On Garment Workers Struggle
THE flash strike by the garment workers in Bangalore and Visakhapatnam, almost simultaneously in the month of April attracted wide attention. The significant features of the strikes were - all these workers were women, they were not members of any trade union and no trade union led the strike in either place. In both the places, the major issue was the government notification banning withdrawal of their money from their PF accounts till retirement.
19,000 workers in the Brandix India Apparel City in the Atchutapuram Special Economic Zone in Visakhapatnam were on strike from April 15, 2016. In addition to the withdrawal of the notification on PF they also demanded increase in their wages. All the workers came out of the factory and sat in a dharna at the gates for the entire night. It was only after the management gave a written assurance that they would positively consider increasing their wages before April 30 that they dispersed. But the strike continued.
An estimated 1.25 lakhs garment workers in different garment factories spread over Bangalore went on strike on April 18 against the notification on PF withdrawal. It is reported that around one lakh garment workers participated in the road blocks in different parts of the city, on those two days.
The TDP government in Andhra Pradesh as well as the Congress government in Karnataka tried to suppress the struggle. The entire administration in Visakhapatnam district including the district collector and other officials and the leaders of the ruling party tried to coerce the workers into joining duty. Village leaders, panchayat members, Self Help Groups etc were all utilised for the purpose.
Scores of garment workers were injured in the police lathi charge in Bangalore, where some anti-social elements resorted to arson and burnt vehicles etc on April 19. 280 workers including over 40 CITU members, from other factories in the area were arrested. The police continue to use the videos to identify workers from their uniforms, go to their factories and arrest them on the pretext of enquiries, while the anti-social elements who actually indulged in the arson were left free. Most of the arrested workers are still in jail.
The central trade unions opposed the proposal on prohibiting full withdrawal of PF funds till retirement. This was raised by them in the meeting of the Central Board of Trustees of the Provident Fund on March 29. It was demanded that at least option should be given to the workers and those who wanted to withdraw the full amount should be allowed to do so. But the government did not heed their advice. The garment workers’ struggle ultimately compelled the government to announce withdrawal of the February notification. This was a big achievement of the struggle.
The government notification on withdrawal PF money was not confined to workers in the garment industry alone. Crores of workers in many other industries were to be affected as well. Then why did the garment workers alone react so vehemently while such response was not visible among workers in other sectors though they too were unhappy with it? Detailed study and analysis are needed to understand this and other related questions. However, available information suggests that the socio economic profile of the garment workers and the working conditions in the readymade garment sector in the country might have been the major factors that have seriously agitated the workers and propelled them into action as soon as they came to know about the notification.
According to an ILO report, ‘The readymade garment sector is one of the largest urban employers in India and is a key driver of the national economy. Over the past two decades, it has transitioned from a largely informal to a largely formal, factory based industry, highly dependent on labour inputs’. The factory sector is mainly export oriented. The large and medium sized companies form a part of the global chain.
The garment workers of Visakhapatnam and Bangalore who went on strike were working in such units. Brandix India boasts of being the largest innerwear production facility in the country for exports to USA and Europe. It has an annual turnover of around Rs 1500 crores and employs 19,000 workers. Around 5 lakh workers are estimated to be working in the garment factories in Bangalore alone. Shahi Exports, the largest garment company in Bangalore has 45 units in the city and employs 75,000 workers. Gokuldas Exports has 16 units employing 12,000 workers; Texport Overseas has 13 units employing 12,000 workers and Gokuldas Images has 13 units with 8,000 workers. The brands that source their supplies from the garment factories in Bangalore include H&M, C&A, GAP, Mothers’ Care, WalMart, Polo, Nike, Banana Republic etc. The garments produced in these factories are mostly exported to Europe and the USA.
ILO estimates that the largest readymade garment manufacturing centres, in Bangalore, Tiruppur, Chennai and the National Capital Region have a combined workforce of over 1 million garment workers. In addition millions of workers are in all likelihood working in the garment industry in small units and as home based workers in many other cities and towns across the country. For example, lakhs of workers in Bellary and nearby villages in Karnataka and in the towns of Hindupur in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh are engaged in stitching jeans, outsourced to them through middle men and contractors by the big companies. Lakhs are employed as home based workers supplying readymade garments to the retail traders in several cities.
THE GARMENT EXPORTERS
The government extends several concessions to the garment exporters like Brandix located in the SEZs as well as to the Export Oriented Units (EOUs) located outside. For example, the Andhra Pradesh state government provided land to Brandix at a throwaway lease price of Rs 1,000 per acre per year. India is said to be the second largest manufacturer of garments in the world.
