Garment Workers Revolt That Shook The Ruling Class!

S Varalaxmi

“WE are garment workers, we are meted out injustice. They say henceforth double PF would not be paid to us. We shall not work till we get it; even if we have to die for it.”  Anasuyamma, a worker of AKR garments was telling us with anger on her face. “You are injured so much, yet you talk of fighting”, we interjected. Pat came her answer. “Yes, we shall not give up our right.”  Anasuyamma’s lower leg, Jockey Garment’s 20-year old Asha’s head were bandaged for serious wounds. Two more from the same unit and Aditya Birla worker, Pavithra were not able to speak because of lathi blows on their mouth and face.

On April 19th morning, I along with Yashoda of Garment Workers Union visited Bommanahalli hospital in Hossur Road and talked to the  valiant fighters who were injured on April 18 and admitted there.  We expressed our support to their struggle.

And just as we were returning, messages started pouring in about workers from Bombay Rayon, FFI near Dasarahally, Gokuldas in Mysore Road and other units in other places stopping work and storming the streets. By 11 am, all factories in Mysore Road, Ramnagar, Maddur,  Goragunte Palya on Tumkur Road, Kamakshipalya and Bannerghatta had completely  come to a grinding halt with over 30,000 women workers occupying all access points to the city.

On April 18, workers who walked out from Shah Exports and surrounding factories and numbering around 20,000 staged a sit-in for four and a half hours in Bommanahalli.  The police had used their brute force against these workers. Tear gas and lathi charge were ruthlessly resorted to.

By evening they thought to have brought the struggle to an end. But they were proved wrong on 19th. All factories in the outskirts of Bangalore came to a standstill. Having failed in taking any precautionary measures, the State machinery and police tried in vain to disperse the workers who were gathering in large numbers. But not heeding to them, the workers especially women workers, were expressing their ire so strongly that lathis, tear gas and even bullets of the police were rendered ineffective.

Generally, the gathering wanes whenever lathi-charge is resorted to but here it was not so. Workers thronged, more and more swelled to finally  overwhelm the lathi-wielding police instead. It was virtually a battle field.  Media has reported that the two days’ struggle resulted in 14 police vehicles being burnt, 43 police men wounded, 84 workers including members of public sustaining injuries, 10 buses of Transport Corporation and 95 government vehicles being destroyed.

 

The Gazette Notification GSR 158 (E) by the central government on February 10, 2016 had stipulated that 50 percent of PF accumulations in an account would be payable to the workers only after reaching 58 years of age. This affects around 42 crore workers in the country who are covered by PF Schemes. According to the notification, of 12 percent deducted from workers, 3.67 percent goes towards Pension Scheme and the balance can be drawn any time before retirement. Of the employer’s share of 12 percent, 8.33 percent goes to Pension Fund and the balance 3.67 percent can be withdrawn by workers only after 58 years of age. That means, workers can draw only 8.33 percent out of the Scheme and an overall 70 percent of the amount does not reach the workers.

Before this notification, a worker immediately after leaving job in a firm could take back the entire amount in his PF account. Eligibility for pension was ensured only if a worker compulsorily works for more than 11 years continuously in one establishment.

All these rules affect all workers who are under PF Scheme. But who so much fury being expressed by garment workers alone?

When you are entering the city of Bangalore, at all entry points like Mysore Road, Hossur Road, Tumkur Road, Yelehanka Road etc, you would find, especially during morning and evenings, large groups of women walking like ants. Same roads would witness groups and groups of women alighting from vans, tempos and autos. People would be having lunch under the trees in front of the factories. Among the passengers in the general compartments in trains coming from Mysore, KGF, Hindupur etc, an overwhelming section would be women.

They get ready in trains; have breakfast in trains; have lunch on the roads in front of the factories; some even have food while walking. Who are they?  They are the garment workers. Bangalore has now become a global city for garment manufacturing and India is second largest exporter of ready-made garments.

This situation arose due to the rural unemployment caused by the crisis in agriculture and these women, unmindful of the distance they have to cover  every day for the sake of a mere Rs 30 to 100 for a whole day’s toil, are desperately trying to eek out a living. They have to be at their work place by 8-8.30 am in the morning and for that they have to leave home by 6-6.30 am from places as far as Srirangapatna, Pandavapura, Mandya, Maddur, Ramanagar, Hindupur, Gauribidanur, Doddaballapur to cover distances stretching from 30 to  70 kms  and before that household chores have to be completed, food has to be cooked for family members and that means they have to get up at least by 4 am in the morning.  And again after reaching home by 8.30 or 9 pm, the household responsibilities await them. Barring some festival days, this drudgery is routine. Often, they are required to work in the factories even on Sundays.

