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Overworked, Underpaid: The Growing Burden of Recycling Fast Fashion

Deekshith Pai

An installation by visual artist Richa Arya at a recent exhibition in Goa. Deekshith R Pai/The Migration Story

Goa: The exhibit is a 15-feet tall installation of a woman carrying a heavy load, made of metal scraps that are stitched together. The second installation shows two women busily cutting, their hands moving in an illusion of motion.  Alongside, there are worn-out clothes, yarn and buttons scraped from garments. And, together they tell the story of women migrant workers in the garment recycling factories of Panipat, the largest centre for textile recycling in Asia.

 Visual artist Richa Arya’s installation - I Sew My Life Against My Own - which was shown at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa in December, uses scrap to tell the story of women cutting and sorting discarded clothes. 

The recycling industry in Arya’s hometown is valued at $ 1.4 billion, with nearly 70,000 registered and many more unregistered workers, largely migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and even Nepal. 

Excerpts from an interview in which she explains why she felt compelled to tell the story of these women workers.

Could you elaborate on the theme of your work? 

Panipat, being Asia’s largest recycling hub, imports garments and textile remains from across the world to be repurposed to yarn which is then sold to make new garments and home décor products. With the rise in ethical consumers, the demand for garment recycling has increased worldwide. This in turn has increased the demand for labour in this industry attracting inter-state migrant workers. Families, along with their children, migrate as a group from the village and engage in various jobs. Women are mostly engaged in sorting and cutting of the garments while men are engaged in operating the machines, dying and loading business. But most of the women are unregistered, making them vulnerable to a number of loopholes in the system leading to their exploitation. My artwork is the story of these migrant women workers who not only work in these exploitative factories but also manage household work to earn and support the family. 

What are the various forms of exploitation that you came across during your interaction with the women? 

The exploitation starts from the invisibilisation of their work. Since they are not registered workers, their names don’t appear on any documents. Hence, they are not eligible for any of the government stipulated wages, insurances, benefits or loans. According to the Haryana Minimum Wage Notification, 2023, an unskilled labour is eligible for Rs 410 per day for eight hours of work. But the women are paid as low as Rs 10-100/kg. Experienced workers have better negotiation power but they are quickly replaced if they take leave, even if they promise to return. They are denied basic safety equipment like masks or gloves. This results in issues ranging from itching, inflammation to long term asthma and tuberculosis. What is also concerning is the presence of toddlers who accompany their mothers and are equally affected. Women carry a load of about 70 to 80kg on a daily basis. This results in excessive pressure on their joints leading to long health issues. I couldn’t imagine what it is to carry a load almost double your own weight over your head. 

Our ‘fast fashion’ lifestyle has ensured that clothes are discarded no sooner than they are bought. 

How have you incorporated what you heard and saw in your art?

I have used discarded oil tin-cans that are a familiar sight across Haryana. The rusted worn-out texture of the cans represents the exploitation a woman undergoes in these factories. The sharp edges of the metal scraps are a testimony to the precarious conditions that a woman works in. They deal with sharp tools without any safety gears.  

What prompted you to choose their story for your art work? 

My family owns a hardware factory  in Haryana and  I have grown up with workers regularly visiting my house. I have first-hand experienced what my parents used to provide the workers as fair wages and benefits. I first chanced upon the stories of women workers during a visit to one of the garment factories in Panipat and realised how exploitative their working environment was. 

The women come to these factories with dreams to earn a living, achieve freedom and provide a better lifestyle for their children which is not possible in their villages given the societal taboos which restrict them to the household. But their dreams are never realised once they enter into this loop of exploitation and they soon make peace with their reality. They say that it is at least better than sitting idle in their villages. 

Why did you feel it was important to tell the story of these women workers to a larger audience?

Somewhere I believe that we too are responsible for their condition. Our ‘fast fashion’ lifestyle has ensured that clothes are discarded no sooner than they are bought. This in-turn becomes a burden on these women who are pressurised to work longer hours without any wage increase. Also, most of the imported clothes are tampered with before they reach Panipat because India bans the resale of used garments to restrict competition for the domestic market. 

You see the dichotomy? The women are neither allowed to take any of the garments meant for recycling and are in fact burdened by our sense of ‘sustainable clothing’ where they have to work longer to recycle our clothes. This is what I wanted to communicate to the audience through my artwork.

Deekshith Pai is a freelance documentary photographer and writer


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