Garment workers in Bengaluru seek fair deal. Bengaluru is India’s top producer and exporter of ready made dresses. The city is the biggest manufacturer of ready made attire with over 1200 factories engaging around 4.5 to 5 lakh workers.
The garment industry in Karnataka is the largest employment provider next to beedi industry. The majority of the workers employed in the garment industry in the state comprise of skilled, semi-skilled un-skilled and workers. Women form a 93 per cent of workforce in the industry.
Employment behemoth – Garment industry :
The Indian garment sector directly employs more than 24 lakh people – industry estimates say 45 lakh, only second to agriculture. Almost three-quarters of these are young women from rural backgrounds, often first-generation industrial workers.
They are the backbone of an industry that contributes 11% to India’s exports, and over 5% to the gross domestic product. Driven by a strong domestic market, the sector has been expanding, and the Union government’s Make in India program has identified garments and textiles as a priority area to encourage investment.
But garment companies pay the majority of its workers – tailors, helpers, store managers, packers, trimmers and button fixers – only minimum wages.
Static wages, gender bias – Garment industry:
For years, research has been done and shown that the factories pay their workforce an average of just Rs.8138 a month, including dearness allowance. The wages not given to workers su ms up to Rs.3449 according to unions.
The wage is far short of what is needed for a worker to sustain a family, build some savings, provide transport and afford quality health care and education.
Keeping wages low :
The Minimum Wages Act mandates a revision of wages by state governments every five years. But each time state governments revise the minimum wage, manufacturers challenge it by asserting that it would make the sector uncompetitive.
In Karnataka, in 2009, apparel producers challenged a hike in the minimum wage, from Rs 2644.20 to Rs 3,302, which the Labour Department then undid, citing “a clerical mistake”. It was only when the Garment and Textile Workers Union approached the Karnataka High Court that the revocation was struck down.
Many companies attempt to knock down labour costs through practices like seasonal contracting, rotation of workforce by constant firing and hiring, using cheaper migrant labour, shifting units to rural areas, forcing unpaid leave on workers during lean periods and enforcing overtime when there are orders.
Rally on Labor Day by Garment workers:
The Garment workers in Bengaluru took out a large rally on May day, demanding Rs.1862 crore which the factories owe them, better working conditions and protection from sexual harassment at the workplace. The age of most of garment workers were between 18 and 45 years.
In most of the garment factories, workers are asked to work extra hours but are not paid overtime.
2000 workers most of them women participated in the rally which started from Kanterava studio to TVS junction in peenya. The main highlight of the rally was poor wages and long working hours.
Peenya houses a large number of garment factories and is the hub of the business in the city.
A long-term demand :
As the confusion and politics over the minimum wages seems to continue, the garment workers at the rally on May 1 put forward a bigger long-term demand: to legalise Rs 18,000 as the minimum wage for all workers in India. This includes anganwadi, ASHA, sanitation, construction and garment laborers.
Arunarani, a member of GLU said, “ “While we await the money that they owe us, we want to tell them that we actually deserve a much higher minimum wage, even higher than the one they had planned to give us – one that will help us lead our life with some basic dignity.”
Unions in Garment industry :
The unions in the garment industry help workers to air their grievances. The workers in the industry are always under constant threat of losing their jobs.
According to the union the companies in Bengaluru owe Rs 1862 crores to the 4.5 lakh garment factory workers. Unskilled workers – the majority in the industry – are paid only a meagre Rs 8138 per month currently, including dearness allowance. This category includes helpers, trimmers, housekeepers etc.
Sexual harassment, working conditions :
Alongside the demand for basic wages, the May 1 rally became a venue to discuss other long-standing and equally significant issues that women workers face in the garment industries.
An employee who has been working in the garment industry for the last five years and says she has been itching to film the kind of humiliation and harassment that women go through in the factories.
Instances of sexual harassment in the garment industry are very common, the workers say. “Rarely do women feel brave enough to complain against their male supervisors. Arunarani said. “They are either worried about what their co-workers will think, or worried that their families will stop them from working if they find out. They end up tolerating it and living with it.”
In 44 years – Minimum wages revised only 4 times:
Another major contention of the workers is that in the last 44 years of the garment industry in the State, minimum wages of workers was revised only four times overall.
But as per the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, state governments should revise wages every 3-5 years. This means, garment workers’ wages should have been revised at least eight times instead of four.
The battle and burning problems and issues faced by the Bengaluru’s garment workers still remain largely out of the public eye. This is not a fight that can be fought alone – workers need support from the media, lawyers, NGOs, and active citizens to highlight their issues in the public domain; to hold the government and companies accountable; and to ‘visibilize’ the violence and discrimination they face.”
A study on the statutory minimum wages and work intensity for garment workers shows that more than 60% of their wages goes into house rent, basic provisions and transportation changes leaving little for expenses on education and health.
Work in garment factories is back breaking and affects women’s health. Their wages are too meagre to save for a rainy day or retirement. But for poor unskilled women, there are few alternatives.