Survival in the era of the post-multifiber arrangement: experiences of garment workers in India.

Author:Ganguly-Scrase, Ruchira


Until recently India pursued a dualist path in public policies on economic growth and development, comprised of large-scale manufacturing and agricultural modernization together with the promotion of small-scale enterprises. The strategy was characterized by inward-looking, state-regulated policies that were largely protectionist and focused on import-substituting industrialization. Reversal of this approach in 1991 marked the dramatic reorientation of policies, which aimed to foster increased economic development by shifting resources in favor of the market. The paper examines the implications of the neo-liberal reforms for workers in the Indian garment industry in the era of the post Multi Fiber Arrangement (hereafter post-MFA). I argue that the garment industry epitomizes the contradictory outcomes of post-Independence development strategies. Garment industry in the past thrived due to traditional labor skills and expertise. However, on the whole it produced fabrics and ready-made garments for local consumption, and production targets were set to achieve self-sufficiency for local needs. Based on recent fieldwork in West Bengal, (2) this paper will highlight the emerging problems that workers face as the Indian garment industry increasingly becomes tied to the global market. Focusing on the uneven impact of liberalization, this article is intended to demonstrate that, while garment "exporter-manufacturers" have largely accrued the benefits of the demise of the quota regime, there is growing informalization of labor and a rise in concealed inter-border trade.

It is virtually impossible to separate the overall analysis of neo-liberal development from the concept of globalization and how this approach has affected its target population of marginalized people in the global South. From a certain perspective, globalization is a force that has long shaped how peoples and nations have developed and continue to develop. Yet some scholars maintain that in recent times this force has taken on a particular potency, especially with respect to how it affects the development of Third World nations and the lives of their citizens. Globalization or the globalization project can also be commonly defined as "a now-hegemonic neo-liberal political ideology that celebrates the victory of capitalism over socialism and proclaims marketization and privatization as solutions to the world's problems." (3)

The neo-liberal claim is that globalization and trade liberalization benefit all across the globe including the working poor in the South. In contrast, their critics, while advocating the promise of global citizenship resulting from the gradual erosion of the boundaries of the nation state, simultaneously critique the adverse impacts of globalization. In particular anticorporate globalization perspectives highlight negative consequences such as the decline of protections--including wages, work conditions, workers rights--provided to the laboring population by the state. (4) At the same time the potential globalization offers to challenge dominant development paradigms through cross-border political coalitions and advocacy is also recognized. (5) However, the clandestine practices that operate side by side with formal practices of trade liberalization that threatens to undermine the rights of citizens within nation states remain an under-researched area. This is especially so in the case of the garment industry in the bordering states in India. In this paper I examine the nature of the post MFA world for workers in garment industries in the Indian state of West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh. I pay particular attention to illegal processes, which are conceived as illicit practices in employment as well as unlawful concealed inter-border trade (6) in garments involving China, India and Bangladesh. While I make some references to the post independence development trajectories in Bangladesh, the scope of this paper does not permit me to delve deeper into the nature of the garment industry in Bangladesh, which enjoys an iconic status in Bangladesh's industrialization, and which has been studied extensively (7). My reference to Bangladesh is confined to the general argument that the impact of globalization needs to be studied in terms of the complexities of regional interconnectedness. It is not my intention to expose the extent and intensity of the current clandestine operations (8). Rather, I focus on the consequences of informal practices as a significant component in shaping global process at the local level. I draw on recent fieldwork carried out in West Bengal, India among workers, traders and middlemen, and activists in the labor and environmental movements.


This research is qualitative in nature and is based on my long-term intensive fieldwork among marginalized communities in the region. My claims rest on ethnographic research carried out among various subsections with the TCFs (Textile, Clothing and Footwear) industries, spanning over more than a decade. (9) The contacts that were established through these networks facilitated my entry into and understanding of the complex post-MFA world of the garment sector. The strength of ethnographic research lies in the richness of the feedback, observations and responses of informants and interviewees together with observations as a researcher in the field. Unlike other forms of 'one off' qualitative research--consisting of either open or semi-structured interviews,--participant observation in ethnographic research conducted over a sustained period of interaction between the researcher and the researched is able to provide an insight into what people do rather than what they claim they do. Narrative accounts and other findings presented in this paper draw on these strategies in fieldwork practice. Fieldwork in ethnography emphasizes the irreducibility of human experience and rests on 'thick description' (10) rather than simple truth claims. (11) For my purposes, in 2005-6 additional informal unstructured interviews were conducted with twenty male and twenty-five female workers, five exporters and ostagars (master craftsman in tailoring) in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and its surrounding areas; some of the workers were employed in the "laundry" units (acid wash centers of "fade factory" owners). Other groups comprised twelve garment traders and middlemen, including some actually engaged in smuggling. (12) They were based in Murshidabad--Bongaon, which are border areas of the state. In each of these locations five activists participated in interviews. It goes without saying that the general attitude except that of the trade unionists and social movement activists was that of suspicion and mistrust. When referring to many of the people in the study I have generally used pseudonyms to protect their identities. Altogether there were fifteen key informants drawn from all the different groups.

Discussions were held with people involved in the garment industry mainly in the Garden Reach-Metiabruz belt on the western fringe of Kolkata, adjacent to the Docks. There, we met traditional ostagars, who have now taken the opportunities offered by the globalization of the industry by becoming suppliers to the export market. While they were eager to discuss the trade, others such as larger garment factory owners, were reluctant to talk. The trade is surrounded by an uncanny atmosphere of secrecy (for reasons noted below) and the literally fortress-like structure of the factories. The laundry or fade--wash center owners did talk, but again, they did their best to explain that they were really doing routine washing as a laundry would and they all have trade licenses as laundries, while carrying out the fade business clandestinely (though everybody knows what they are doing). Working men and women were more willing to talk, but described how helpless they felt knowing all the irregularities regarding wages and working conditions, because of their poverty. Through my contacts established with people in the border districts of Murshidabad and North 24-Parganas (whilst undertaking ethnographic fieldwork on undocumented cross-border migration) and more recent contacts with people in the docks area (13) facilitated access to garment traders and middlemen. Some were actually engaged in smuggling, and at least one (from Murshidabad's erosion-affected Jalangi block) candidly confessed that they were doing it taking great risks, as they had no other means of earning their livelihood. Activists from the environmental and trade union movements provided further insights into the illegal practices prevalent in the export-oriented garment manufacturing business.


The garment industry has thrived in both India and Bangladesh, due to the labor skill and expertise that existed in these countries traditionally. However, the industry on the whole produced fabrics and readymade garments for local consumption and production targets were set to achieve self-sufficiency for local needs. In the later years of 1980s, this situation began to change following a rapid increase in demand for readymade garments in industrialized nations. This was a period when a new wave of restructuring of the global capitalist economy began. The European and North American nations began to negotiate with the garment exporting nations (such as Japan and South Korea) on a bilateral basis in the early 1970s. In 1973 Multi Fiber Arrangement (MFA) was established to regulate and restrict exports from less developed nations and to protect the textile industry in industrialized countries. This arrangement was extended stage by stage to include several other nations, including China, India and Bangladesh (14). It enabled India and Bangladesh to export garments to the European Union and North America on the basis of an allocated quota. The result was an unprecedented growth of the readymade garments industry in...

To continue reading