Workers from less developed states

In Bengaluru, farmers and landless labourers continue to arrive from rural Karnataka in search of garment sector jobs. But manufacturers are today actively seeking workers from central and eastern India – “the low GDP, largely tribal, non-industrialised states,” as Dinesh put it.

The managing director of a major readymade exports company, who did not want to be identified, said: “The earlier workforce from rural Karnataka is now settled in Bengaluru, demanding more pay and benefits because living in the city with a family is expensive. They are justified in asking for more, but I need to crunch my labour cost.”

Manufacturers also cite another reason why they prefer migrants: a perennial labour shortage. The average annual attrition rate in the industry is 20% to 30%. “Our attrition rate is under 10%, but it is still hard on production,” said Chitra Ramdas, deputy general manager of organisational development at Shahi Exports Pvt Ltd.

Garment workers are quitting jobs, not the industry. A tailor for 14 years, 39-year-old Keerthana G, for instance, has moved eight companies since she came to Bengaluru in 2001. She said it was easier for non-unionised workers to leave than to raise workplace issues with the management. “Most companies have permanent vacancy notices and you can walk in and get a job – same minimum pay, and you hope for a better work environment,” she said.

Migrant workers are less able to move companies – without local networks in an unfamiliar city, they are bound to their employers for security and accommodation.

“Locals have become too aware of their rights – there are questions, disruptions, unions,” said a human resources manager for a major exporter. “Non-local Odia, Assamese speaking migrants can’t do this.”

Younger, healthier, and without families to go back to every evening, migrants are willing to work longer, quieter hours for lower pay.

Since the garment workforce is largely female, the migration is not as organic as it is for young men in the construction sector. Therefore, to fill vacancies, employers tie up with skills development agencies like the government-run Apparel Training and Design Centre, or private players like IL&FS Skills Development Corporation and Gram Tarang Employability Training Services. Over one to three months, they primarily teach youth to operate sewing machines.

“India is not an even labour market, so the idea is to dig deeper into the backward areas of the country,” said Orlanda Ruthven, a former consultant with Gram Tarang, who is now helping set up a mobile social network for migrant workers. “The wage and opportunity gap is what the garment industry is tapping into consciously. The women also get a shot at financial independence and their first taste of freedom.”

Saniaro Barjo and Sushita Kumar fold laundry at their Bengaluru hostel after work. Photo credit: Rohini Mohan.

Big exporters also run their own induction centres.

Shahi Exports’ Ramdas said the company used agencies earlier, but in the past three years, has been running 47 in-house training and recruitment outfits. “Five of these are in Odisha, thanks to enthusiastic state departments,” she said. Training centres can avail of subsidies, equity and easy loans on offer from the National Skills Development Corporation and the ministries of tribal affairs or rural development that help the trainee to attend the training free of cost. For rural youth, factory work assures not only higher income, but also regular work. “Unlike crop seasons, whatever the season in fashion, there’s always production,” said Geetanjali Kumar, a 30-year-old Odia migrant in Shahi.

Like manufacturers and global brands, unions, trainers and workers too believe that migrants are inevitable in a sector that depends on cheap labour, and trust registered agencies to be fairer and more organised than informal contractors. But recent surveys and research on migrant workers have shown that a poorer, younger, locally unmoored workforce, especially in an industry not known for its transparency, is immensely vulnerable to exploitation. Abuses range from being misled about wages, Provident Fund deductions and hostel payments, to forced overtime, years of confinement and sexual harassment.

Fast fashion, hard life

The young women in the Bengaluru hostel were recruited in 2013 through different agencies for one employer: Unitex Apparels Pvt Ltd, a readymade garments manufacturer and exporter for brands including Levi’s. From Jharkhand, an agency – Barjo and Kumar simply call it the “Ranchi centre” – brought more than a dozen girls to Bengaluru on a three-day-long train journey, and took them straight to a hostel run by Unitex.

The prevalent practise is for the employer to arrange for the hostel, and pay for the warden and security guard. Consultant Ruthven admitted that in her experience, “In typical Indian style overprotectiveness, companies tend to be more concerned with safety than overall wellness and freedom.” Rigid curfews, closed circuit television cameras, and bans on outsiders are “automatically introduced”. These isolate the young workers, leaving them largely incapable of navigating the new city.

Sushita Kumar, who is from Gumla village in Jharkhand, recalled being shocked at Unitex’s hostel. “It was a long dusty hall, with just a few windows,” she said. “For weeks, we thought they would take us to the real house soon!”

Over 150 girls from Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam and Bihar lived on the hostel’s seven floors. “It had poor water supply, no kitchen, one toilet per 20 girls, a strict 6 pm curfew, a van to pick up and drop us, and we were allowed only three hours to leave the hostel on Sundays,” said Kumar. “We thought work would be freedom but it was a prison.”

The women say they signed contracts written in English and Kannada – neither of which any of them understood. A minimum wage of about Rs 6,000 was guaranteed – more than most could ever earn in their villages. But they received only about Rs 4,000, after the company deducted charges for rent, electricity and water.

“By the time we got used to all this, things got worse,” said Kumar.

By 2015, employees said that Unitex delayed salaries and intermittently stopped paying them. Unitex did not respond to this reporter’s calls.

“We wanted to quit, but what would we do after that?” asked Madhuri Nayak, from the Odia girls’ flat next to Barjo’s. “We lived in company accommodation. Where would we go? We didn’t know Kannada. Forget getting a new job, we didn’t even know the roads outside our locality.”

Nayak was 17 then. None of the girls was over 21.