But the workers are subjected to highly oppressive working conditions. Working hours are long; usually 9-10 hours. Workers have to meet the targets, without any overtime payment. A worker in Brandix informed that initially workers are given an incentive if they surpass the targets. But gradually over time, the targets are increased and they don’t get incentives anymore. This was also the case in Bangalore. A leader of an independent union working among garment workers, who herself was a garment worker told that 15-16 years ago, the target was 40 pieces per hour, but now it has been increased to up to180 per hour. In addition, they are often compelled to work overtime when the orders surge. Harassment including sexual harassment and verbal abuse are rampant to the extent of making the workers feel tortured. Physical attacks on the workers and throwing cloth etc on their faces are not uncommon. Restrictions are placed on the number of times they can use the toilet and the time they spend in it. They are not allowed inside the factory if they have to be absent for a few days, even when they or their family members are ill. Though several garment units do have crèche facilities, children below one year are not allowed in the crèche. As a result, women are compelled to leave their jobs after delivery.
Wages in the industry are very low. Even the low minimum wage fixed by the government for the garment workers, are not paid by many units. In Bangalore, the minimum wage for helpers has been increased some time back, from Rs 272 per day to Rs 287 per day. Monthly wage is calculated for only 26 days without any paid weekly holidays. While they should get Rs 7,462 per month, many companies pay only Rs 7,000 per month. Even this amount is not paid if they do not meet their targets. They are forced to work overtime to complete the targets without any overtime payment. The skilled tailors are paid Rs 290 – Rs 300 per day. The cutters and supervisors get Rs 10,000 – Rs 12,000 per month. In Brandix, the wages are only around Rs 6,000 per month. Their take home pay is Rs 4,100 – Rs 4,500 per month after deductions for PF, canteen and bus services provided by the management.
The workers in Bangalore make their own arrangements to commute to and from the factories. Brandix workers are ferried in company buses from their homes in around 200 villages in the district. Many workers have to start from their home at 4.00 am to report to the morning duty at 6.00 am. Altogether they have to spend around four hours in travel. The management deducts Rs 300 – Rs 350 from the wages of every worker for providing this service.
A former garment worker who worked for more than 16 years in the industry in Bangalore, said that the ‘hostel system’ did not exist in the sector in the city earlier. It was started around 3 years back. The migrant workers from different districts in the state, from the surrounding states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu and also from far off states like Assam, Odisha etc are kept in hostels provided by the managements. Today around 50 percent of the workers in some units as in Shahi Exports are under this ‘hostel system’. The management deducts money for the accommodation and food provided in the hostels.
The owners do not allow workers to be organised into trade unions, which of course has become a common feature under the neo-liberal regime. Services of workers who are found to be taking initiative to organise workers are immediately terminated. In Brandix, which is a SEZ, workers found even with leaflets distributed by CITU are harassed and warned.
Large numbers of garment workers come from socially oppressed sections of the society like the SCs, BCs, OBCs etc though there are some from the other sections also. An overwhelming majority of garment workers are women. This is particularly so in the southern states. ILO reports that in the NCR male workers comprise the majority. All the operatives, ie, who stitch the garments, in Brandix are women; all the team leaders are women. But many of the cutters and almost all the supervisors are men. Similarly, over 85 percent of garment workers in Bangalore are reported to be women. Over 70 percent of the garment workers’ families are reported to be dependent on the income of these women workers. In many families, the male members are unemployed or work in the unorganised sector with no regular or fixed income. Many of the male family members are victims of alcoholism, gambling etc.
Generally garment workers are found to work in one garment factory for a period of 3-5 years only. Often the management creates conditions that force workers to leave the company before completing 5 years, to avoid payment of gratuity etc. Sometimes the workers are allowed to work but asked not to punch their cards so that their continuous service is not recorded. When workers are not allowed to take leave, they resign from the job, settling their dues including their PF money. Later they may join another company or the same company. But even if they join the same company, they are treated as new recruitees and given a new PF account.
There are occasions when the workers leave on their own as there is no increase in the wages. The wages paid to them when they start as trainees remain the same even after working for several years. They leave the factory and seek employment in another unit for slightly better wages. The lump sum amount they get when leaving a company, though not a very big amount, is very important for the women garment workers. The Brandix workers told that this amount is used as the dowry for the young girls when they get married. They have reported occasions when the marriage had to be postponed till the girl got her PF money. The notorious ‘Sumangali scheme’ of Tiruppur garment units is well known. The Bangalore garment workers told that this money is used to meet expenses like school admission fees of children, medical treatment, payment of house rent advance, or marriage.
The pressure of meeting targets, the long hours of work, the harassment etc force many workers to leave the sector all together. It is noteworthy that in a study conducted by the ILO, over 80 percent of the present and former garment workers told that they would not like their children to work as garment workers.
