A Critical Note on Women’s Work in Indian Garment Manufacturing

After economic liberalisation in India, at an unprecedented rate, there was an increased shift in export expansion in the garment industry. In 2014, India stood at the position of the seventh-largest exporter of garments in the world. According to Make in India Statistics (2015), the textile and garment industry employs directly approx. Fifty-one million people and indirectly 68 million (second largest employer after agriculture). Furthermore, it also contributes to 4% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This sector has produced significant employment for females in the country. Data indicate that approx. Forty per cent of directly employed workers are women in the garment industry compared to 10 per cent in the factory sector as a whole (Mezzadri & Srivastava, 2015). However, with the increase in the number of job opportunities in the last decades, there is also a rise in questions about the nature of employment and its implication for workers in the garment industry. This paper attempts to understand women’s work in Indian garment manufacturing.  The present study is based on secondary literature on India’s garment factories and workers. The study is organised as follows;

Section I Status of current Global market 

From a global perspective, labour is articulated as a system of production chains or global value chains which connected the core (i.e. developed countries) where consumption took place to the periphery (i.e. developing countries) where production took place (Gereffi et al., 2011; retrieved from ILO 2017 pg 3). The production firms in developing countries have evolved more fragmented as there are numerous stages of production. For example, most developed large factories subcontract to smaller labour contractors and manufacturers (or home-based workers) for the production process. The advancement in subcontracting for the production process is usually accompanied by more challenging working conditions and lowers the scope for social and economical up-gradation (ILO, 2017).

Moreover, the Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA, 2005) and liberalisation policies instruct firms to indiscriminate access to cheap labour without worrying about the quota limits. The access to cheap labour from developing countries initiated the competition to keep both countries and factories cost-efficient. This instituted a downward strain on workers’ wages and further worsened factory working conditions (ILO, 2017)

Fast fashion trends and technological advancements have further increased the volatility of the garment industry, and these modifications have extended power in the hands of merchants. Additionally, the burden of cheap quality garments from developing countries tumbles on the suppliers, which they forward to the workers, who have the most petite power to negotiate within the supply chain (Anner, Blair, & Blasi, 2013). Seeing this from women workers’ perspective, it becomes more difficult for them to negotiate terms in their favour or at least ask for their rights at work(I will discuss this in coming sessions). 

Section II Feminisation of work

Globally, the garment sector has incorporated women into factory-based work since its origin, reproducing itself as a ‘feminized’ industry not only through an increase in the number of women employed but as Mezzadri notes,  ‘a systematic rise in “undesirable” jobs paying “feminine” (i.e, lower) wages. (Dutta, 2021, pg. 1423)

The share of women workers in garment manufacturing has expanded from 30% in 1983-83 to 40.3% in 2011-12 (Mezzadri & Srivastava, 2015). This indicates the expansion of employment opportunities and its relationship with the ‘feminisation of work’ (Standing, 1999). Though there is diversity between states, southern garment industries are comparatively more ‘feminised’. For instance, in Bengaluru and Chennai, 80-90% of the workforce consists of women workers from nearby rural sites (Fair Wear Foundation, 2016). Most workers are employed on contract bases across various export-oriented companies (Verite, 2010). 

The incorporation of women in assembly-line garment production was seen as the ‘feminization’ of the local labour process that was ‘aimed at ensuring both labour cost minimisation and labour discipline (Dutta, 2021, pg 1423)

Supporting the above argument, Studies on garment manufacturing units have observed discrimination against women. It was found that when it comes to recruitment, management favours hiring women as they are more efficient and have fewer chances of women entering unions(Chakravarty, 2004; Roy Chowdhury, 2005). 

However, women workers in these firms declined though total employment has risen. According to management, it was due to a need for more educated female workers and socio-cultural constraints. For instance, the women’s obligation to reproduction and family care was considered the primary commitment. As a result, it was also observed that the age group of women’s workforce fell to 18-22 or above 27 or so, as families do not let women work for the initial years of marriage (Chakravarty, 2004).  

Though it is claimed that capitalism does not differentiate based on gender as it operates on pure market rules, if an entrepreneur notices the profit in maximising the sex segregation, then he/she will pursue it. Here, capitalists will use patriarchy as a weapon to support profit (through low wages, low chances of unionisation, and a threat to men/skilled workers) (Hartmann,1976)

Furthermore, studies have also confirmed that women workers usually get helper positions, and male workers perform higher positions like tailoring (Chakravarty, 2004). However, there is a difference between southern and northern states, as women in Bangalore, for instance, get swiller tailoring jobs (Thomas and Johny, 2018)

Section III Capitalism AND Patriarchy

Low wages :

Gender recreates a substantial part in determining wages, as women workers tend to be paid much lower than male workers. In India, there is a significant distinction between the male-female wage; in the garment sector, the wage gap is the highest(34.6%). This is because women tend to be primarily concentrated in low-pay and less-skilled positions than men, though they may also frequently receive lower wages for the same position (Huynh, 2016)

There are culturally inherited limitations(social constraints) to women workers, restricting women from working and earning at par with their male peers. For instance, household obligations take away their opportunity to fully indulge in work because the household is seen as the women’s priority, then the workspace. Though in the case of men, they can work extra hours and even work late at night. Such constraints on women are more evident in a patriarchal society (Aggarwal,2008). Due to gender bias, women are expected to see the household as a primary responsibility. As a result, it is not easy to find educated women in India to join the workforce (Hartmann,1976). Surprisingly even if they are educated, within the household, they need to bargain to maintain harmony in the family at the cost of compromising their utility (Benería,2009).  