After dinner, a young woman at a garment workers hostel in Bengaluru takes a moment to text her sister in Odisha on WhatsApp. Photo credit: Rohini Mohan.

When local workers from Unitex – the hostel girls call them “Kannada aunties” – sought help from the Garment Labour Union to resign with due settlements, they mentioned the 150 migrant women.

“Our first challenge was how to meet the migrants – no outsiders could enter the hostels without company permission, and unions are hated,” said Yashoda, a senior member of the Garment Labour Union. “The second was language. They don’t speak Kannada, and none of us know Odia or Assamese. Thankfully, one of our members spoke a little Hindi and the girls smuggled her inside.”

The Garment Labour Union approached the Karnataka Labour Department and helped most of the migrant women leave Unitex, and battle for their dues. Over the next few months, the union also used its network to find them new jobs. Sixty girls, including Barjo and Kumar, joined Cocoon Apparels, and moved to another hostel.

Barjo said she nearly returned home during the fracas. Ruthven estimates that at least seven of 10 migrant workers drop out within a year of joining companies, largely due to stressful working conditions, thwarted expectations of pay or accommodation, illness or homesickness. To address this, companies like Shahi have appointed older migrant employees to receive newer recruits, and orient them about everything from reading pay slips, to finding markets and bus routes. A spirited, smiling Geetanjali Kumar, who came to Shahi six years ago, is one such Odia worker. She said that she tries to interact with at least two migrants a day. “I want them to go from scared and clueless to loving their job, like me,” she said.

But intense work pressure, curfews, and low pay persist. Overtime is practically mandatory for migrants, even though it is legally voluntary. When asked if they are being paid properly – overtime attracts double the hourly minimum wage – the workers at Cocoon hostel looked confused. Their pay slips sometimes did not even mention overtime.

Asking this reporter to quiz them, three hostel residents demonstrated their fluency in Kannada, acquired recently. “It’s a survival skill!” said Babita. She narrated an elaborate anecdote from the sewing floor.

“I realised that our Odia word for ‘no’ is the Kannada word for dog – naayi, which we get called quite a lot at work!” she said, as her flatmates laughed and imitated a supervisor. “Our isolation was our main weakness, and the company’s main leverage. We know companies value us for being outsiders, but our safety is in integrating locally. Until then, we are dhobi kanaayi’ [literally, the washerman’s dog] neither here, nor there.”

Migrant workers from Odisha and Jharkhand watch a YouTube video on how to make a cake in a pressure cooker. The girls want to throw one of their roommates a birthday party to rid her of homesickness. Photo credit: Rohini Mohan.

Taking the factory rural

Even as garment companies bring rural residents to their city units, more recently, factories have also been moving to villages.

“We have moved 21 of our 54 factories out to rural areas like Mysore, Shimoga, Kolar, Krishnagiri [in Tamil Nadu] and Kuppam [in Andhra Pradesh],” said Ramdas of Shahi Exports. About half of these were shifted out of Bengaluru’s garment clusters – Peenya, Yeshwanthpur, Mysore Road, and Magadi Road – in the last five years. Some of the largest apparel exporters like Texport Industries, Gokaldas Exports, and Sai Exports have been reportedly relocating too.

In emails to this reporter, representatives from fashion retailers C&A Europe and Stockholm-based H&M confirmed that production units of their suppliers in India are indeed moving to rural areas near Bengaluru. H&M’s media relations officer added that the phenomenon “is common in many countries”.

The advantages are lower real estate costs, but more importantly, availability of labour that is cheaper and less likely to move jobs. “Our strategy now is to go where the workers are coming from,” said Shahi’s Ramdas. “The minimum wage for these zones, compared to Bengaluru, is at least 20% lower. Today, agriculture is seeing a low period, and people are also looking for employment.”

Ankit Agarwal, Chief Operating Officer of Sonal Apparels Pvt Ltd, said that the company’s five units in Bengaluru’s suburbs “are now compelled to run transport vehicles to bring workers” from nearby villages. “This cost will be minimised if we go closer to the worker,” said Agarwal. The company is looking to expand its production capacity to Hindupur in Andhra Pradesh, an hour’s drive north of Bengaluru and today a popular rural destination for garment units moving out of the city. Another emerging rural garment hub east of Bengaluru, is Chittoor district, also in Andhra Pradesh.

“Land and rent is cheaper, and the Andhra Pradesh government is offering incentives Karnataka is not,” said Agarwal, explaining this trend. For instance, Andhra Pradesh offers a project capital subsidy, which means that companies can get a certain amount of cash back based on their investment (for a Rs 25 crore to Rs 30 crore investment slab, the government reimburses Rs 4 crore).

The current spike in recruiting and training migrant workers seems closely tied to the skills development subsidies that states offer, and manufacturers say it could dissipate when the aid stops. But Agarwal said that units moving out of cities “is a solution that could sustain for at least a decade”.

The owner of a major apparel exporter revealed another bonus of going rural. “Our rural factories have been free from the influence of unions, all based in Bengaluru,” he said. Indeed, union members from the Garment Labour Union, Karnataka Garment Workers Union, and Garment and Textile Workers Union do suspect the rural shift to partly be an attempt to shake off labour rights advocates, and avoid surprise inspections from brand compliance officers. “If migrant workers are taken to these rural factories now, we worry about the state of hostels and pay,” said Swamy, a member of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union.

All stakeholders admit that labour intensive industries can improve rural economies – but as a senior labour official said, “only as long as labour standards and environmental norms are respected and enforced”.

The names of some workers have been changed on their request.

This is the third part of a four-part series on Bengaluru’s garment workers. Read the other parts here and here.