It is under these conditions that the PF issue flared up the anxieties and anger of the women garment workers. They were worried about how they could meet all these expenses when they do not have access to this money. They were angry that they were not being allowed to take their own money to meet their urgent needs. They felt that the government was snatching away their money.
It is argued that the workers were misled about the part of the PF contribution that is being withheld from withdrawing; that it was only 3.67 percent of the contribution from the employers that is now being withheld; anyway 8.33 percent of employers’ contribution was going to the pension fund since 1995. But the struggle of the garment workers shows how even this little amount is of big importance to the poor garment workers. This amount may be considered meagre for the IT employees or the permanent workers in the organised sector with higher wages. Though even they too have their own problems with the amount they get as pension under the EPS, the government’s move might not have pushed them to come into the streets. But for the women garment workers, obviously this was a matter over which they could not remain silent. It is to be remembered that in 2001 too, the garment workers of Peenyam industrial area in Bangalore went on strike and held huge demonstrations on the same issue of PF withdrawal.
In 1995, when the government amended the PF Act, diverting 8.33 percent of the employer’s share to Pension Fund under the EPS for providing pension, CITU demanded that pension should be provided as the third benefit in addition to PF and Gratuity. It opposed diverting PF contributions for this.
CITU argued that the workers should be given the option on how they wanted to use their money, because the employers’ contribution also belongs to the workers, it is the workers’ money and they should have the choice on how they wanted to spend their money. The government cannot decide for the workers what is good for them and how and how much they should save for their old age. Though now the PF Act stands amended, EPS has been in existence since 1995 with the Supreme Court dismissing the case of CITU, experience of EPS since 1995 has proved the correctness of CITU’s arguments. Unorganised workers who have no guarantee of job continuity, who face intermittent unemployment as part of their life, were getting ridiculous amounts as pension. Some of them were getting only Rs 3 or Rs 10 or so! Of course the government has now announced minimum pension under EPS as Rs 1000. This amount, though better than earlier, is too meagre to provide any meaningful social security for the old. Besides, even this small amount is not paid to many pensioners on one or other unjustifiable pretext. Trade unions have been demanding that this amount must be increased.
The garment workers’ struggle has brought several issues before the trade union movement of the country like the issue of social security and their right to withdraw their PF money, which is also related to their very low wages and working conditions in the sector. The other issue is their unionisation. Though they were not organised under a trade union, the workers were able to come together and walked out of the factories en masse and held massive demonstrations. They have demonstrated their ability and readiness to go on struggles on their demands. But, naturally without a proper organisation, there cannot be a sustained movement to improve their conditions. In their search for cheap labour to remain competitive, particularly in the aftermath of the global crisis, the employers would definitely seek to intensify the exploitation of these workers. Without organised strength it would be impossible for the workers to improve their conditions.
But as of now, the garment workers in general do not appear to be very receptive to the idea of getting organised under the trade unions. There may be several reasons for this, like lack of awareness, the fear of losing income, increased harassment, lack of time after working for long hours in the factories and at home etc. Victimisation, loss of work and the threats from the employers are definitely major reasons that make them hesitate to join unions. It is the responsibility of the trade union movement to create awareness and help them overcome their reluctance and see that they acquire organisational strength to carry forward their struggle effectively.
CITU and some other trade unions have been making efforts to organise the garment workers. As soon as the Brandix workers’ struggle started, CITU intervened, extended all support to them, distributed leaflets, organised meetings, dharnas etc. On several earlier occasions too, the CITU took initiative to highlight the poor working conditions of Brandix workers. In Karnataka, the CITU actively involved itself in extending the necessary help to their struggle. As the strike was going on in Bangalore, CITU led the struggle of garment workers in three more districts in the state and organised demonstrations. Tamilnadu state committee of the CITU has been organising not only the garment workers in Tiruppur, where it has a strong presence, but also the home based garment workers in Chennai and other parts of the state and led several militant struggles on their demands. CITU had a strong organisation of garment workers in Bangalore in the 1990s and led several militant struggles achieving wage rise and several other benefits. With the closure of several garment units, the movement fizzled out. Of course these efforts are far from adequate and need to be increased several folds.
The magnificent strike by the garment workers indicates not only the opportunities but also the need for developing a strong organised movement of garment workers with proper initiatives and interventions by the trade unions.
Absence of trade unions with the correct perspective is often utilised by the ruling classes and their hooligans to intervene, resort to vandalism and divert people’s attention from the real issues of the conditions of workers and their inhuman exploitation. This is then used to brutally suppress any organised resistance so that they can continue their exploitation. This will be detrimental to the working class movement.