They are generally aged between 15 to 45 years. Unmarried girls, mothers with infants, married and pregnant women are all part of this work force. If this is the daily toil, one dreads to think of the most adverse affects on their health, let alone on their families.

They are forced to work for minimum 10 to 12 hours, instead of 8 hours as per labour laws. They are given ‘work target’ every day; not the duty hours. Come what may, they have to fulfill the target and go.   Overtime?  No question at all!

Then, there are male supervisors. The workers have to co-operate with them. They have to tolerate whatever these supervisors do. Otherwise, their workplace and their jobs are repeatedly changed unilaterally.

These factories would have 500 to 1000 workers working; and a mere 5 to 10 lavatories. A worker is allowed to use the toilet only once during her day’s work. Employers believe that it would otherwise affect the production. What should women with conditions like diabetics and others do?

Working in garment factories entails continuous exposure to dust. The most inhuman practice is that in a factory only the management personnel get tea served to them from the canteens; not the workers. Even if they pay for it, they won’t get tea at the place of work. They have to go to the canteen during lunch hour for a cup of tea.

In some places, there are separate dining halls, but on fourth or fifth  floor of the building and access is only through the arduous task of climbing the staircases all the way up and down.

For all these, they get paid a paltry sum of Rs 5000 to Rs 6,000 per month. Even the minimum wages of Rs 272 to Rs 292 per day, as fixed by the government, is not paid. After completing four years of service, for some reason or the other one is removed from the job lest she becomes eligible for gratuity under law.

They are deprived of maternity leave and crèche facilities which have been secured by the workers through struggles and sacrifices. But, as part of neo-liberal economic policies, the employers’ mindset has changed to ‘ready to inflict any amount of exploitation for extracting maximum profit’ and the government policies reinforce such thinking today.  

As a result, in industry where workers have not organised in a union, they are deprived of maternity benefits. If a worker becomes pregnant, she has to resign from the job and only after delivery she is employed back as a fresh recruit. Therefore the question of providing crèche for working mothers does not arise at all.

Our rulers must understand one thing. “Production in factories is not possible only through investment by way of capital and machinery; it needs human resources also. If these human resources are not properly taken care of, the production would be hampered”.  But our prime minister, visiting country after country and inviting them to “make use of abundant human resources in our country”, is not ensuring this, and rather is trying to hamper this. This has resulted in increasing capitalist exploitation of our workers.

The suppressed feelings of humiliating sufferings, the inhuman exploitation today has found an outlet of expression through the PF issue. This struggle brought out memories of heroic struggle by women garment workers of Chicago in America.

The outpourings of suppressed anguish and pain which found expression in these unarmed workers snatching the lathis and using them against the police themselves, is remarkable. This capitalist society has to realise this.

Almost all the sectors in the state have trade unions; but not the garment industry; even today. They were never allowed.  

In 1999-2000 period, CITU had organised unions in several factories. AITUC was also making efforts. In almost all the cases, the first reaction of the employer invariably was to summarily dismiss the office bearers, close the factories and overnight shift the plant to other far off places. Even today the same situation persists. The government and its labour department have utterly failed to stop the onslaught carried out by the managements in gross violation of laws of the land. 

The garment workers of Bangalore have proved what happens when they come to the streets in this age of neo-liberal policies. By resorting to more than 100 rounds of tear-gas shelling and 2 rounds of shooting in the air and using only male police personnel against women workers, the government has equally proved its class nature.

Succumbing to the immense pressure created by the struggle, the central government on April 19, at 5.00 pm announced deferment   of the notification till August 1; at 7.30 pm, it came out with an assurance that the notification would not be implemented; and finally at 10.00 pm, the union labour minister, Bandaru Dattatreya announced that the notification would be withdrawn. On the face of it, this appears to be a victory achieved by workers through their struggle.

 

POLITICKING

BY THE BJP

In the midst of ongoing election to the assemblies of five States, the negative impact the Bangalore struggle would have on the electoral prospects has not gone unnoticed by the ruling party at the centre. Note the full-throated slogans of the fighting workers – “Down with Narendra Modi!”; “Down with the central government!”; “We demand double PF!”; “We condemn Narendra Modi who has snatched away double PF!”  etc. The political significance of this was not lost on several of the central ministers. The “Modi for Development” propaganda being widely carried out immediately faced the risk of being seriously derailed by this spontaneous struggle and it tried to contain the spread of such phenomenon.

This movement has opened up a new path in the present situation. It has once again proved what a united struggle by workers can achieve.

Red salute to all the valiant fighters who fought this battle!  

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