His employer Rasikbhai Kotadiya is managing with unskilled labour to keep his weaving unit in the Kim-Pipodara industrial area on the outskirts of Surat
going. “Almost all skilled workers have left. We have had to hire unskilled workers like Tiwari to ensure we service pending orders. But once that is over, we don’t know when new orders will come,” said Kotadiya.
Unlike the bulk of the weaving industry in Surat, which runs on simple power looms, making about 25 million metres of grey cloth per day in the pre-Covid era, Kotadiya is one of the few weavers who also has waterjet jacquard machines that roll out ready designer colour fabrics instead of grey fabric. Of his 48 workers, only four have stayed back to work on just 12 of his 128 machines.
Just when Surat’s textile industry
thought it was recovering from demonetisation and GST, the entire textile value chain, from spinning yarn and weaving to processing fabric and wholesale trading, has been pulverised again by the two month long lockdown.
It is now waiting anxiously for the retail sector to open.
While retail markets in other cities may have opened, the wholesale trading markets on the Ring Road of Surat, however, are deserted. “Unless the wholesale markets open and orders start, operating the rest of the textile value chain becomes meaningless,” said Jitu Vakharia, president of the South Gujarat Textile Processors' Association.
“If the machines are shut, workers who have stayed back will leave for their home states. We have to keep the machines running to convince them there is work,” said Babubhai Sojitra of Sojitra Textiles, a unit in Laskana. Of the 25,000 workers employed in the Laskana area, only 150-200 remain.
Typically, textile workers here are relatively better off as they earn on a piece rate basis of around Rs 2-5 per metre, amounting to average monthly salaries ranging from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000. But those figures are history now. Power loom worker Ravinarayan Raut, 48, in Laskana, has been paid Rs 1,000 in the last two months as against his normal salary of Rs 18,000.
“The owner has provided food but almost all unit owners say they can only settle our full accounts once payment cycles resume after the textile markets open,” said Raut, who has stayed back to recover his dues from his employer before leaving for home in Odisha. “Once I leave, I don’t intend to come back. I will work in my fields,” he said, despite two decades in the city.
Sojitra said employers were ready to manage amidst the virus if the retail markets in containment zones were opened so that payment cycles could begin, allowing them to begin paying wages.
The diamond industry, too, is crawling back to work with a handful of units beginning to polish rough diamonds to fulfil pre-lockdown
orders. It has been less severely impacted than the textile industry.
“Over 40 per cent of the workforce has left but, unlike textiles, 90 per cent of our workers comprise skilled Gujaratis from different parts of the state,” said Dinesh Navadiya, regional chairman of Gems & Jewellery Export
Unlike the textile industry, which is waiting for wholesale markets to open, the diamond industry is waiting for air travel to resume so that rough diamonds can be imported and polished diamonds exported.
Unless imports resume, there will be no new orders. Smaller units such as Vishwa Gems in Varachha are merely servicing orders that they had received before the lockdown.
Owner Mohan Chautala, sitting in his dimly lit unit polishing diamonds with colleagues,
said he is in no hurry to get all his workers back.
“We have paid a part sum of Rs 5,000 each against their usual salaries of Rs 15,000-20,000 for the past two months. But once the current order is serviced which will hardly take another 15 days, we don’t know when new orders will come. Hence, we are not calling our workers back,” said Chautala.
Of the 6,000 diamond polishing units employing over 700,000 workers and clocking up an annual turnover of Rs 1.8 trillion, not even 100 units have reopened, say industry sources. Based on diamond exports worth Rs 35,000 crore in the months of April and May 2019, sources estimate a Rs 30,000 crore loss to the industry during the lockdown.
The bitter joke going around among the few workers in Surat
these days is that they are outnumbered by employers. Some, like textile worker Nilambar Behera, have stayed on, in Vipulnagar. He has been trying to persuade workers he knows to return from Odisha and restart work, but he hasn’t had much luck.
Workers know they will return to a difficult situation. The rooms where they used to stay are unavailable. Landlords had given them an ultimatum when they couldn’t pay the rent so that they could find other tenants who could pay. Even if they had a room to return to, few have the money to buy a train ticket back to Surat.
Behera knows workers who, as they tried to leave Surat, were duped by touts who took their savings. Behera lost his savings, too, which is why he perforce stayed back in Surat. “I am managing but only because of free food a nearby temple gives me,” said Behera.