It was also encountered that there is also a part of management in maintaining the low labour cost arising from labour market distortion. A study confirmed that if the administration attempts to employ male workers (with the same level of background as female workers) in the female-dominated garment industry) They demand a higher wage for the exact position (Chakravarty, 2004)


In a highly patriarchal society like India, there are more possibilities of unequal power relationships between men and women stemming from gender-based physical, psychological and sexual violence(WHO, 2009, p. 3). Furthermore, poor working conditions, differential wages, and sexual harassment of women workers indicate gender-based workplace discrimination (Sankaran &Madhav, 2011). Usually, young female migrant workers in the garment industry are recruited from rural places (I will discuss this further in the coming sessions). This management structure compromises women’s privacy and freedom of movement (Siddiqui, 2003)

In recent times, the state has intervened to upgrade the working condition of women in the workspace. The POSH Act is one such example of women getting a space to raise their voices against sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite the POSH Act being a bold step forward, a lot remains to be addressed. To illustrate, the lack of diverse representation on ICC boards, no real penalty for the perpetrator, anonymity enjoyed by the perpetrator, intimidation and job transfer of complainants, and employer’s discretion in the nomination of members to the board of ICC are some of the visible issues with the Act that require a fix. 


For more promising employment opportunities in terms of wages, many individuals migrate to join the workforce in the garment industry. Most young adults from lower castes, tribes and minority groups migrate to impoverished families (Verite, 2010). For women, migration is often associated with staying with their husbands and family members, and this is more evident where strong patriarchal values exist (northern states). In contrast, many unmarried women migrate to garment factories in southern centres like Bengaluru. Overall, family recreates a dominant role in women’s migration, while men are more independent in moving without their families to work in garment factories (Mezzadri & Srivastava, 2015). 

In Bengaluru and Tirupur, separate hostel facilities are provided to male and female workers. The living conditions in these hostels are challenging as they lack basic amenities (Theuws et al., 2010; ICN, 2016). However, it is worse for women as their mobility is restricted, as they must return to the hostel immodestly after work is done in the factory (ICN,2016). Women in such circumstances have barely any outside contact, and in some cases, their cell phones are also forbidden. Even when they go outdoors (only twice a month), they are escorted by the hostel warden. Not surprisingly, such limitations on leaving the hostel alone are not in compliance with male workers (Theuws et al., 2010)

Section IV Labour regulations and Unionisation 

A study done by Azim Premji University found that women workers eligible for provident funds cannot claim it due to management’s efforts to avoid paying gratuity to workers. Though men workers also found it challenging to claim Provident funds, they were required to work with a single employer for five years. Management renowned their contract for women workers every five years rather than providing a provident fund account (Thomas & Johny, 2018). The study also encountered other examples that showed the lack of workspace labour regulation. For example, creches are mandatory in factories, and most factories abide by this law. However, creches are insufficient as management does not allow working women with infants to come to work due to avoiding nursing breaks to child care. Another example from the study was, working on public holidays when factories are supposed to be closed. Other studies have confirmed that employers use similar strategies (Mezzadri, 2012).

Recently, workers have organised themselves to raise their voices against poor working conditions, unequal wages, maternity benefits and childcare benefits. However, they are very little achieved by traditional trade unions (Roy Chowdhury, 2005). Though women’s social movement in southern regions has guided the development of independent trade unions, for instance, in Bangalore, women workers have organised themselves into ‘the garment and textile workers’ union. They support women’s workers by providing tuition for their children and organising Sunday group meetings. (Thomas and Johny, 2018, pg 34).

The above case is one of the exceptions where success has been achieved. In many cases, there is a loss of jobs for women joining a union. Hence they hesitate to join the unions (Thomas and Johny, 2018, pg 34)


There is no doubt that there is a rise in employment opportunities in India through the export garment industry. Primarily through the feminisation of work, the garment industry has positively transformed the lives of many women workers. There is also the dark side of the industry, where women workers are penalised due to the patriarchal norms, often paid lower wages, poor working conditions, lack job security, and face hurdles to getting benefits from labour regulations. The garment industry’s highly unorganised and segmented nature is associated with the lower unionisation of women workers. There is a constant fear among workers of getting fired if they join a union. Hence workers usually do not get social security advantages. The right to work is necessary for women’s empowerment and agency, but more is needed; having rights at work is also essential



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The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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