Saddam Sekh used to be a floor supervisor at a steamy Indian workshop in Mumbai that produced orders for an exporter working with some of the biggest names in luxury fashion, including Dior and Gucci. Day and night, he would watch as the karigars — an Urdu term for the highly skilled artisans who specialize in handicrafts like embroidery, beading and appliqué — stitched designer gowns destined for the Hollywood red carpet, or ornate samples for runway shows in Milan and Paris.
But when the coronavirus pandemic took hold, their work slammed to a halt, the backbone of the Indian garment supply chain quickly crumbling as millions of migrant laborers scattered across the country. More than a year later — as India races to contain a second wave of the coronavirus, centered in Mumbai, with further lockdowns — many of those employed by the Indian fashion industry are struggling to adjust to a harsh new reality.
“The factory is currently shut because there is no work — it’s a big zero now,” Mr. Sekh said, adding that some of the artisans were working instead as day laborers for 200 to 300 rupees, or $2.50 to $4, per day. One ended up in a biscuit factory, another in plastics and another in farming. Some were calling from their villages, pleading for loans, but the managers and supervisors themselves are in dire financial straits. For now, the factory gates remain locked.
“The situation before was nothing like what you see today,” Mr. Sekh continued. “The karigars especially are in extreme distress.”
Mumbai, where labor is cheap and the quality of intricate handiwork high, has long been a linchpin in the global luxury supply chain. But in the pandemic, orders vanished overnight. Although some of Mumbai’s workshops have reopened, the volume of requests from high-end fashion brands is far from what it was. Prospects for many karigars remain bleak.
“For months, all production and commerce flatlined across the spectrum of the Indian fashion sector, including at couture-level ateliers,” said Sunil Sethi, chairman of the Fashion Design Council of India. “It was a total catastrophe for our industry.
“The fortunes of manufacturers and exporters took a massive nosedive. Many were forced to shut down or slash their workforces. At the bottom of all that are laborers like the karigars.”
With many Western markets still in lockdown, events such as big weddings, black-tie parties and fashion shows have dropped off the calendars of wealthy clients, many of whom are not in the mood to spend on pricey fashion and accessories.
“Red-carpet dresses and cocktail outfit orders have largely disappeared, which has meant that financial pressure on specialist workshops has continued here,” said Max Modesti, the founder of Les Ateliers 2M, a Mumbai embroidery firm that works with Chanel and Hermès.
Those two luxury houses and Louis Vuitton were the only three that increased their Mumbai orders in the last year, Mr. Modesti said. Orders from other Western fashion houses were either reduced by around 50 to 70 percent or canceled, he said. Mr. Sethi confirmed those statistics.
“In more than 35 years of business, and several recessions, I have never seen anything like it,” Mr. Modesti said.
For years, part of the problem in Mumbai was that high demand for specialized handiwork led suppliers, which struggled to keep up, to sometimes sideline labor standards and recruit unregulated subcontractors. Some Western luxury groups, including LVMH and Kering, had begun to address those challenges before the pandemic with a safety compliance agreement known as the Utthan pact. But it was falling short on upholding basic labor rights like fair wages even before the lockdown occurred.
Now, many karigars don’t have jobs at all. (An estimated 140 million people have lost their jobs since March last year, the Mumbai-based Center for Monitoring Indian Economy said.) With little work and no place to live or guarantee of a regular salary, many karigars have remained in their home villages rather than return to the city. Another exodus was prompted by the latest wave of infections and lockdowns this month.
According to Mr. Modesti, the costs of virus-related safety measures for many of the export houses and suppliers that had tried to reopen last year heightened risks of bankruptcy. The situation was potentially even worse for the Utthan suppliers, many of which had spent heavily in recent years on compliance requirements like sleep dormitories for workers and posted fire exits.
Rosey Hurst, the founder of Impactt, the Mumbai consultancy that manages the Utthan agreements, confirmed that both production and Utthan assessments of hand embroidery ateliers stopped between March and July last year, and that orders had been “heavily disrupted.” She said that Utthan signatories had worked during that period with Mumbai exporters to try to protect jobs, and that support payments had been made directly to the bank accounts of more than 1000 karigars informally employed by Utthan subcontractors.
There have been rare bright spots. After a robust domestic wedding season at the end of last year, Mr. Sethi said, karigars employed by Indian bridal designers had seen an uptick in work. There was also a boost in sampling from the recent Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. And vaccination efforts have been increasing.
But pandemic-related fears are widespread in a densely populated country with one of the worst death tolls, as is public skepticism — especially among laborers like karigars — about the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 shots offered by the government. Most karigars are Muslim men, an increasingly socially marginalized position as Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries to pull the country away from its foundation as a secular, multicultural nation and turn it into a more overtly Hindu state.
Now, as each day marks a new grim Covid-19 milestone for India, many couture-level artisans are increasingly pessimistic about whether they can earn a basic livelihood, let alone focus on achieving fair working conditions, wages and contracts from their suppliers.
“Before, there was growing talk about bettering worker rights,” Mr. Modesti said. “Now, for many, it is going to be more about survival.” He added that he did not expect things to improve until 2022 and that “many of these businesses and their employees will not be able to hold out for that long.”
Abdullah Khan is an artisan with more than 20 years of experience. Though he lost his job at a factory providing embroidery work for Saint Laurent in March last year after he complained about low pay and tried to approach a union for representation, he found another post at a subcontractor for one of the Indian exporters that helped create Utthan.
That factory is now open. But while managers paid workers during the lockdown, fewer orders were coming in. That meant no overtime pay, which previously made up a quarter of Mr. Khan’s income. He resorted to selling sports shoes at the roadside after work.
“We are not getting orders. There is very little work,” Mr. Khan said. “Now, I am standing on the road at night with the shoes in front of me. What else can I do?”
Kritika Sony contributed reporting.